Lives of the monster plants: the revenge of the vegetable in the age of animal studies.
[What indeed is man according to his form but a tree turned upside-down?]"
--Pope Innocent III, De miseria condicionis humane, 1195
"The vegetable world [...] has its revenges."
--Phil Robinson, "The Man-Eating Tree," 1881 (1)
A SPECTER IS HAUNTING ANIMAL STUDIES: THE SPECTER OF CELLULOSE. BUT in fact the monster plant is terrorizing quite a bit more than this contemporary critical formation, as the various genres of speculative fiction have all but covered the globe with perilous foliage. We can find man-eating plants hidden away in the Amazon basin, the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, Madagascar, and the dark African interior, yet also in the wilds of Arizona, Carolina swamps, and even the occasional "poorly settled part of England" or skid-row flower shop, as in the many versions of The Little Shop of Horrors. (2) Nor is the natural habitat of the monster plant exclusive to planet Earth, as they thrive in both the secondary worlds of high fantasy and the alien biospheres of far-future science fiction, everywhere from Oz to Middle-earth and Xanth to Barsoom. B-movies, too, have embraced this novel concept for a monster-of-the-week, (3) and the animate plant has also squared off against some of the most famous heroes of serial media franchises, including Doc Savage, Dr. Who, Will Robinson, and Mario. In addressing the question of whence comes this still-ubiquitous vegetable monstrosity and what it means, I hope to set the lives of the monster plants--and through them, the lives of real plants--in dialogue with that strain of posthumanist thought known as critical animal studies, human-animal studies, or simply animal studies. Work done in animal studies over the past several years has done much to advance our thinking about the place of animals not only in literature but also in their real embodied existence alongside our own. (4) Even so, the lack of attention paid to plants in animal studies reveals some of the blind spots of this critical formation, just as surely as animal studies has effectively challenged the "speciesism" inherent in other critical projects. While this paper does not advocate for the development of an independent "plant studies," it will invite further thinking about the implications of taking the word "species" in animal studies a little more literally, as the word so often seems to mean "mammal species" or "animal species": the monster plant may point to a deep unease about the boundary between taxonomic kingdoms that even recent work done in animal studies can have some difficulty navigating. This essay will examine the origins of the modern monstrous plant in the early pulp era and the decades preceding it when the diffusion of Darwinian thought through speculative fiction and its precursors first began, both in order to understand the place of the monster plant in fiction and to propose a place for it in contemporary theoretical discourse.
"How to make a human," as Karl Steel has demonstrated in his 2011 book of the same title, has been, historically, to define humanity through and against the concept of the animal, often with negative consequences for real animals. In a recent article, however, Karen Houle has pointed out that plants, by contrast, have not even been granted this dubious place of honor in the definition of the human, resulting in their complete backgrounding in the discourse of humanity and human discourse generally (91-92). As a philosopher deeply engaged with animal studies herself, Houle stresses throughout that, in theory, the posthumanist foundation of animal studies does not exclude plants from equal consideration, but, in practice, work done in this area typically backgrounds them as well. (5) For example, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, influenced by the speculative turn in critical theory, has recently turned from earlier studies of monsters and animals to undertake a fascinating project examining the "life" of stone; even he, in reaching for what seems "as inhuman a substance as can be found," proceeds directly from animal to mineral, skipping over the vegetable ("Stories of Stone" 58). It is the botanist Matthew Hall who has likely devoted the most attention to the ethical problem of the plant: his 2011 book bears the provocative title Plants as Persons, and its central arguments fall somewhere between the "animal liberation" philosophy associated with writers like Peter Singer and the critical animal theory that so often attacks that movement for its fundamental anthropocentrism and "ethical provincialism," to borrow Steel's perhaps overly dismissive phrase (3). (6) Hall analyzes the marginalization of plants in Western metaphysics and science through various strategies of "radical separation, zoocentrism ..., exclusion, and hierarchical value ordering" (4), also tracing the fundamentally instrumental role of plants in historical human-plant relationships. In other words, what plants can do for us has often been the limit of our ontological consideration of them. For our purposes, I would emphasize the point that it is zoocentrism and not simply anthropocentrism, the bugbear of animal studies, that "helps to maintain human notions of superiority over the plant kingdom in order that plants may be dominated" (Hall 6).
