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The Ghost Tree by Christina HenryUK edition3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsDespite its title, Christina Henry’s The Ghost Tree is not a ghost story, but a story about a town under a curse, combined with nostalgia for some good old fashioned 1980s slashers. It’s addictively readable, tense and scary in all of its best moments. It pulls off the exceptional feat of setting its story in the mid-’80s without recourse to an endless stream of hand-wavy (and cringe-inducing) pop cultural references. And it captures the fraught realities of teenage life with almost flawless believability. It also has some key story flaws that, on balance, do have a negative impact on its overall success. But if you’re a horror fan looking for a brisk, bloody read, The Ghost Tree delivers.

The setting is Smiths Hollow, Illinois, 1985. Lauren diMucci is fourteen and awkward, slightly behind the puberty curve from her bestie, Miranda, who is putting away childish things and throwing herself perhaps a bit too enthusiastically into the world of nice clothes and makeup and boys with cars. Lauren lives with her widowed mother, Karen, and her four-year-old brother David, who seems unusually observant and grown up for his age. Lauren and Miranda have always enjoyed hanging out in the woods behind their neighborhood, meeting up at the Ghost Tree, a huge old tree split down the middle by a lightning strike in some distant ancient time. But Miranda is outgrowing all of that, and Lauren isn’t sure she’s ready to follow where Miranda wants to lead, although Lauren is not unpleasantly surprised to be attracting the interest of senior boy Jake.

So it’s all typical teen life, really. Sure, we get mentions of popular bands and movies of the time (we know Jake is cool because he wears a Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirt), but it’s not done in such a way that we feel Henry is jumping up and down shouting “OMG you guys, remember the ’80s!?” Yes, I do, thank you. I saw all the cool bands. But I promise you, the ’80s were kind of awful.

Smiths Hollow has a dark secret, however. Once a year, a young girl is sacrificed in service to a curse that has held the town captive for decades. It’s a curse that promises the town continued prosperity — and indeed, Smiths Hollow is a factory town with a thriving economy — and every year, once the sacrifice is carried out, everyone in town, including the friends and family of the victim, slips into a state of amnesia. The murder and the victim are utterly forgotten, life in Smiths Hollow goes on, and the following year, it all happens again.

But something has changed. Because the last victim of the curse was supposed to be Lauren diMucci. Instead of Lauren, her father was taken, and the breaking of the cycle has broken the terms of the curse altogether. Now, new victims are dying. Whatever evil, murderous entity has been emerging from the Ghost Tree once a year to feast on a scheduled sacrificial victim is now free to wander the streets of Smiths Hollow with impunity. First, two runaway girls from out of town are ambushed, their slaughtered remains found in the backyard of a hateful old racist lady. And it seems like there’s nothing preventing more deaths. Meanwhile, the promised prosperity for Smiths Hollow is swiftly being reversed, as the Nabisco cookie factory that employs most of the townspeople abruptly lays off hundreds of workers with no warning.

Still, the killer — whoever or whatever it is — wants Lauren, who remains clueless as to how much danger she’s in. Meanwhile, the murders, and the inexplicable indifference and forgetfulness everyone in town has towards them, have drawn the attention of local policeman Alejandro Lopez, who has moved to Smiths Hollow with his family after ten years working the beat in Chicago. Baffled as to why no one, including the chief of police, seems to care about the murders, Officer Lopez begins digging into old records, while a nosy reporter who has rolled into town from Chicago threatens to blow the whole mess wide open onto the national stage with an article in the Tribune.

Christina Henry has a real horror writer’s gift. A crucial factor when it comes to frightening your audience is to set everything in an atmosphere of impending doom, and if there’s one thing about The Ghost Tree that gives the book its sense of immersion, it’s the truly sinister and threatening mood Henry establishes from the very beginning. Henry is also every bit as expert at building believable characters. No doubt drawing on at least some personal experience, Henry’s teen characters feel like actual teenagers. It’s a thing that seems so rare, at least in my own reading experience. I don’t want to slag off YA, and it’s pretty much a certainty that I haven’t read the best of what YA has to offer, but I’m always struck by the way the teenage characters in YA genre fiction are almost always these idealized superheroes. They’re always in command of their situation, they’re always ready to make the right decision at the right moment to solve the immediate crisis. They aren’t just flailing through life in a hormonal haze. They aren’t getting into petulant screaming matches with their moms or best friends. When the world upsets them because it isn’t revolving around them, they don’t run off to their bedrooms to sulk and pout. No, they grab the nearest handy weapon and rush into battle like Brienne of Tarth. Reading a book about kids who act like kids, growing into their bodies and confused at the changes in life and just doing the best they can day by day is so refreshing.

But for all of The Ghost Tree’s virtues, it has some shortcomings as well. First, and most damning for a horror/suspense novel, is that the identity of the killer — or more accurately, the person currently possessed by the evil force in the Ghost Tree that seeks the blood of teenage girls — is almost insultingly easy to guess. Honestly, if you don’t guess it on your first try, you’re not trying. And though I can’t give details without spoilers, there are other plot outcomes every bit as predictable. There’s also the way Henry treats the character of David, Lauren’s little brother. David is one of these supernaturally gifted, omniscient magical children that you see pop up occasionally as a horror story trope. David’s gift is logically consistent with the novel’s backstory, but what it means in a practical sense is that David is less an actual character and more a kind of narrative hint button, like the kind you used to see if you remember very old-school text-based PC adventure games. Anytime a character is baffled or stuck or has no clue what’s going on, David pops up to tell them “Now you must go here and do this thing.” It’s honestly the only reason David is in the story at all.

Yet, I do think most horror fans will find more to entertain them in The Ghost Tree than they’ll find problems worth harping on. The murders are sufficiently gory, the pacing creates genuine tension at the best of times, and I had a good laugh at the notion that anybody would see a guy driving a Pontiac Fiero and think it was the coolest car ever. The Ghost Tree is a fun little killer thriller that makes inventive use of one of horror’s most reliable story prompts. You know the one: “If you go into the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…”