Written by: James Keen
Opening with an arresting, dreadful sequence involving a gruesomely depicted sacrifice of a woman to a supernaturally animated flesh-rending tree/thing, it’s a prelude to an array of sanguinary events orchestrated by a writer who is more than adept at depicting life-threatening encounters with an intriguing narrative that develops its own set of rudimentary rules; a curious mythology that takes as its primary ingredients the worship of pagan deities and other sundry elements involving black magic.
A thirteen year old boy, Evan, silent witness to the events at the start of this novella, enlists the aid of his peer and fellow resident of the sleepy town of Salisbury Mills, Pete “ a natural talker, a true gabber”, in attempting to eradicate the fitfully animated wooden monster “whose bark was as black as coal” that sits at the edge of Rakers Field, a tree with a bone-grinding appetite for anyone stupid enough to venture near its calcified branches. Of course, Evan’s mission involves skipping school, and appropriating the necessary tools to accomplish their goal; notably rope, packed lunches and a “tree-chewing machine”(a chainsaw), all without meddlesome adult interference.
It’s a well-worn premise that calls to mind the best of Stephen King’s coming-of-age, end-of innocence stories with a Ray Bradbury/Kealan Patrick Burke-like twist of dark fantasy, but unfortunately Bernstein’s skills as a storyteller really aren’t up to the job in terms of making this tale click convincingly with the reader. I may be doing the writer a disservice here but this feels like a first or second draft for something that needs to be fleshed out – excuse the obvious pun. The diction is at times clunky and mechanical, to wit, this internal monologue from Evan “ I can’t believe my subconscious is doing this to me”, the descriptions of the landscape, “the forest was, to put it bluntly, kind of scary-looking”, the jarringly odd, “he shot Pete a look of death”, and other examples such as Evan describing one particular character – recently deceased- as “looking as alive as a dead person could be”.
In a few instances this work calls to mind a similar premise used by Mark Kidwell in his novel, ‘Yellow’; another modern take on this horror sub-genre and much like that novel, Bernstein’s ‘The Tree Man’ falters and stumbles for many of the same reasons Kidwell’s book did. The premise is hobbled by the author’s blatantly stiff approach to character motivation, where the plot is used to force protagonists and antagonists alike to act in ways that stretches the narrative’s credibility. Such a rigid adherence to the overall story arc here only serves to undermine the admittedly horrific set-pieces to the extent where it simply becomes an exercise in serving up genre spectacle at the expense of character logic, and while those set-pieces are impressively creepy and unnerving, the reader is left with very little in the way of narrative immersion or empathy with characters who, when faced with logical considerations, continue to act in ways that are, “to put it bluntly”, transparently manipulative. It’s a case of characters served up as cannon fodder to a rigid plot, resulting in a lack of reader investment in what happens to those protagonists because there’s no real development; they’re cliched ciphers in service to episodes of ‘hey, look at this horrible gross-out thing I’ve just come up with!’ and while there’s nothing wrong with getting creative when it comes to blood-letting – this is the horror genre, after all- the reader is left with a pretty bad after-taste in terms of how he/she relates to the story.
Author Jack Ketchum once commented, “If you’ve got real individuals I can care about, only then can you scare me silly.” -a maxim this reviewer believes applies to pretty much any literary output, whatever the genre, if it’s to have any lasting virtue other than simply allowing the reader to while away a couple of hours, as is the case here.