Wednesday, September 11, 2013

2. Mad Scientist, Mad Gardener

We need plants for food, shelter, medicine, clothing and fuel—but they do not need us.  All animal life on the planet depends on vegetation ultimately to survive.  This is because only plants have developed the wonder of photosynthesis, the original alchemy that transmutes the golden light of the sun and a few other ingredients into materials we can eat and make things out of, and the oxygen we need to breathe.  The elegance of this all sustaining photo-chemical process surely suggests—to some at least—the work of some intelligence higher than ours.

We take all this for granted. Unless we are botanists or gardeners, we tend to ignore all the green figures that stand quietly along our paths or surround our homes and businesses.  They seem peaceful, passive and devoid of consciousness—until the human imagination grants them intelligence, sensuality, mobility, and a will of their own.  There are many examples of horror and science fiction entertainment that involve projecting human or animal traits onto the green world, with various consequences.

One approach involves a type of character that can be called the “mad gardener”.  An example of this type can be found in R.G. Macready’s The Plant Thing (1925).  The story was published in the July 1925 issue of Weird Tales.  (The same issue contained H.P. Lovecraft’s The Unnamable.)

A reporter is sent to investigate the mysterious Professor Carter, who has been buying large numbers of pigs, sheep, and calves.  An agent of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals fears the worst—wanton large scale vivisection on the professor’s estate.  But the reporter is turned away at the door by one of the professor's several Malay servants.  (There seems to be a tradition in these stories of associating people of color with dangerous tropical vegetation, even when the specimen has been transplanted north to more temperate climes).

The reporter then sneaks over the wall of the compound and is promptly attacked—and should be, for trespassing—by an enormous carnivorous tree.  Caught in its serpentine creepers, he is drawn toward “a mighty red lipped orifice.”  He wakes to find himself under the care of the professor and his beautiful daughter, who rescued him.  There he learns the origin of this more stationary species of “tobonga”, (see the last post), and falls in love with the professor’s daughter.

Professor Carter, through careful cultivation and crossbreeding of carnivorous plants, has been able to discover the missing link between the vegetable and animal kingdoms.  He calls it his “travesty”, and the organism is only in its initial stage of development.  “Whether it will attain the power of locomotion remains to be seen.”  You can imagine why he has been ordering all the farm animals lately.

A good depiction of the likely biology of Tobonga sedentārius—though found on Marsis the 1959 science fiction film, The Angry Red Planet.  Dr. Iris Ryan, the sole female scientist on the expedition, (and possibly the only female scientist on earth at that time) is attacked by a very similar type of plant.  It seems that after the 1920s, man eating plants are more likely to select women for meals.

A mature Tobonga sedentārius has a trunk that is twelve feet in diameter and twenty-five feet tall.  Ear-like appendages hang from the uppermost branches, and it captures its prey with ground hugging creepers.  The organism has eyes, and can respond to simple verbal commands—if it wants to, and is otherwise not too hungry.  And it has a mouth with red lips.  

The ambitious scientist wants to revolutionize science—never a good idea—and with the young reporter, nearly winds up as a meal himself.  Other than a reminder of the hazards of hubris, the principle moral of the story appears to be:  Do not get real close to Tobonga sedentārius, unless you have an elephant gun.  

Already by the time of R.G. Macready’s The Plant Thing—if not before—the principle elements of a “man eating plant story” are present:  scientist, scientist’s daughter, young male adventurer, tentacled plant with voracious appetite, and nonwhite staff members from a third world country.  Typically, the young man must rescue the doomed scientist’s daughter from the coils of the vegetable carnivore, which inaugurates their romantic future.  (Interestingly, Macready reverses the order of the rescue in his story.)

However, not all horticultural horrors are necessarily carnivorous.  In the next post the R’lyeh Tribune will look at a completely different species of weird plant.   

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