Stay away from the woods…Man, I have such mixed feels about this book. For somewhere around the first half to three-quarters of it, I was hella bored. Maybe I’ve just OD’d on tales of supernatural madness and malevolent houses and unreliable narrators with dark pasts that unfold in scattered flashbacks, but And the Trees Crept in *drug* to the point that I really considered giving up.
When Silla and Nori arrive at their aunt’s home, it’s immediately clear that the manor is cursed. The endless creaking of the house at night and the eerie stillness of the woods surrounding them would be enough of a sign, but there are secrets too – questions that Silla can’t ignore: Why does it seem that, ever since they arrived, the trees have been creeping closer? Who is the beautiful boy who’s appeared from the woods? And who is the tall man with no eyes who Nori plays with in the basement at nigh…a man no one else can see?
It’s not that it was badly-written, or even that the characters were especially obnoxious, but I just wasn’t hooked. The premise felt same-y, and the plot moved at a pace that could charitably be called “glacial”. Not that a forward-moving plot was probably first priority. And the Trees Crept In is told in a way that’s meant to be atmospheric, and like Kurtagich’s first book, The Dead House, Trees is designed stylistically, structurally, and graphically to reflect the psychological state of its characters. So the narrative is winding and hops around in time, the fonts change, perspective characters shift without notice, whole pages are swallowed up by jumbled typography, that sort of thing.
As a sidenote, this thing is probably more fun to read in dead tree format, where you really get the benefit of the different fonts and breaks and formatting. Unfortunately, most of these structural funsies were lost on my reading app, so all I got out of it were a bunch of decorative omega symbols. Note to self, stop reading wackily formatted horror books in Aldiko.
At any rate, because of this commitment to reflecting its narrators’ mental states, a lot of the first three “books” are just…repetitive rambling. Each chapter is broken into a bunch of shorter segments a’la Come Closer, and I’d say one out of every four or five actually moved the plot along. The rest were just ~eerie~ encounters or someone’s mad ramblings, or something else it felt like we’d already experienced before.
I wanna re-iterate that I get why this is a thing given the way the book pans out, and I might have even been more open to it if it hadn’t been like the third goddamn horror book I’ve read this month that used this style of storytelling. But after so many narrator-going-mad books, I was apparently ready for something more straightforward.
Which was why my interested piqued considerably when the narrative started straightening out around “book four”.
Book four is when shit gets real and our heroine, Silla, is forced to confront all of the weird and crazy things that she’s spent the rest of the book ignoring – hence the sharpening of focus. This is where And the Trees Crept In gets the most Silent Hill of anything I’ve read this year, and it’s the part that I most enjoyed. Silla literally has to delve into her deepest darkest fears in pursuit of her beloved sister, and Kurtagich provides some really neat “visuals” as Silla explores this hella symbolic geographical manifestation of her psychological trauma.
So while I’ll cop that the trauma that Silla eventually unravels is like #1 on the list of Shocking Horror Twists, I think that it was executed in a way that made it still feel compelling and surprising. There are so many disparate pieces scattered throughout the book that I wasn’t sure exactly how they would all come together, and Kurtagich ties them up in a way that makes sense. It’s excellent usage of foreshadowing and breadcrumbs, so that everything just clicks into place, and even revelations that could have been more cheaply “justified” by the cracks in Silla’s psyche felt set-up and earned.
What I’m basically saying is that the shoehorned in love story had a decent payoff, though I remain resentful that goddamn heteronormative romances manage to poke their asses into EVERYTHING, even dark psychological horror novels that literally only feature four characters.
Still, it works, and there comes a point in And the Trees Crept In where everything felt suitably *resolved*. Silla had seen all of the pertinent cutscenes, had had all of her emotional revelations, the reveals had been made to the audience, everybody knew how everything went down, and the mystery had been solved. Game over guys, let’s pack it up and go home!
…and the book keeps going.
God, it’s such a delicate balance. For one trembling moment this book was like four-star good, pushing all my happy horror buttons, and then it started EXPLAINING everything. Again.
NOOOOO, TREES, YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS.
But they do. We get a full ten fucking pages of lucid, coherent recap, including a literal fucking timeline, postscript, and step-by-step walkthrough of Silla’s full backstory, WHICH WE JUST SPENT TWENTY GLORIOUS PAGES EXPERIENCING AND PUTTING TOGETHER *WITH* HER, SO WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?
It’s THE most obnoxious thing. I mean, I can’t emphasize – it’s like being told a really funny, well-crafted joke, and then promptly having it explained to you! It’s like if, at the end of Jacob’s Ladder – and SPOILERS FOR JACOB’S LADDER – Tim Robbins came out and said “So in case you didn’t get it, I actually did die in Vietnam, and everything that happened in the movie was just a dream before dying. Now let me explain what that hospital represented…”
Like, no, thank you, we got it the first time. It’s not even like any of this was particularly ambiguous in the first place, we literally see the relevant flashbacks! You don’t have to chew it and vomit it back into our mouths!
As last impressions go, it’s a terrible one to make. I was really digging what Silla was doing, I even gritted my teeth through the cringe-worthily on-the-nose revelation of a Silla as The Creeper Man, but when you fuckin’ sit me down to recap of things I just read and understood thirty seconds ago? I’M OUT BRUH.
Look, here’s how you read this book. You muscle through the first three-quarters, you enjoy the majority of book four, and then you just stop reading fifteen pages before the end. Everyone’s happy.