By Charlotte McIntyre
Set in the summer of 1985, in the seemingly ordinary town of Smiths Hollow, fourteen-year old Lauren is wrangling with the struggles of almost every teenage girl. Miranda, her best friend since she was a toddler, is growing up fast (along with her interest in the local boys) and their relationship is changing every day. But there’s something else too. Lauren is still coming to terms with the death of her father, who was found in the woods, by the old ghost tree, with his heart ripped out…
Now, two teenage girls have been discovered. Not just dead but dismembered, their heads discarded in the back garden of one of Lauren’s neighbours. This monstrous event is the catalyst for great change in Smith’s Hollow, as Lauren and Officer Lopez discover the horrors that humans are capable of and come face-to-face with the monster hiding in the old ghost tree.
The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry is, on the face of it, a chilling horror story about monsters lurking in the woods and gory murders. But beyond that, its themes of otherness, prejudice and violence stir under the surface for a satisfying read.
While not a young adult novel per se, Lauren’s coming of age arc is very typical of teenage fiction. It is clear that both she and Miranda are turning into different kinds of people, which is difficult for them to accept. While Miranda is browsing Cosmopolitan for sex tips and courting the local boys, Lauren finds peace in exploring the woods on the outskirts of town. This exploration of what growing up means is also met with adult themes as we delve into the personalities, stories and motivations of other characters such as Lauren’s mum, Mayor Touhy, and Officer Lopez.
The Ghost Tree looks deeply at small-town prejudice (in the form of Smith’s Hollow xenophobic and racist nosy neighbour) and just how dogged the powers-that-be are when it comes to maintaining the status quo. As Lauren and Officer Lopez make chilling discoveries, we see Mayor Touhy struggling under the weight of his own heritage, responsibility and morals.
One of my only frustrations with the novel was its failure to define itself as either YA or adult fiction. Having Lauren as the protagonist, while necessary to communicate the themes I’ve explored above, was a bit jarring with other aspects of the book at times. While we’re given a nice 360 degree insight into the psyche of all the characters, including their flaws and frustrations, I would have liked the book to delve a bit deeper into the horrors humans are capable of committing.
Overall, The Ghost Tree offers up a pacy read with immersive characterisation. In very simple terms, I would say it’s Stephen King for teenage girls – which isn’t a criticism! While there are elements to the story that don’t quite add up or make sense at times, the eerie setting and the way in which the novel unfolds makes that forgivable, for the most part. In fact, as the story reaches its crescendo, you really do find yourself rooting for Lauren as she finds herself and her true power in the face of horrors both supernatural and human.
The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry is available now on Amazon.