I’ve always loved a good killer plant story. Maybe it’s that bone-deep sympathy for the Ents, crushing down the unsustainable and distinctly non-eco-friendly production line at Isengard, but there’s something very satisfying about the natural world getting its own back. Something disturbing, too, at least for the writers included in this anthology, all of whom have Gothic sensibilities of their own. They clearly find such vengeance a disturbing possibility—but as with most Gothic narratives, there’s something fascinating about the disturbance. Something slightly obsessive, too, and obsession is at the core of most of the stories in here. Notable, too, is how personal the relationships are between plant and victim. Rarely is it a crime of opportunity. More often, it comes after careful nurturing, a blurring of the boundary between species.
“The plant had turned cannibal and eaten the man who had grown it!” or so says the horrified narrator of Howard R. Garis’s “Professor Jonkin’s Cannibal Plant,” a man who has clearly never been given a dictionary (p. 157). A plant cannot cannibalise a human, but the belief that it can springs from the desire to give a plant anthropomorphic traits. That is something that plenty of the characters in Evil Roots do, as they develop fondness and loyalty towards their vegetable charges. Some are treated as pets. Some are treated as body parts, grafted onto the human form. Some, even, are treated as children … or as foster children. The opening story, also the best of the anthology, does exactly that. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” the young lady of the title has been raised in a garden of poisonous plants, and reared on their poisons as if it were mother’s milk. She has therefore not only taken on the noxious characteristics of those plants—breathing poison that can wither bouquets in her hands and drop lizards in their tracks—but considers the most poisonous plant in her father’s garden as a sister. “Yes, my sister, my splendour,” she says, practically slavering over the thing, “it shall be Beatrice’s task to nurse and serve thee; and thou shalt reward her with thy kisses and perfume-breath, which to her is as the breath of life!” (p. 17).
Even without the talking of herself in the third person, you know that’s not a relationship that promises fine things for the world at large.
It is, however, one of the more original stories in a volume that is very heavy on Venus flytraps and other carnivorous and (literally) bloodthirsty plants. A little too heavy, perhaps, especially when some of the other story choices can seem a little odd. “The Ash Tree,” for instance, by M.R. James, is an extremely creepy and well-told story that I enjoyed immensely, but the ultimate culprit was a group of monstrous spiders living in the ash tree, and not the tree itself. Calling this an example of botanical horror, then, is a bit like calling Jaws an ocean horror. In both cases, it’s not the habitat that’s the problem … it’s the monsters living in it. I will say, however, that alongside “Rappaccini’s Daughter” there are a couple of other non-carnivorous and/or bloodsucking gems. “The Voice in the Night” by William Hope Hodgson is a sad and disturbing story of fungal infection, while “The Woman of the Wood” by Abraham Merritt is a beautifully-written story of what happens when a dryad convinces a man to start murdering woodcutters. Merritt’s prose is gorgeously lyrical, even when he’s talking about gouged-out eyeballs and stabbing people in the throat, and perhaps the most disturbing part of the whole book is the woodcutters’ justification for slaughter. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s worth reading.
I think, however, that the one thing which makes this collection feel so contained is that it is strictly limited in date. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is the earliest of the pieces, being first published in 1844, while “The Moaning Lily,” the latest, was published in 1935. (I note that the rather skimpy introduction mistakenly says that the latest story collected here was published in 1932.) This is a little under a century, which is a decent enough span of time for any anthology, but it’s a notable span for two reasons. The second will come (much) later, but for now let’s have a look at the reason for much of this monstrosity, and that is the presentation of science within the various narratives.
For a collection so scattered with scientists—there are a number of them, all mad, who are out collecting, feeding, and variously manipulating the green and vicious objects of their affection—they are all scientists of the Frankenstein type, working away from industry and technology, and the increasingly organised knowledge of their peers. The one exception is only mildly so: Carl Brense, the doomed creator of “The Moaning Lily” by Emma Vane, is a Harvard scholar who is lauded within his field. “I have made an exhaustive study of plant-grafting and am compiling a book on the subject. I have won thousands in prizes,” he claims, ready to show his latest botanical triumph at an industry event (p. 275). But even Brense is visualised as an image from a bygone era—he constantly wears a long robe that makes him look like a Franciscan monk. This mode of dress, paired as it is with an ascetic and suffering complexion—the idiot is feeding his greedy lily on his own blood, having grafted it onto his own body in order to produce some terrible, semi-sexualised hybrid—naturally makes him look like a refugee from the Dark Ages, suffering for his ideals, and one step from the rack. This type of dodgy behaviour, beloved of all the Frankenstein-types of science, can only be performed (as indeed Frankenstein performed it) away from colleagues and institutions and anyone who might use the increasingly post-industrial interconnection and organisation of science to say, “Stop that, you stupid fool!”
