On “The Tree” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

When you decide to write around the story you actually want to tell.

“The Tree” (full text) is thought to have been written in 1920 and was first published in the October 1921 issue of The Tryout. The story marks something of a departure from Lovecraft’s normal creative stomping-grounds in so far as it is neither inspired by a dream nor overtly horrific in its style or subject matter. Indeed, the Lovecraft who wrote “The Tree” seems to have been more restrained and subtle than the Lovecraft who wrote such near-contemporary stories as “The Doom that came to Sarnath”, “The Statement of Randolph Carter”, or “The Terrible Old Man”. In fact, this story is so restrained that it is told almost entirely by implication.

The story is set in ancient Greece where two sculptors are acquiring a reputation for both skill and brotherly devotion to each other. Their reputation having reached all the way to Syracuse, the two men are invited to compete for the honour of producing a huge sculpture of Tyche.  At first, the sculptors throw themselves into their work but then one of the sculptors begins to display signs of first depression and then sickness. While this growing sickness compels the sculptor to withdraw serenely from the world, his friend shows signs of a nervous anxiety compelling him to nurse his friend while also working ever-harden on his own sculpture. When the illness eventually reveals itself as fatal, the nervous sculptor promises to carve his friend a mighty marble tomb only for his ailing friend to request a simple burial surrounded by branches from an olive tree. As the surviving sculptor continues to work on the statue, the olive branches grow into a vast grove of trees including a huge branch that hangs ominously over the surviving sculptor’s work-shop. The night the statue is finished, the sculptor sends for the agents of the Tyrant only for a terrible storm to down the sinister branch, killing the sculptor, crushing the statue, and completely destroying his workshop. Having aspired to artistic immortality through murder and collaboration with tyrants, the second sculptor is left with no work and no grave marking his place of final rest. Meanwhile, the olive grove continues to stand centuries later:

“But the olive grove still stands, as does the tree growing out of the tomb of Kalos, and the old bee-keeper told me that sometimes the boughs whisper to one another in the night-wind, saying over and over again, “Οἶδα! Οἶδα!—I know! I know!””

Though not exactly brilliant, “The Tree” is an interesting piece in that it shows Lovecraft trying out new styles, settings, and modes of expression. Indeed, aside from the historical setting and the somewhat more restrained writing-style, “The Tree” is one of the few Lovecraft stories where the story’s entire payload is situated in the subtext.

To my mind, “the Tree” is first and foremost a story about betrayal. The story tells of two sculptors who are, we are constantly reminded, incredibly close. They may work on separate projects but they help each other so frequently that the work they produce shows signs of their respective skills and interests. However, this sense of emotional and creative harmony is disrupted when the Tyrant of Syracuse decides to make them compete for a commission (the assumption being that making the two compete for a single job will result in even better art than the stuff produced under the aegis of creative cooperation).

The text of the story tells about how one of the two sculptors struggles with this element of competition and so becomes increasingly withdrawn prior to getting sick. Distraught, his friend makes a great show of nursing his friend while also pouring all of his energies into his pursuit of the commission.

This – in the parlance of our times – raised a number of red flags as how can one tirelessly nurse one’s friend and tirelessly hustle for patronage? Surely there must come a point where the sculptor is forced to choose between sitting with his friend and spending time in the studio but the story doesn’t really acknowledge this raising the possibility that what we are getting in the body of the text is not the unvarnished truth but rather a version of events that has been edited for posterity.

When the first sculptor dies, he refuses a marble tomb and requests instead to be buried surrounded by olive branches that soon grow into a massive tree with one sinister branch overhanging the second sculptor’s workshop. Said branch then falls on the workshop, kills the sculptor and destroys his life’s work ensuring that he will soon be forgotten. Meanwhile, the olive tree survives and is occasionally known to whisper “I know!”

The sub-text of the story is about the life of a couple that is disrupted by a demand that they enter into competition. Faced with the prospect of wealth, fame, and artistic immortality, one of the sculptors murders his friend (presumably with poison) while making a great show of nursing him through his ailing months. Fully aware of what has happened, the poisoned sculptor accepts his imminent death and plans revenge from beyond the grave by using his artistic connection to the world of fauns to grow a supernaturally-large olive tree that not only kills his former friend at the moment of his triumph, it also destroys his workshop so thoroughly that all trace of the sculptor’s work is erased from existence. Though denied immortality through art, the betrayed sculptor enjoys immortality through dark magic, the remnants of which are still evident centuries later in the way that the wind whistles through the branches proclaiming “I know!”

