Before reading The Ghost Tree my only experience of Christina Henry was her work on Looking Glass, which was a collection of novellas set in her Alice in Wonderland inspired fantasy world, so I had no idea what to expect from her writing horror. But I was very impressed by this book.
Set in the small town of Smiths Hollow, not far from Chicago, the story follows Lauren, a teenage girl whose father was found brutally murdered in the local forest almost a year ago. The forest, and the supposedly haunted Ghost Tree, has always been a refuge for Lauren, and she still goes there to this day, despite it being the place her father died. She’s been getting on with her life as best she can, hanging out with her friend Miranda, and trying to survive the anger of her newly widowed mother.
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Things aren’t perfect for her by any means, but she’s been getting by. However, when pieces of two out-of-town girls are left in the yard of one of her neighbours, Mrs Schneider, it kicks off a series of events that will not only change Lauren’s life forever, but the fate of everyone who lives in Smiths Hollow.
The book is set in the early 1980s, and thanks to the principal lead being a teenager it immediately brought certain things to mind, and I found myself thinking a lot about Stranger Things and the new IT movie. Both of these were set in small towns in the 80s, with teens dealing with supernatural forces outside of their control. The Ghost Tree especially reminded me of IT because after a while it became clear that there was something bigger going on here that people in the town were somehow being forced to ignore or forget, and it reminded me of the ability that Pennywise had over the townspeople of Derry.
But where I found Stranger Things to be ‘just okay’, and got bored for long sections when I read IT, this book was never dull, was never leaving me bored, and I struggled to put it down, reading through all 500 pages in just over a day. It hooked me from the very beginning, and I was desperate to find out what was really going on in the town, and to just spend some more time with the characters too.
One of the strengths of The Ghost Tree is the interesting characters. Lauren is a great lead. She’s having to deal with a lot following the death of her father, but she never feels like a spoilt or angry teen. Yes, she has some trouble getting on with her mother, but she’s never hateful towards her, she understands that she’s going through a lot too; and her relationship with her younger brother is so sweet and endearing. She’s the kind of teenager who’s had to grow up fast, and has a level of maturity that is sometimes lacking in books focusing on teen heroes. But this doesn’t mean she’s written like an adult either, and it’s sometimes fun seeing her trying to deal with regular teenage girl issues, like her straining relationship with her oldest friend, and worrying about boys.
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Her friend Miranda, on the other hand, is a bit of a nightmare, and is definitely the kind of teen that would give you a lot of sleepless nights as a parent. She’s selfish, impulsive, obsessive, but she’s still very real, and despite being written as a bit of a bitch for the most part you do understand her motivations a little, and feel sympathy for her at times.
That’s one of the best things about this book – that the characters are so layered and complex, and that no one (other than the exception of a couple) are really all bad, and they just feel like real people. The racist old Mrs Schneider, who hates that her new neighbours are Mexican, can generate a level of sympathy when more of the mystery unfolds and you learn some of her backstory. You see that perhaps she’s not all bad, but maybe just a victim of the events of Smiths Hollow, having been twisted into this hateful person.
The central mystery is really engaging too, and it’s great seeing the characters trying to piece together what’s really going on, especially Alex, one of the local police officers. He and his family have just moved to town from Chicago, and don’t seem to have completely fallen under the sway of whatever’s happening, so we get to see him fighting against this outside influence whilst trying to solve these grizzly murders. Even when a lot of these answers get given to us fairly early on, there’s still so much left unrevealed, and Christina Henry is able to tease out the answers at a pace that stops the reader from losing interest. She keeps you engaged right up to the very end, always wanting to know more.
This was my first experience of reading a horror novel penned by Christina Henry, but I sincerely hope that it’s not the last. She’s able to take an era that’s so prevalent in the media right now and make it feel fresh and exciting. She’s doing the small town mystery horror story in a way that it doesn’t feel like it’s retreading old ground, but comes across as something new and exciting. An absolutely phenomenal book that shows how to craft an amazing horror story.
The Ghost Tree is out now from Titan Books.