Classic Vampires revisited:
A Botanical Nightmare
(Department Of Dead Letters/Dead Letter Press, $25, 56 pages, softcover
chapbook, published May 2006.)
an original idea that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been explored
before: a theme anthology of tales of botanical horror, where killer
plants are the main characters.
This lovely chapbook , featuring stories written between 1881 and 1919,
is part of a delightful series entitled "The literary vampire",
published by the Department of Dead Letters, an imprint of Dead Letter
Press, located in Virginia, USA. And never before the term "small
press" has been more appropriate: each chapbook has a print run
of only 26 copies (!), a true rarity reserved to the connoisseur. The
stories included in the various volumes are mostly classic vampire tales
from the golden era, some widely known, others comparatively more obscure.
Much to my delight the five pieces collected in "A Botanical Nightmare"
were unknown to me, so reading the present book was a real, welcome
"The man-eating tree" by Phil Robinson (1881), a spare but
extremely powerful piece, reports the deeply disturbing narrative by
a former traveller in Central Africa reminiscing about his encounter
with a vampire tree patiently waiting for a prey to attack and devour
with its hungrily sucking leaves.
Once you've read the above story , you may find "The flowering
of the strange orchid" by HG Wells (1894) not too original. The
plot is all in its title and the predictable development sees the horrid
plant trying to suck its proprietor's blood like leeches do.
"The purple terror" by Fred M White (1899) , taking place
just after the Spanish-American war, quite effectively blends themes
such as the military mission (a message has to be urgently dispatched)
and the revenge of a jealous lover with the exotic horror represented
by a murderous plant bearing deceivingly pretty flowers.
In Edit Nesbith's excellent "The pavilion" (1915), botanical
horror meets romance. The affection developing in a plain girl's heart
is cut off by the sudden, inexplicable death of the young man who was
spending the night in a supposedly haunted pavilion. But at the core
of the matter there's the vicious, bloodthirsty Virginian creeper covering
"The sumach" by Ulric Daubeny (1919) being unluckily placed
at the end of the book, although actually a fair enough story, appears
as a pale imitation of the previous, stronger tales and therefore lacking
elements of surprise. The only variation therein is that the bloodsucking
properties of the plant appear to be related to the fact that an actual
vampire was killed in that very spot.
All in all, the booklet is an extremely enjoyable assemblage of classy,
well written stories from an era when effective storytelling was the
first aim of any writer , the prose was usually quite elegant and shivers
were produced without resorting to gore and butchery.