The monster plant challenges nothing if not zoocentrism: in fact, the mere existence of carnivorous plants challenges the conception of plants as objects intended for human and animal use, since these plants obviously ensnare and consume animals for their own benefit. But Hall's wide-ranging study of cultural attitudes towards plants fails to remark one of the more significant times that we do not ignore such plants, namely, when we turn them into monsters. Like their animal counterparts, vegetable monsters in fiction represent a disruption that also works to contain itself, reflecting unease with a hierarchy that places plants at its bottom, even as these same narratives reinforce hierarchy by positioning the monster as evil, aberrant, an error to be corrected. In contrast to zoomorphic monsters, however, the monster plant can signify the irreducibly other in a way that even animals cannot; nevertheless, as we will see, one strategy of these narratives operates to lessen our fear of the monster plant precisely by turning them back into animals, more manageable deviancies that no longer threaten a hierarchy that places humans above animals and animals above plants. Such plants take many forms in fiction, and, even without being carnivorous, plants can figure as monsters of uncontrolled growth, of monstrous reproduction. But my central argument is that, after Darwin, the man-eating plant comes to embody the uncomfortable truth that is universal common descent, and provokes not the scandal of contemplating that one's grandfather was a monkey, but the far greater scandal of contemplating that one's great-grandfather was more like some kind of shrub. Plant monsters thus challenge established hierarchies in an even more radical way than the more usual animalistic monsters, especially in light of the Darwinian undertones--or overtones--of many of these narratives. Forcing us to contemplate and confront the vegetal in the human, (7) the monster plant inspires fear as well as offering ways forward for the posthumanist project: the overturning of hierarchies that the monster plant can effect strikes at the root of humanity's instrumentalist domination of plants, because being forced to recognize kinship with plants will inevitably alter how we think about our use of them.
Like all monsters, the monster plant comes in many guises and reappears in many places. Thus, we should not be tempted to reduce the versatile signifier that is the monster plant to a monolithic universal "meaning," and I take Cohen's warning seriously, that, for instance, "discourse extracting a transcultural, transtemporal phenomenon labeled 'the vampire' is of rather limited utility; even if vampiric figures are found almost worldwide, each reappearance and its analysis is still bound in a double act of construction and reconstitution" ("Monster Culture" 5-6). For the very reasons of cultural and historical specificity that Cohen invokes, not every monstrous plant in speculative fiction can be exhaustively understood within the paradigm of evolutionary anxiety that I outline in this paper, but I would argue that, since the earliest modern appearances of the anthropophagic plant monster in the fiction of the late 19th century, the dominant fear that these monsters have encoded has been a distinctly Darwinian one. Of course, we should keep some prominent counterexamples in mind: in McCarthyite America, the vegetative nature of the "pod people" in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a compelling metaphor for dull conformity, and, similarly, Tolkien's Ents, ambulatory trees in rebellion against the wizard Saruman's rampant deforestation, reflect little unease about evolution but a great deal of anxiety about modernity and modern industrial society.
But I choose these two counterexamples from the 1950s to demonstrate the continuity of evolutionary fears projected onto plants even in milieus that employ the monstrosity of the vegetable to such different ends: John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) dates to this same decade and demonstrates the persistence of this form of the monster plant into the second half of the 20th century. The triffids themselves, like all the best monsters, remain multivalent in their signifying capacity, (8) but the novel shares many of the characteristics common to the earlier body of narratives I will examine in the remainder of this essay. If David Ketterer is correct about the novel's genesis in Wyndham's reading of certain pulp stories about monstrous plants, it may have inherited some of these characteristics directly, and, most significantly for my argument here, Ketterer notes that the novel echoes a Darwinian anxiety that he identifies in Roger Wulfres's 1930 story "The Air-Plant Men" (12). (9) Of course, we can read The Day of the Triffids as, in part, a familiar Frankenstein-fable about the instrumentalist perception of plants, as the wide-scale farming of triffids for their nutritious oil commences with no regard for what the plants might want for themselves, given the power to achieve it: this is the hubris of committing agriculture. In some sense, then, the revolt of the triffids is the potential revolt of all produce, the fear that what we eat might not want to be eaten--even, indeed, might want to eat us back. Indeed, a text approximately contemporaneous with Wyndham's novel, Donald Wandrei's 1953 Weird Tales story "Strange Harvest," provides one of the more self-conscious dramatizations of what its author refers to explicitly as "[t]he fantastic rebellion of nature" and "the revolt of nature," featuring crops that refuse to be harvested (340, 350). (10) (The story's mad botanist naturally has a portrait of Darwin hanging on his wall .) But Wyndham's novel goes further than Wandrei's story, also exploiting the fear that plants might be capable of communication, and communication that furthers their own private agendas according to the same evolutionary principles that drive the most complex of animal behaviors. In Wyndham's apocalyptic nightmare, plants exist for themselves, and precisely because they do not exist in a hierarchy with other life-forms above them. To humans confident of their place atop the food chain and a more ontological great chain of being that has long survived the Middle Ages, this is pure terror--or, as thinkers like Houle and Hall might argue, a place to begin reconceptualizing plant ethics.
