Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Couple of Forbidden Trees

I have nearly finished reading The Horror in the Museum, a collection of 24 stories that represent the collaborative and revision work H.P. Lovecraft completed with various aspiring writers over a period of nearly two decades.  Because these stories span the length of Lovecraft’s career, they are critical to a broader understanding of his importance as a writer.  Though of uneven quality,  all are fascinating to read. 

Even the more pathetic efforts show how Lovecraft’s style and visionary ideas began to influence up-and-coming writers in the early part of the twentieth century.  Ripples of this influence can be seen in numerous contemporary anthologies of “Cthulhu Mythos” inspired fiction and film.  There seems to be no immediate end to enthusiasm for Lovecraftian motifs in horror fiction.

The Lovecraft-Rimel collaboration The Tree on the Hill was written in 1934 but not published until 1940.  Duane W. Rimel was a prolific author of essays, poetry and some 26 stories, most published in the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s.  He was still actively publishing his work as late as the 1980s.   

Rimel collaborated with Lovecraft on three short stories—The Tree on the Hill, The Sorcery of Aphlar, and The Disinterment, all produced around 1934and one poem, Dreams of Yith (1934).  A fourth story, The Spell of the Blue Stone, referred to in correspondence, has not been found.  Rimel was just 19 years old when he first sought Lovecraft’s guidance.  He died in 1996.

S.T. Joshi reports that Lovecraft lent Rimel several books from his library in an effort to help him become familiar with classic examples of weird fiction.  He also advised him not to emulate pulp fiction as he honed his skills as an author.  Interestingly, Rimel later went on to publish a significant amount of erotica and lesbian pulp fiction. 

Joshi believes that the final section of The Tree on the Hill is primarily Lovecraft’s contribution, especially the passage from “The Chronicle of Nath”.  He describes Rimel’s story as “confused”.  However, in a letter to Rimel, Lovecraft praised the young man’s work “…despite a certain cumbrousness & tendency toward anticlimax…”  It may be that the story had promise.  The notion of a horror that periodically returns and is only visible with special technology is intriguing, and might have been further developed in a longer work.    

The Tree on the Hill, one of Rimel’s earliest stories, seems to be a rewrite of Ralph A. Cram’s The Dead Valley (1895), which is admittedly a much better story.  Lovecraft was apparently impressed with Cram’s work, making a brief, one sentence reference to the story in his classic essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927):

In The Dead Valley the eminent architect and mediaevalist Ralph Adams Cram achieves a memorably potent degree of vague regional horror through subtleties of atmosphere and description.

Cram was well regarded in the early twentieth century for his design of numerous collegiate and ecclesiastical buildings.  However, in 1895, early in his architectural career, he published a slim volume of short fiction called Black Spirits and White: A Book of Ghost Stories. The book contained just six stories, of which The Dead Valley was the last and probably best known.  It frequently appears in anthologies of classic weird fiction from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.  An interesting discussion of Cram’s story can be found at

There are numerous similarities between The Tree on the Hill and The Dead Valley.  Both are relatively short, and can easily be read side by side to illuminate and compare how each author developed the same basic idea.  Both stories feature an evil tree that may be more animal than vegetable in nature.  Despite a few minor differences, this tree seems to be essentially the same organism in both stories.   

As the titles suggest, one of the trees is located on top of a hill while the other is in the center of a valley, but both locations are desolate and oddly devoid of any other life form.  Though not explicitly stated, there is the implication that something otherworldly occurred where the trees now stand.  Perhaps a meteorite?  The settings recall the “blasted heath” in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space (1927):

There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about.

Both stories involve an abrupt change of scenery that disorients the narrator.  In the Lovecraft-Rimel story this is mediated by a dream or hallucination, likely caused by the tree.  There is the suggestion that the narrator has been transported to a different planet or dimension—a mysterious temple also appears in the landscape at one point.

In Cram’s story two boys happen upon the strange valley and its tree while hiking back to town near dusk.  Proximity to the predatory tree alters their consciousness to that of a nightmare, the type in which desperate escape is hampered by the terrifying gravitational force of the marauding horror.  While the two boys in The Dead Valley flee in terror, the narrator in The Tree on the Hill conquers his fear long enough to snap several photos of the tree.  In both stories the narrator eventually faints from terror.  

The Tree on the Hill contains numerous Lovecraftian touches.  There is the typical bromance between two male scholars who live together, one who is timid and prone to fainting, and the other who is more reckless and commanding.  The relationship between the narrator and his roommate Constantine Theunis is reminiscent of that between Randolph Carter and Harley Warren in The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920).  There is an ancient text of esoteric knowledge—here called “The Chronicle of Nath”—which Theunis happens to have on his shelf.  It provides helpful information about the origin of the narrator’s frightening vision beneath the tree. 

There is also reference to “the Year of the Black Goat”, an eons-long cycle in which the tree-creature periodically appears on earth.  Is this a manifestation connected with Shub-Niggarath, also known as “The Goat with a Thousand Young”?  This member of the Great Old Ones is mentioned in Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, which had been published just few years before the Rimel story.  Finally, there is a diminutive “shining trapezohedron”, in the form of an amber colored prism, that allows a clearer, but also more terrifying view of the photographic evidence.  Since mention of “the old Gem” precedes that of the shining trapezohedron in Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936), it is tempting to think that The Tree on the Hill contains the germ of this idea, or at least another application of it.

Archetypically speaking, the image of the tree has numerous religious and mythological connotations, not the least of which is its unification of the underworld with the earth and the sky.  In many ancient cultures, the tree is the axis mundi, around which the universe is organized, a source of enlightenment and wisdom as well as spiritual nourishment and sacrifice.  There is of course the Biblical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and its as yet unsampled companion, the Tree of Life.  Like humans, trees are spread between two or more worlds, between the material and the spiritual, earth and sky, and between the temporal and the timeless.  Thus the tree is an especially potent symbol in horror fiction.


See also

2. An Island in a River (Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows)
3. Cain and Abel: the Later Years (Walter de la Mare’s The Tree)
“There will be Guests at the Hall” (M.R. James’ The Ash-Tree)
Under the Olive Tree (H.P. Lovecraft’s The Tree)
Forbidden Tree and Forbidden Fruit in Zothique (Clark Ashton Smith’s Xeethra)
2. Mad Scientist, Mad Gardener (R.G. Macready’s The Plant Thing)

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