Madness in literature is as old as the art form itself. From the works of Jorge Luis Borges to Hunter S. Thompson to Clive Barker and Stephen King, the mind of a character fracturing into pieces is a compelling topic for a story. It also makes telling the story that much more difficult. Layden Robinson’s collection of short stories in “The Havoc Tree” is a wonderfully wicked selection of stories centering around madness, death, blood, and profane sexuality.
This is not a book for young readers, I will state that right off the bat. The stories collected within have a punk-rock aesthetic to them. They are as in your face as they can be with the horrors of a mind slipping away from its moorings into something deeper, darker, and far more primal.
Of the collection, there are a few that stood out to me as quite brilliant. One was “The Story of Willis”, which delves into the psychosis that can arise from prolonged exposure to drugs. It isn’t until the end of the story that you begin to understand the delusions the lead character is experiencing. That is part of the brilliance I mentioned above with Robinson’s writing style: you’re never entirely sure if what is being depicted exists only in the mind of the characters on the page or if these surreal fantasies are actually occurring.
Another story that stood out to me was “The End”. A lone figure is on vacation for the wedding of a family member and is taken away into a nightmarish realm beyond the seas. Reading the story, it felt like a dream one would have if they had read some of Lovecraft’s work while suffering from a high fever. The imagery throughout this story and the others is exceptionally well-done but off-kilter. There are times where it is unclear what is happening and why, which fits the insanity that each character is increasingly finding themselves engulfed in.
Like Clive Barker before, sexuality and insanity are often mingled together. This is no better illustrated than in the short stories “The Suit” and “Fate”. Each one involves wanton sexuality being a gateway to an unending nightmare of both pleasure and torment that would not feel out of place in the universe where Barker’s famous “Hellraiser” stories reside. I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the depictions of the sexuality on display and I believe that is the author’s intent.
Many times when sexuality is used within a horror story, it is meant as a reprieve from the horror, a bit of titillation to remove the reader from the dire circumstances the protagonists find themselves in. Here, that is not the case. Instead, we are treated to visions where sexuality damns the protagonist, leading them further away from reality and into depths of despair and pleasure that they did not know existed and wished that they had never discovered. It’s a credit to Robinson’s writing prowess that the stories remain deeply rooted in the horror elements without giving in to the easy distractions of merely arousing the reader.
I don’t take the subject matter to be a negative critique on sexuality as a whole, mind you. Instead, much like Barker’s “Hellbound Heart”, it is a way to show what unbridled sexual desire could lead to, which is to become lost in the weeds of the most basic and primal need that drives us as human beings.
All of these stories in the collection owe a debt to Edgar Allan Poe and his stories. Perhaps no other author in American Literature encapsulated the depth of a mind cracked and unable to mend itself than Poe. Robinson’s work in this collection shows that they are on the same path as a writer, delving into the fractures between the synapses of the conscious mind to find what horrors await us on the other side. I greatly enjoyed reading this anthology and look forward to other works published by this author.
If you are a fan of psychological horror in the vein of Poe, Barker, and King, then you should definitely check out “The Havoc Tree”. It is currently available on Kindle Unlimited and also available for outright purchase. As a fellow self-published author, I cannot stress how important it is to show authors like Layden Robinson your love by purchasing their work and leaving positive reviews (if you enjoyed them).