Monday, February 15, 2016

Plant Monsters: The Stories [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The first stories of killer plants were written by two Americans. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "Rappacini's Daughter" in 1844 and showed us that a father's wish to protect his daughter's virtue can become almost pathological. Rappacini infuses the girl with plant poison, making her the precursor of Batman's Poison Ivy. The second story was twenty-five years later and written by the mother of the American family story, Lousia May Alcott, who penned Little Women (1868). Her story has the Gothic title of "Lost in a Pyramid, or the Mummy's Curse" and is the first real killer flower story. Seeds from a mummy's treasure grow into a large blossomed plant. When worn, the flower sucks the vitality from the wearer.

The idea of plant monsters really caught fire in the 1870s after botanical discoveries of large drosera and other flesh-eating plants were found and reported in the illustrated newspapers. These lead to fake reports which then lead to the storytellers of the day creating the first man-eating tree stories. These include A Conan Doyle, Julian Hawthorne, Phil Robinson, Grant Allen, and many lesser known writers. HG Wells reinvigorated the idea in 1894 with his blood-sucking orchid tale, "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid." I always used to think Wells invented the idea, but he comes to the part twenty years late. It was Frank Aubrey's The Devil-Tree of El Dorado (1896) that scores a hit in novel form. The Victorians would go on writing about killer plants all the way into the pulp era.

Weird Tales and the other pulps explored the idea with varying amounts of innovation. The Unique Magazine featured twenty-three killer plants (that I have discovered so far. I am sure there are others), beginning with "The Devil Plant" by Lyle Wilson Holden (May 1923) to Donald Wandrei's "Strange Harvest" (May 1953). May is significant, for I noticed, especially with the comics, that plant monsters tended to appear in that month as if the allergy season drove the concept of hostile plant life. Amongst the Weirdies to pen a plant story are Clark Ashton Smith (7), Edmond Hamilton (3), David H Keller (3), Howard Wandrei (2), Jack Snow, A Merritt, Seabury Quinn, Carl Jacobi, and Mary Elizabeth Counselman. The genres range from science fiction to horror. Clark Ashton Smith's "The Seed From the Sepulchre" and Jack Snow's "Seed" would be imitated (knowingly or unknowingly) in Scott Smith's bestseller The Ruins (2008). For this is another thing I have noticed, plant monster stories haven't really changed much, even after a hundred and forty years.

More modern times saw one story in particular pull the plant trope in a new direction. This was John Wyndham's blockbuster, The Day of the Triffids (1951). Unlike most plant monsters, Wyndham's triffids are not found in a jungle (or come from space as in the 1962 film), but are created specifically by men. Wyndham uses their nastiness (as well as the blinding of humanity) to comment on human ills (a la the Cold War). Other novels that explore plant monsters in a new way include Brian W Aldiss's fantasy Hothouse (1962), in which all the characters and setting are plants. Others like Susan Cooper's Mandrake (1962) and Frank Herbert's The Green Brain (1966) would predate James Lovelock's 1970s Gaia Theory, in which the entire Earth as a living organism fights back against humankind.

Fantasy has always featured supernatural trees in the form of dryads, sylphs, and mandrakes. L Frank Baum had fighting trees in The Wizard of Oz (1901), though they were reduced to talking trees in the film. JRR Tolkien would write about Old Man Willow and Treebeard the Ent in The Lord of the Rings (1954-56), while his friend, CS Lewis would use (to a much lesser degree) similar creations in his Narnia books (1950-55). Sword-and-sorcery of the 1970s would offer up new versions of the killer tree for the barbarians Conan and Brak to fight. And in most recent years, JK Rowling gave us the Whomping Willow of the Harry Potter series.

Modern horror hasn't lagged behind. While chasing Stephen King and Jaws-sized success, some less talented authors would write 1980s horror novels featuring killer vines, none worthy of particular mention. More interesting were the anthologies of older stories such as Vic Ghidalia's The Nightmare Garden (1976) and Carlos Cassaba's The Roots of Evil (1976). Many modern horror writers have created single, short exertions into plant monsterdom including Kit Reed, David Campton, Brian Lumely, and Jeff Strand. More often though, as from the very beginning, the majority of such tales were written by less well-known or even obscure writers who produced few or no other stories.

Scott Smith surprised the world of publishing with his novel The Ruins in 2006. While I gritted my teeth and held my tongue when mundanes thrilled to "the novelty," I can't say anything against Smith's book. He wrote it in a style that elevates it above mere pulp. While the flesh-eating vines are not new, his prose has a dreamy quality to it that lulls the reader into a sense of quiet before the monsters are unleashed. I heard the film version criticized as "just another 'let's watch a group of twenty-somethings get eaten' film" and I can understand this. The film lacks Smith's dreamy prose quality, though its CGI plants are quite frightening.

I haven't gone into a lot of TV or movies here, and no comics at all (for the comics always followed, never setting trends), because there simply isn't room. The only video productions that had anything really new to add were the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), especially the musical version in 1986. "Feed me, Seymour!" the bulbous Audrey II cries, and in that moment, as the large-toothed mouth hovers over the insignificant Seymour Krelboyne, the final version of the plant monster has arrived at last. For every twelve-year-old kid who bought a Venus Flytrap to feed flies to, for every hunter lost in the bush, feeling like the forest was his living antagonist, for every allergy sufferer (I feel your pain!), here is the image of plant as hostile. We forget that they too are living, moving, evolving, struggling organisms. And it takes the occasional plant monster to remind us every so often. Has the final plant monster story been written? I hardly think so. Like dandelions springing up on your lawn, the plant monster isn't going anywhere soon. Check out the database at gwthomas.org.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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