In short, with whatever ethical consequences, I am arguing that the monstrous plant, at least in the familiar anthropophagous form that has come down to us, often remains a specifically Darwinian monster, and it is no coincidence that we find the great blossoming of fictional fleurs du mal in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Because of Darwin's special place in contemporary discourse, we can forget that, during his own time, his name was associated with plant morphology and physiology almost as much as it was with the theory of evolution by natural selection. In two separate treatises--published in 1875 and 1880, respectively--Darwin produced some of the earliest work on both carnivory and movement in plants, also bringing the implications of these phenomena to the attention of a wide audience for the first time. (11) I should note here that, unlike many of our modern favorites--the dragon, the vampire, the werewolf, the reanimated corpse--the lineage of the monstrous plant before Darwin is not well established. As a practicing medievalist myself, I can of course cite any number of marvelous plants from the Middle Ages, including the goose-bearing barnacle tree, the homuncular mandrake, and the zoophyte known as the barometz or vegetable lamb of Tartary. (12) But the monstrous plant so familiar to us today, the genuine man-eater, only begins to proliferate after the publication of Darwin's 1875 treatise Insectivorous Plants, and often in direct response to it, as we will see. To be sure, certain passages in this text read like speculative fiction themselves, and we should keep in mind that Darwin's work on carnivorous plants did not proceed independently of his ideas on natural selection and universal common descent. For example, Darwin reiterates that the uncannily animal-like characteristics of these carnivorous plants arose in the same way as any other adaptive product of natural selection: "With Drosera [the sundew], the really marvelous fact is, that a plant without any specialized nervous system should be affected by such minute particles; but we have no grounds for assuming that other tissues could not be rendered as exquisitely susceptible to impressions from without if this were beneficial to the organism, as is the nervous system of the higher animals" (173). Seizing upon the imaginative implications of such genuine botanical prodigies, authors like H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and even Louisa May Alcott contributed to a tremendous outpouring of monstrous plant stories, as did the leading writers of what we now call "weird fiction," including Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, William Hope Hodgson, and, a generation or so later, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and other members of their circle. (13)
Fiction, however, was not the only vector for the dispersal of the monster plant, and the popular press of the late 19th century reflected and surely contributed to the rising popularity of these narratives. In the introduction to the second of his monstrous plant anthologies, Chad Arment helpfully notes that "[d]eliberate hoaxing of botanical wonders (or, more often, horrors) doesn't seem to have caught on until the 1870s, when stories of man-eating trees begin to appear" (Botanica Delira 9), and this collection also provides some corroborating evidence for a causal relationship between the scientific work discussed in Insectivorous Plants and the tremendous flowering of monstrous plant stories in the following two decades, including eight different newspaper hoaxes dated between 1885 and 1896. It must be confessed that one foundational account of an anthropophagous plant seems to have preceded the formal publication of Darwin's Insectivorous Plants, appearing in the April 28, 1874 issue of the New York World. Nevertheless, in spite or perhaps because of the proximity of their publication dates, this hoax in fact shows the greatest debt to Darwin's work on both evolution and carnivorous plants, as its (fictional) author compares the contents of the letter he is about to share with Darwin's "studies of drosera and sarracenia [the North American pitcher plant]," and compares himself to Darwin publishing on evolution: "My special and only motive for publishing prematurely [...] is similar to that which influenced Darwin to bring out his book on the origin of species" (Arment, Botanica Delira 47). Because of its early date, frequent reprintings, and obvious influence on several unselfconsciously fictional narratives, the tale in question--originally titled "Crinoida Dajeeana" but later reprinted as "The Man-Eating Tree" or "The Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar"--commands our attention as a foundational document in the formation of the modern teratophyte imaginary. Arment himself reprints a version of the story that acknowledges what follows as a hoax, but we should keep in mind that, even after the August 1888 issue of Current Literature had attributed the story to the invention of New York World staffer Edmund Spencer, the hoax's staying power was of sufficient strength that, in 1924, Chase Osborn could devote the first chapter of his book Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree to the account and its possible veracity. I have also found the hoax replicated and re-perpetrated in a newspaper as late as the September 26, 1920 issue of The Washington Times. (14) As originally printed, the New York World article claimed to reproduce a letter from one Karl Leche to a Dr. Omelius Friedlowsky, telling of the former's discovery of a horrific, tentaculate pitcher plant in the jungles of Madagascar. Not only have I been unable to locate an earlier story of a man-eating plant, but "Crinoida Dajeeana" also introduced several influential motifs, including that of the indigenous tribe that sacrifices women to a giant anthropophagous plant, and that of the grasping "palpi" with which many a later monstrous plant captures its prey. Indeed, in the narrator's poeticized horror at the plant's tentacular assault of its victim--"It was the barbarity of the Laocoon without its beauty" (53)--we may even find an alternative origin for tentacle horror itself. (15) In short, regardless of how many readers it managed to dupe, Spencer's feigned "scoop" of Darwin's work on insectivorous plants succeeded astoundingly well in appealing to the imaginations of readers and writers, and helped to breed this strange new generation of monsters.
