Mixing the fun of Stranger Things with the other-worldly science experiments of Tales from the Loop and the mind-bending madness of House of Leaves, Climb the Tree is a novel like none other in the Catholic tradition. What begins as a childlike exploration of an abandoned suburban community ends in a dark and yet beautiful reflection on the horrors that man’s free will can lead to, but also the grace and peace that God’s healing can bring despite that. A psychological horror novel, this book straddles the line of being creepy and atmospheric without being quite as scary as, say, The Exorcist. It might be the sort of book that induces nightmares, but for this reader at least, it delivered an enjoyable amount of heebie-jeebies without costing my sleep.
The book has four main parts, each building upon revelations from the other and each with a new cast of characters. The first part begins when a recently widowed father, Richard, and his young son, Charles, move into a planned suburban neighborhood, meant to mix assisted living elderly with families of young children. The father is hired on to be a groundskeeper. As both father and son explore their new home, they begin to run into some disturbing truths. Most of the houses are empty, and nearly all the children disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Besides Charles, there are only two other children left, and they are far from ordinary. The anxiety builds to a crisis, when Charles himself goes missing, and Richard must traverse through the madness-inducing underground tunnels that span the neighborhood to find him.
In the following three parts of the book, the whole area has been completely abandoned. Each part follows a different group of characters who enter the strange neighborhood, which seems to have become unhinged from the normal flow of time. The subsequent investigations reveal the dark depths that our free will can go to if God allows, but also the salvific healing of God’s grace. The heresies of Nietzsche’s Ubermench are particularly refuted.
Much like House of Leaves, or Lovecraft’s short stories, part of the fun of the book is piecing together what is happening as some of the characters descend into madness, but if you are new to that particular subgenre of psychological horror, this might not be the best introductory book for you. While the characters, atmosphere, and dialogue are excellent, the scene descriptions could be more fleshed out to reduce some unnecessary confusion. I suspect that the ending might be a tad more confusing than the author intended it to be, although the basics of the mystery at the heart of the story are revealed satisfactorily. The book ends on a cliffhanger as well, to set the reader’s expectations for the sequel, and I am already chomping at the bit to read it.
Despite the heavy religious themes and symbols, most secular readers should have no issue with this book. Horror readers in general are actually a lot more tolerant of themes of true Good over Evil as long as the story delivers on spooky fun and mind-bending puzzles, which this story does wonderfully. It helps too that even the hero characters are broken people. Their humble reliance on Grace preaches more effectively than an impassioned self-righteous sermon ever could. However, this book will resonate especially strongly with Christian readers of any denomination or anyone who understands the darkness behind the amoral-free-will-is-better-than-morality heresy that so often grips the modern world. This is an intellectually heavy book, but for readers who love that sort of thing or fans of the psychological mystery subgenre, this will be an inspiration for the creative heights Catholic literature can reach.