Saturday, September 14, 2013

4. Hothouse Hazard

The past three posts have featured several examples of how plant life can be portrayed as frightful and threatening in weird fiction.  Options can range from carnivorous trees with arms and tentacles to disturbing vegetation that mimics the human form.  Because vegetation is not inherently terrifying, it must be given human or animal traits like mobility and aggression.  Or else some element that is typical of green organisms must be amplified to inspire dread. 

A little of this creative manipulation of botanical detail goes a long way.  A tree or a vegetable that is too mobile and predacious, a “tobonga”, is too silly to be taken seriously.  A more subtle approach, one that merely tweaks what is known of plant life, that turns up the volume just a few notches on some unusual trait, can be more effective.

H.G. Wells is best known for science fiction novels like The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and The War of the Worlds, (1898).  Readers will recall that in Wells’ famous tale of earth’s struggle against Martian attack, a vigorous and invasive species of “red creeper” is inadvertently brought to earth by the Martians.  Symbolic of Martian imperialism, it soon clogged waterways and wreaked ecological havoc.  Fortunately, the alien plant succumbed to earth’s microorganisms just as the Martian invaders did.

(I am convinced that some of the more successful weeds in my lawn and garden are not originally from earth.)

H.G. Wells wrote at least one story of horticultural horror, The Flowering of the Strange Orchid (1905).  In some respects it is a snapshot of the orchid mania that was prevalent in the mid to late 19th century.  Wealthy collectors and corporations funded expeditions into the tropics to seek out unknown species of orchids and other plants, and bring them back for cultivation and breeding purposes.  Some of these expeditions involved quite hazardous treks through jungle and mountain terrain. 

Batten, a minor character in the story, is one of these orchid collectors. He suffers a ghastly death on an expedition in the Andaman Islands, suffering massive blood loss believed to be caused by jungle leeches.  Later on, a timid orchid hobbyist back in England eagerly purchases plants in a London market to add to his collection.  He brings home several familiar orchids like phalaenopsis, some vandas and a dendrobium—and also one that is unidentifiable.  He has a hothouse near his home in which he creates the ideal conditions for these tropical plants.

Winter-Wedderburn is the orchid hobbyist, described as “a shy, lonely, rather ineffectual man”, who shows off his new specimens to his housekeeper.  She is suspicious of the unidentified purchase.  Wells’ lays on the foreshadowing pretty thickly here.  The housekeeper remarks that it has an ugly shape, "I don't like those things that stick out," and "It looks…like a spider shamming dead."  Not only that, but it happens to be one of the items that Batten, the dead orchid collector, found on his last expedition.

Winter-Wedderburn laments that his life is uneventful—he is after all unmarried and does not work. His principle ambition is to discover of a new species of orchid and perhaps have it named after him.  Winter-Wedderburnsonia or some such.  "Nothing ever does happen to me," he says, and yet horrors of all kinds seem to swirl around people like this, leaving working stiffs alone for the most part.

He compares himself to his hero, the dead explorer: Batten was married twice, divorced once, survived malaria, broke his leg, killed a Malay, was shot with a poison dart, and finally was exsanguinated by large tropical leeches.  One day, Winter-Wedderburn has a premonition that something eventful will happen in his quiet life.

Meanwhile, in the hothouse, his other purchases perish—not uncommon when trying to raise orchids—but the unidentified specimen thrives.  The housekeeper is increasingly disturbed by the plant’s appearance.  Finally, Winter-Wedderburn returns to the hothouse to find his prize plant in bloom. 

The flowers are gorgeous, but the fragrance is overpowering and he blacks out, falling on the floor beneath the orchid.  His housekeeper finds him some time later, half dead from loss of blood, covered with the aerial roots of the hematophagous orchid.  She breaks all the windows in the hothouse, sharply dropping the temperature, and rescues him from the clutches of the plant.  She also destroys his entire collection of orchids in the process.

I was also once an avid collector of orchids, and this story by H.G. Wells was familiar to many of the members of our local orchid society.  (The destruction of the green house at the end was the most terrifying part of the story for them.)  Wells has taken some features of the life cycle of a typical orchid and exaggerated them for entertainment.   Orchids are fascinating plants, but are a much greater hazard to your wallet than your circulatory system.  The Flowering of the Strange Orchid was probably intended more as satire than horror, but illustrates one approach to making plant life a source of fear in weird fiction.

Fall is just a week away—already!  Here in Michigan, the temperature dropped to 37° Fahrenheit last night.  Our flowers and vegetables are finishing the season, and trees are just beginning to turn color.  All that remains outside is the annual clean up of the yard.  Seed and garden catalogs will soon be arriving for next year’s sales.  But I may try something new this spring—a meteorite just landed not far from here…

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