Although Christina Henry is an accomplished author with a good following, I hadn’t heard of her or her work until just last year. I can’t remember how or where, but one of her novels appeared while I was aimlessly browsing the Internet, and it caught my attention. That led me to borrow it from the local library last winter, during which I read the physical book and listened to the audiobook while at work. It actually wasn’t until early this year that I finished said title, The Girl in Red by Christina Henry.
Generally known as a fantasy author, Ms. Henry is someone who likes to put her own spin on popular fairy tales, like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. As you’ve likely surmised, The Girl in Red was similar, and was a dark and modernized take on Little Red Riding Hood. However, while its premise — regarding an American plague that started with a cough, and a young female amputee who attempted to make a journey from her home to her grandmother’s house despite the dangerous woods — really intrigued me, I didn’t end up enjoying the book as much as I’d hoped. It was honestly okay at best, and underwhelming in some respects. The ending was disappointing, the story never truly capitalized on its opportunities, and there were so many forced politics embedded into the novel that I was taken out of the story at times. I say this even though I agreed with most of what the author was trying to convey. It just felt like she shoehorned the politics in at the detriment of her own story.
When I saw a new Christina Henry piece appear on NetGalley, and read that it was an original, at least horror-adjacent novel, it piqued my interest. I knew I wasn’t her biggest fan, but the premise really intrigued me, and I quickly hit the request button. The publisher approved me, and I meant to get to it almost right away, but that didn’t happen. I forgot about it, and didn’t start reading until the end of this summer, just prior to its early September release date. I’ll blame this on having too much on the go, which is something I’m working on.
This particular book is called The Ghost Tree, and it centres upon a group of people living in a fictional Illinois town called Smiths Hollow. It begins by introducing us to a young, fourteen year-old girl named Lauren diMucci, and her life, which involves an incredibly smart and mature four year-old brother (David), a nagging mother (Karen), a developing best friend who’s obsessed with boys (Miranda) and a deceased father (Joe). It just so happens that the latter character was found murdered in the woods, and not far from both Lauren’s grandmother’s house and a particular, lightning struck tree that the kids affectionately call the ghost tree. She and Miranda just so happen to meet there regularly, and spend a ton of time in the woods. At least they used to, until the latter became so focused on boys.
Despite the strange circumstances surrounding Joe’s death — such as his heart having been ripped out of his healthy, thirty-something body — little was done to solve his murder. In fact, it’s almost as if both the town and its tiny police force forgot about it. No suspects were ever named, no leads were ever discussed, and nothing was ever done about what happened. Why is that?
Then, while out shopping at the start of another mid-1980s summer, David tells his mother that the old, racist lady next door is screaming because there’s so much blood. As it turns out he’s right about that, but how could he know since they’re not terribly close to home?
As it turns out, the heads of two unknown girls — and lots of other gory viscera — were just found by old Mrs. Schneider, who hates everyone, especially the Mexicans who moved in across the street from her. The old woman hasn’t stopped screaming since she saw them, and it’s led to neighbours running to see what’s going on, plus a quick call to the police. One of the responding officers just so happens to be Alex Lopez, who’s one of the four adult ‘outsiders’ who bought the house across the road after moving to a more affordable area than their native Chicago. He was and continues to be a cop, while his brother and sister-in-law both work at the local chili factory.
Who are these girls, and why are parts of their bodies strewn all over Mrs. Schneider’s backyard?
The novel that follows these events introduces us to a town with a secret, and one that has something to do with witches and their magic. It features citizens who seem to quickly forget that a murder has even been committed, and go on with their day-to-day lives as if nothing has happened, just a day or so after the girls’ remains are found. Smiths Hollow is not what it seems.
Saying much more about the plot would put me at risk of spoiling it for anyone with interest. I must, however, say that there are forced politics once again, although they’re not as detrimental to the story this time around. Yes, Mrs. Schneider is a racist and an over-the-top one at that, but she at least plays a bit of a role in what happens. Racism also happens to be a big problem in today’s world, not to mention yesterday’s world and the world before that. What is strange and may disturb some, though, is Christina Henry’s choice of love interests.
You see, while Lauren diMucci is described as still being a child, who hasn’t fully hit puberty or become obsessed with boys like her best friend Miranda, she does have a crush on a twenty-something policeman who always stops to talk to her. As the story develops, she also becomes smitten with one of the boys next door, who happens to be an 18 year-old college student. This creepy age difference is mentioned, but The Ghost Tree still ends up being part love story between a fourteen year-old girl and a young adult male. It’s not egregious, but it may be a turnoff for some, and that’d be understandable.
Setting those things aside, Ms. Henry’s latest novel is a definite improvement over the other one that I read. Overall, The Ghost Tree is a good and pretty well-written read that has an interesting narrative, although I kind of saw its big twists coming. Yes, there are some questionable aspects of the book, but if you’re able to overlook or are not bothered by such things, you should enjoy this one. Just don’t expect a revolutionary or incredible fantasy/horror title. It’s good, but it’s not great.
This review is based on a copy of the book that we were provided with. We would like to thank the publisher, and NetGalley, for the free access. Receiving the novel for free did not affect our review.