Botanical Books: ‘Evil Roots’

Thanks to SLBI member, Craig Swick, for this book review.

Daisy Butcher, Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic (British Library 2019).

After a long day in the garden, what better way is there to relax than read stories about killer plants?  In this collection of fourteen tales there is more than enough evil to make you wonder if plants are really our friends.

These stories were originally published between 1844 and 1935 and are like many other gothic stories of the time.  There are dark mysterious settings and a sense of evil lurking in the background.  Frequently there is an evil scientist or explorer of strange lands who creates or brings back an evil being.  The biggest evil, of course, is trying to give plants human features.

The tales are from a time of great ambivalence about science and scientific discoveries.   Issues of the day include the explorers bringing back carnivorous and other exotic plants for Victorian collectors and Charles Darwin’s treatises about carnivorous plants. Many of the stories in this collection are about scientists who through years of manipulation developed plants that either deliberately or accidentally killed people.  They reflect a fear of the unknown and a fear of plants that might eat people.  Other stories show a fear of malevolent vines that strangle people.  (People who have watched ivy take over their house can surely relate to this.)

Several of the stories in the collection are by authors who later became famous including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Ambrose Bierce and Edith Nesbit.  But trust me, these are not the stories that made them great writers but they do show plot or style themes that appear in their later works.

The authors are also experimenting with literary forms that they were wise to abandon in their later stories.  One I especially liked is Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The American’s Tale.”  Doyle appears to be trying to create a “Gothic Western” that takes place in Nevada and Arizona.  He makes an attempt to use some American Western dialogue and has the main story take place in a frontier saloon.  It is not a great story but it shows his ability to work with odd characters and bring a confusing plot to a logical conclusion.  The story has not only a human villain but a plant villain in the form of a seven-foot-tall Venus Flytrap.

One other interesting experimentation is Abraham Merritt’s “The Woman of the Wood.”    The story involves a dispute between a forest and a family of lumberjacks that has been going on for generations.  The protagonist is enlisted in this battle when forest spirits appear to him in a semi-human form and ask for help.  The story is an early eco-fantasy that appears in the works of many later writers.

The editor wrote an introduction in which she bemoans the fact that killer plant stories have not received as much attention as a gothic form as the vampire, mummy, or werewolf stories.  Maybe she will write a sequel.

I found the book enjoyable to read but it makes we wonder how much we can really trust the plants around us.

Craig Swick, July 2022

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