No. Science, in Evil Roots, is something secret, performed away from sensible society and kept as far from the oversight of institutions as possible. It’s not just Brense, shuffling along in his monk robes. It’s Rappaccini himself, sequestered with his daughter in a walled garden which is as much crypt as cloister. It’s Julius Lambert of “Carnivorine,” by Lucy H. Hooper, who retreats to the deserted rural horror of Campagna, a region “haunted by malaria and tenanted only by a few fever-stricken shepherds” (p. 67) to feed his monster obsession. Let’s be frank: the scientists here are all bonkers, and they are all rich enough and weird enough and estranged enough—from their families and from their colleagues—to shut themselves off somewhere remote and do extremely ill-thought-out things with their pot plants. I say this as a botanist myself: some relationships should not be encouraged. And if you lock yourself away from the rest of science and end up raising a plant that eats you, it is no one’s fault but your own, accustoming it to three porterhouse steaks per day as you have, Professor Jonkin.
Let us talk about Jonkin for a minute … if only because he reminds me of my dad. My dad had a horse. The thing is dead now, but when it was alive it bit him, badly, on the shoulder. The scar is there and it is large. My father did not mind. He said, and I quote, “He’s a lovely little horse really.” Bernie was neither little nor lovely. He had to be kept behind a deer fence so he wouldn’t bite the other horses. The only thing Bernie found lovely, so far as I could tell, was biting. Could you tell my dad that? You could not. He continued to adore that beast until it clip-clopped its miserable self off to the great glue factory in the sky, and Professor Jonkin is made of the same stuff. Having raised his man-eating plant to the point where it tries to eat him, he has to be rescued from its gaping gullet. The easiest way to do this is to cut open the plant to get to him, and you can imagine what Jonkin has to say about that. “He’s a lovely little plant really!” Well, not quite, but the gist is the same thing. Half-drowned, and well on the way to digestion in the giant pitcher plant of his own creation, and the thing is not to be cut open because oh, the horror! That would hurt it too badly.
You see what I mean. They’re all mad. Oddly, the most modern-feeling experiment of Evil Roots comes not from a scientist but from an amateur detective, in a story that’s more murder-mystery than science fiction. Bob Seymour, protagonist of “The Green Death” by H.C. McNeile, is presented as an entirely good man with a history that today we would not find entirely good at all, no matter how admirable it made him in his time. “He had done police work in India; he had been on a rubber plantation in Sumatra. The Amazon knew him and so did the Yukon, while his knowledge of the tribes of Africa … was greater than the average Londoner has of his native city” (p. 201). He is, in short, imperialism on legs, and there’s a whiff of brutal competence that follows him. While attending a house party, his love interest’s brother is suspected of murdering one of the other guests. Given the subject of this anthology, readers will immediately suspect that the brother is innocent and that the true culprit is a plant, and this is so. Part of Seymour’s proof of this, however, lies in his experimental work. The plant emits high levels of carbon dioxide, suffocating its prey before it strangles it. Seymour demonstrates this by sacrificing a rabbit to said plant, and illustrating its effect on the flames of a match and a lamp.
It turns out that Seymour had come across this plant before, “on the Upper Amazon ten years ago. My native bearers dragged me away in their terror” (p. 235) he says, in a brief explanation that tells you all you want to know both about Seymour and the plant-collecting, plant-experimenting scientists of the other stories. It’s not the plants driving them to their own botanical hearts of darkness. It’s the exploration. Exploration makes them mad, prolonged contact with the other—that distressing, seducing other so beloved of Gothic literature in general. Seymour was forcibly dragged away from it, but it was never plants he was sent to control anyway. But the rest of them … mad on orchids and pitcher plants and the botanical exotic, so far removed from drawing rooms and gentleman’s clubs, they never had a hope.
And that’s why, much later (but as promised) I return to the second notable aspect of that containment. It’s getting close to two centuries since Hawthorne wrote “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” It has been eighty-five years since Emma Vane wrote “The Moaning Lily.” The Gothic is alive and well in our time, and our relationship with the vegetable world continues. Evil Roots is a snapshot, and it is an enjoyable one, but I wonder if there might not be more scope for exploration of the botanical Gothic if the pool of stories it drew from hadn’t been so constrained. Contemporary engagement with the ecological has, I think, less focus on the dangerously and seductively exotic. The natural world, for many of us, is no longer a thing to be beaten back with horror and a vague sense of fascinated revulsion. It’s become something to cling to, something distant and dying and awful in a terrible—and terribly different—way.
Vane’s Carl Brense grafted a carnivorous plant onto his own body. I wrote a story like that too, once—the plant was parasitic, not carnivorous, and the guiding impulse not one of semi-sexualised symbiosis but one of isolation and grief. It was an impulse that developed from being cut off from ecosystem, not from the desire to master it.
These are, I think, the changes that matter. If we are to look at the evil roots of our own impulses, given vegetal form, then we should look at them all, and recognise that they exist today and not just in the world of our ancient relatives.