Saturday, October 10, 2015

Invasive Species

Horticultural horror was the subject of a series of posts that appeared here back in late summer of 2013.  It is a recurring theme in horror and science fiction entertainment.  For most of us, vegetation is not inherently terrifying, because plants appear to lack an intelligence or awareness, and are incapable of significant or threatening movement.  Plants are unable to see us or track our movements like a bona fide predator, so it is relatively easy to outrun a noxious weed, shrub or tree. 

To make vegetation frightful, it must be given human or animal traits like intellect, mobility and aggression.  Alternatively, some characteristic of green organisms must be amplified to inspire fear—their toxicity, the vigorousness of their growth, the lethalness of their spines, or the degree to which they can consume other organisms, as insectivorous plants do.  Prehensile limbs, a face with baleful eyes, a mouth to emphasize swallowing, and a fragrance or bloom that can lure the unwary are all fictional traits that can weaponize the vegetable world and make plants more like humans in capability and intent—humans being far and away the scariest species on the planet.

There have been many examples of horror and science fiction entertainment that project human or animal traits onto the green world, with usually dire consequences.  David H. Keller’s The Ivy War is one of these.  The story first appeared in the May 1930 issue of Amazing Stories, which also contained the beginning of a three part serial by Edmond Hamilton, The Universe Wreckers, and essays by John W. Campbell, Jr. and P. Schuyler Miller, among other items.  What is interesting about Keller’s work is that it already contains many of the clichés that would appear in the monster movies of the 1950s, almost two decades later.

The Ivy War opens with a very familiar stock character, the “unreliable observer” whom no one will believe.  In this case, it is the town drunk, who stumbles into the mayor’s office, ranting about some horror that has consumed his dog in the nearby “old swamphole”.  The “genial mayor”—we don’t seem to have many of these nowadays—dismisses him good naturedly and goes off to his gentlemen’s club to socialize with the local well-to-do.  Fool! 

This old swamphole itself is a frequently appearing region of psycho-geography, at least in American horror and science fiction.  It is a bit of abandoned, undisciplined land, overgrown, mysterious, devoid of commerce, a dark frontier.  The town of “Yeastford”, somewhere in Pennsylvania, has grown up around it, but left the useless parcel untouched.   

Compare this to the area west of Arkham, where “the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut” in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space (1927).  Or the “lonely and curious country” a traveler encounters if he takes the wrong turn just after Dean’s Corners in The Dunwich Horror (1929).  There are dozens of other similar locations in horror and science fiction.  Something is hiding out there, just beyond the well-ordered streets and bustle of traffic.

Keller uses the gentlemen’s club, or more broadly the gentlemen’s gathering—another staple of early twentieth century horror and science fiction—to introduce the theoretical aspects of the story.  Similar speculative gatherings occur in a number of Robert E. Howard’s horror stories—see for example The Children of the Night (1931).  Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model (1927) also opens with a conversation in a similar setting, among members of the same social class.  It seems that wealthy, well-educated white men were needed as a device to establish the credibility of these stories.  It may be that the source of this convention is H.G. Wells.  For example, the opening to The Time Machine (1895) seems to be a plausible model for these gentlemanly debates.

At the mayor’s club the men are speculating about two intriguing but seemingly unrelated questions:  Why did so many famous ancient cities, once thriving centers of culture and trade, suddenly and mysteriously decline?  And: Is it possible that a form of plant life could develop mobility and an intelligent will, and so become the mortal enemy of mankind?  Recent evidence from England—where ancient castles are gradually being disassembled and pulled down by a luxurious growth of strange ivy—suggests that this is now a real and present danger.  An unusual species of ivy, typically associated with holes and depressions in the landscape on various continents, may be the culprit.

Keller does not explain the origin of the malevolent ivy, other than to speculate that it is a survival from the prehistoric past.

Thousands of centuries ago life on this world was bizarre, weird, and utterly terrible.  Everything grew big…Then everything changed, and the big things died and gave place to little things and at present man, the king of Earth, is a little soft thing under six feet tall.  But the dreamers have told us their suspicion that in the out-places of earth, under the ocean, or in unexplored caverns, the giants of antiquity lie, silently sleeping, waiting for the time to come when they can once again rule as lords of the Earth. [Emphasis mine.]

The latter half of this passage will surely remind Lovecraft enthusiasts of something else “that is not dead which can eternal lie…” But the mention of holes and old craters as the epicenters of the weird ivy infestation suggests an extraterrestrial source—not an uncommon explanation in horticultural horror.  Stephen King’s 1976 story The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, which became an episode in the 1982 horror anthology film Creepshow, contains this understanding.  (Not sure if this is true, but somewhere I read that the first specimens of Dionaea muscipula, the common and popular Venus Flytrap, were found near a meteorite.  Certainly I want this to be a true fact—plant origins often seem to be rather tedious otherwise.)

Sure enough, when the mayor and his well-heeled friends return to Yeastford, they discover what the town drunk knew all along: an enormous, fast growing, vampiric species of weird ivy is emerging from the bottom of “the old swamphole” and is threatening to devour the entire town.  A series of mishaps follow.  Initial efforts to combat the plant make matters much worse because the townspeopleat best, weekend gardenersare ignorant of the plant’s growth habit. 

Soon the vegetable monstrosity is extending its reach down the Delaware River, threatening the city of Philadelphia.  The climactic attack on Philadelphia will remind readers of numerous science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s, where a featured city is besieged by gigantic species of insects, reptiles or other organisms.  However, Keller’s monster is not a metaphor for anxieties in the atomic age.  If it stands for anything at all, it may represent the relentless spread of poverty in the wake of the economic collapse of the Great Depression.  Victims are entangled by the malevolent vine—debt? unemployment?and have the life sucked out of them.  In The Ivy War Keller depicts bankers and real estate interests as initially opposing efforts to combat the spread of the predaceous ivy.  

It will come as no surprise that a brilliant scientist, combining his efforts with a well-organized, disciplined military and an earnest, competent government is able to defeat the horrible plant that is threatening the entire world. 

When is the last time we experienced this kind of happy ending?


Readers interested in the subgenre of horticultural horror may want to look at these earlier posts:
2. Mad Scientist, Mad Gardener                                              
3. Almost But Not Quite Eden                                    
4. Hothouse Hazard                                                     


  1. "Yeastford" is an odd name for a town -- and evokes another part of life on earth, the kingdom of bacteria.

    Not having read the story, I'm not sure of what, if any significance, it has other than yeasts are a lifeform partially domesticated and supporting civilization whereas the ivy is literally tearing down the symbols of civilization, buildings.

    1. Yeast also shows up in an earlier story by Keller, "The Yeast Men" (1928). Given the fear of another major war brewing in Europe at the time it was written, it seems to be both a satire of militarism and a plea for nonlethal weaponry.

      I haven't read enough Keller to know if yeast had some personal significance for him. Robert E. Howard fixated on snakes, H.P. Lovecraft had a dislike of marine creatures, and William Hope Hodgson apparently despised swine. Not sure about Keller's feelings about yeast.

      Thanks for visiting.


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