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Classic Vampires revisited:
A Botanical Nightmare

edited by Tom English

(Department Of Dead Letters/Dead Letter Press, $25, 56 pages, softcover chapbook, published May 2006.)

Review by Mario Guslandi

cover scanHere's 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 treat.

"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 walls...

"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.

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