“The Tree” is one of those stories which, though not all that interesting in its own right, serves to showcase Lovecraft’s artistic development. While some commentators have highlighted the fact that this is one of Lovecraft’s first ‘historical’ pieces and other commentators have suggested that this story might have been inspired by the work of Arthur Machen, I think “The Tree” is notable in that it is an attempt at melodrama that somehow managed to have all of the drama happen off-stage.

Like most disciplines, writing is not so much a single skill as a constellation of skills that cluster according to authorial talent and interest. What I mean by this is that different kinds of stories do different kinds of things and the stuff authors tend to be good at is often the stuff that most interests them. This is particularly evident when you look at the way that genre publishing’s rapprochement with fan-fiction has resulted in a cohort of authors who are great at characters and relationships but a lot less on the ball when it comes to themes and big ideas. Wind back the clock a few decades and you could find the opposite side of the coin, namely hard science-fiction writers who were great at ideas and themes but completely incompetent when it came to producing recognisably human characters.

The thing about these skill-constellations is that some skill-clusters are a lot closer together than others meaning that if you get good at designing characters and plotting out relationships, you’ll probably find it easier to master dialogue than you will theme. This is not a reflection of ‘talent’ or cognitive capacity but rather interest + time. Simply stated, if you’re the kind of writer who really enjoys writing dialogue then you’re more likely to wind up having to spend time thinking about character than you are themes and symbolism. Obviously, writers can develop multiple skill-clusters at the same time and truly great authors are able to loads of things really well but if you’re the kind of author who is more interested in vibes and turning your various weird fears into concrete fictional creations than characters, you’re going to struggle to write a compelling story about two gay sculptors and I think that’s what happened with “The Tree”.

The problem with “The Tree” is that it is melodrama. The story revolves around two sculptors who are lovers as well as collaborators. When the Tyrant of Syracuse tries to make them compete with each other, one sculptor decides to murder the other who then exacts a terrible vengeance from beyond the grave.  Had this story been written as a melodrama, you would have had scenes stressing the creative and sexual harmony that binds the sculptors together juxtaposed with scenes stressing the petty jealousies and issues that drive them apart. Having then introduced the Tyrant’s decision to try and force the two sculptors to compete, you’d have scenes showing the tensions rising while the sense of harmony collapses; eventually reaching the point where one sculptor decides to poison the other. This would then be followed with some very Shakespearian teeth-gnashing in which the murderer makes a great show of false devotion to his best friend while also working round the clock to produce the perfect statue. The manic, frantic, love and murderous jealousy of one sculptor would then be juxtaposed with the serene acceptance and murderous plotting of his one-time lover. Had this story been written as the melodrama it is, it would have been full of sweaty sex, passionate speeches, and shots of a sculptor’s hands stroking marbled abs that are modelled on his lover’s body.

The problem with “The Tree” is that Lovecraft would rather have set himself on fire than write a story about gay dudes fucking and even if he did want to write a melodramatic tale of brotherly-devotion, betrayal, and revenge, he would have really struggled as none of the previous Lovecraft stories I have written about have shown the slightest interest in detailed characterisation. Sure… all of Lovecraft’s stories have characters in them but they serve primarily as either viewpoints on uncanny situations or weird stand-ins for Lovecraft himself. The dude did not do ‘rich characterisation’ and even if he did, he did not do messy artistic murderqueers.

Unable and/or unwilling to engage with the complexities of human psychology, Lovecraft decided to write about the abstract themes surrounding a melodramatic relationship. So, rather than showing us the betrayal of a lover, Lovecraft writes about the idea of betrayal. Rather than building a pair of dolls that looked like Greek sculptors and smashing them together, Lovecraft left all of the real motivations and emotions out of the story in order to concentrate on the abstract forces that surrounded them; the corruptive allure of fame, the destructive power of competition, and the idea of someone serenely accepting their imminent demise because they have a brutal revenge all plotted out. Robert Heinlein popularised the maxim that authors should ‘show not tell’ but, unable to show, Lovecraft also struggled to tell and as a result wound up writing a story where little is told and much is implied.

There’s no denying that “The Tree” touches on a number of interesting themes and you can imagine this story making an absolutely sensationally horny horror film even by modern standards but when it came time to actually sit down and turn those themes and ideas into a story, Lovecraft was simply not up to the task.

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