#SpooktasticReads The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Berkley (September 8, 2020)
Length: 415 pages
I’ve long been a fan of Christina Henry, but The Ghost Tree was the first novel I’ve read from her that wasn’t a dark fairy tale retelling, and I was pretty excited to check it out. And well, now that I’ve finished the book, I can’t say it was anything like I expected, which was both good and bad.
But first, a quick rundown of the story: It is the summer of 1985 and Lauren deMucci is our protagonist, a fourteen-year-old who lives in Smiths Hollow, a typical small town in America, except for one major anomaly—there’s been a history of gruesome deaths going back for generations, except no one seems to remember them. One day, the calm is shattered with the horrific discovery of the mutilated bodies of two young girls in a neighbor’s yard, but of course, after the initial uproar and panic, the incident once more fades from the people’s minds—just like how the town forgot about the Lauren’s dad, whose body was found in the woods a year ago, his heart torn brutally out of his chest.
But not everyone seems to have fallen under the same spell. Officer Alex Lopez who recently moved to Smiths Hollows from the big city is tasked with investigating the deaths, becoming more and more disturbed by the odd behavior exhibited by the other townsfolk. Lauren, whose father’s death still weighs heavily on her mind, is also experiencing strange visions and other changes she cannot explain, even as she tries hard to salvage her fracturing relationship with her best friend Miranda. A bit of the preternatural appears to have touched Lauren’s brother David as well, freaking out their mother with premonitions about the killings and other things that shouldn’t be possible for the little boy to know. Eventually, a warning to Lauren from her grandmother spurs her to find answers on her own, leading to terrifying revelations about the evil in the dark woods and other horrible secrets the town has long tried to bury.
So, as I mentioned in my intro, there were some good surprises as well as some not-so-good ones, and we’ll begin with the positives. With regards to the novel’s strengths, I enjoyed the premise and I thought Henry did a fantastic job teasing the mystery of what’s wrong with Smiths Hollow. How does a town simply forget about the deaths that happen year after year? Why aren’t these heinous killings attracting more attention, especially given the vicious way the victims are torn apart? These are the questions that stay with the reader, making this story too intriguing to put down.
I also loved the throwback feel of the setting. Thanks to the success of shows like Stranger Things, horror and supernatural stories set in the 80s are all the rage these days, but few can pull off an authentic vibe. The Ghost Tree, however, makes a great effort. Reading it did in fact call to mind some of the more classic horror movies and novels of that era, and it’s a feeling that came through not only in the descriptions of the environment, but also in the way the characters were written—little things like the way they spoke, how they dressed, or their interests in the pop culture like movies and music. I found it all very immersive.
But now, we come to some of the novel’s weaker aspects, and I confess, some of them really bugged me. First of all, despite my praise of Henry’s handling of the mystery above, there was an unfortunate downside to it too, mostly related to pacing. Yes, I was motivated to keep on reading because I wanted answers, but the journey to get there dragged in some places, to the point of actual boredom. And then once I got my answers, I have to admit they were somewhat underwhelming.
Also, I hate to say it, but characterization was a bit slapdash, and I can’t help but wonder if the author might have developed a few bad habits from her fairy tale retellings which are more forgiving of archetypes and clichés. I mean, the stereotypes here were pretty blatant and low effort, from the “slutty best friend” to the “crotchety racist neighbor” and of course, who can forget the perennial horror genre staple—“that creepy kid who knows things.” What’s worse is that none of the characters were all that particularly likeable, and while being shallowly written might have something to do with it, in general I just found most of them off-putting.
So ultimately, for me The Ghost Tree ended up being a mixed bag, and certainly there were some hiccups along the way but also plenty of high points to balance them out. I probably wouldn’t rush to recommend this, but if you’re looking for a quick-and-dirty read to put you in the mood for the Halloween season, this might do.