Originality in a ghost story can be as difficult to find sometimes, as—well, a ghost. Paul Ernst makes an attempt at this in The Tree of Life (1930). This short story appeared in Weird Tales, sharing the September issue with Clark Ashton Smith’s The Phantoms of the Fire, Robert E. Howard’s poem, Black Chant Imperial, and two poems from H.P. Lovecraft’s Fungi From Yuggoth: The Courtyard (“…and not a corpse had either hands or head!”) and Star-Winds (“Yet for each dream these winds to us convey/A dozen more of ours they sweep away!”)
The Tree of Life begins with an appropriately creepy setting, but unfortunately soon becomes ludicrous and unbelievable. Somewhere in northern Michigan, in the dead of winter, an elderly farm wife passes away. The next door neighbors come to assist, and help the bereft husband get to town to arrange for an undertaker. Will, the narrator of the story, 16 years old at the time, volunteers to stay behind with the deceased while his father and the bereaved old man ride off in a horse drawn wagon. The husband wants someone to stay with his wife because “She couldn’t never bide being alone.” Eager to prove that he is man enough to handle such a grim task, Will remains with the corpse.
So far, so good.
The boy tries to relax by the fire, and kicks off his boots. There is some back story offered about the earlier death of the woman’s severely disabled daughter. The two were very close, and Will speculates that the daughter’s spirit is hovering nearby, anxious to be reunited with her mother. There is next a visitation, not by a ghost, but by a field rat that makes its way into the cabin seeking warmth. The boy brains it with one of his boots. Seconds later another rat enters the room, discovers its freshly killed colleague, and darts back outside, returning just a moment later. In its teeth it is carrying a bright green leaf that looks as though it came from an oak tree. The rat knows what it is doing.
At this point the story has lost most of its credibility and coherence. Preposterously, the second rat lays the magical oak leaf on its fallen comrade, who is then miraculously revived. We learn of a local myth, handed down by the Indians, about a Tree of Life. It contains in its leaves the power to raise the dead. As a native of Michigan, your humble blogger believes that a tree with such a striking ability and which stayed green even in the middle of February would be relatively easy to find. Because the rat returned so quickly with a leaf from this magical tree—“Almost at once it was back again.”—the tree must be growing right in the backyard!
There is mention of a mystical tree in Ojibwa tradition, a part of their creation myth. The tree’s roots and branches encompass the four cardinal directions, and its presence created the setting under which the three principle tribes of Michigan and Wisconsin were able to achieve a lasting peace. More prosaically, Arborvitae, (“Tree of Life” in Latin, botanically: Thuja occidentalis) is a native Michigan tree, unrelated to oaks. It indeed stays green, more or less, year round.
But wait, wasn’t there a dead body in the room with Will?
The nervous behavior of the rat as it tries to approach and revive its fellow rodent suggests that it can see something hovering over the dead body, something Will cannot see. The rat keeps looking furtively in that direction. But the boy quickly understands the utility of having a leaf from the Tree of Life. He forgets about the rats, which disappear from the story at this point. He picks up the leaf that the rodents have left behind. Does it work on dead humans as well as it works on dead rats?
Ernst’s The Tree of Life appears to be the beginning of one story nailed on to the end of another. Either conception—left alone with the recently deceased or encountering the resurrecting effects of a mysterious plant—could have been the core of an effective story. Jostled together, they lack focus and impact.