Considering the broader selection of newspaper hoaxes alongside the dozens of botanical fictions that appeared around the same time, one will also notice certain repetitive themes and settings accompanying the Darwinian unease. For one, we can observe the pronounced influence of the so-called "orchid fever" that still gripped Europe in the later 19th century, a time when orchid hunting in exotic locations had become a pastime for the more adventurous gentleman of means, and, in fiction, the most common excuse to write a tale of a monster plant. (16) In the typical such account, an adventurer carries his quest for a prize orchid or other valuable object too far, finding himself face-to-flower with a grossly outsized version of a real carnivorous plant species, usually possessed of some combination of extraordinary speed, inescapable tentacles, soporific and/or toxic exudations, parasitic seeds, and a thirst for human blood. In some of these narratives, Darwin's influence is obvious; for example, Phil Robinson's 1881 adventure tale "The Man-Eating Tree" rationalizes its monster with the Darwinian explanation that "every animal or vegetable could eventually revolutionize its nature, the wolf feeding on grass or nesting in trees, and the violet arming herself with thorns or entrapping insects" (Arment, Flora Curiosa 43). For Robinson's characters, the monster plant also forces the abandonment of hierarchal distinctions made among plants, animals, and humans: "[I]n what does the fierce yearning of [a tree's] roots towards the distant well differ from the sad struggle of the camel to the oasis, or of Sennacherib's army to the saving Nile?" (43). "The Man-Eating Tree" is only one of many such stories--in fact, it is not even the only one of that title--and there is admittedly a certain tedium to these tales, full as they are of pith helmets and quinine tablets. A related species of narrative tends to show even more direct Darwinian influence, the story of the mad botanist back home. For example, Lucy H. Hooper's 1889 story "Carnivorine" features a mad scientist "deeply interested in the Darwinian theories" (Arment, Botanica Delira 73), and Hooper tellingly does not specify whether these include his evolutionary theories or his writings on plant physiology, or--the likeliest possibility--both. As a result of his Darwinian obsessions, the botanist spends years trying to "perfect a demonstration of the link between the vegetable and the animal kingdom" (79); succeeds in creating a man-eating plant; and, as we might predict, then summarily falls victim to his own creation. (17) Among the many examples of early monstrous plant narratives to encode this evolutionary anxiety, Hooper's story most clearly originates in an explicit connection made between Darwin's concept of universal common descent and the terror of the animalistic plant.
I am not simply highlighting some passing evolutionary fad, however, as such stories continue to thrive well beyond the turn of the century. Hester Holland's 1925 story "Dorner Cordaianthus," a sort of Jurassic Park-narrative with plants, evokes a specifically Darwinian unease, as the mad paleobotanist believes that "a theory that the missing link between human beings and the rest of the living world would eventually be established through plants" (Cassaba 62). In fact, in America during the late 1920s and early 1930s, we see another surge in the popularity of monstrous plant narratives, precisely around the time that the evolution controversy had come to a head during the national media sensation that was the Scopes Monkey Trial. This was also the dawning of speculative fiction's pulp era, and in their early years publications like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories helped fuel a new monstrous plant craze. (18) In several pulp stories, an encounter with aggressively carnivorous local flora on an alien planet like Mars or Venus proves but one challenge among many for the hero, but in equally many such stories the primary focus remains on the monster plant itself. Moreover, although a high percentage of these monstrous plants either originate in space or in the laboratory, unlike many other made monsters, they are almost invariably explained as a natural product of evolution. For instance, a character in Arthur G. Stangland's 1932 story "The Lake of Life" can lecture his companions on the evolutionary inevitability of the race of intelligent plant-men that they have discovered: "There should be no objection, really, if Nature wants to take a 'flyer' at developing a highly organized and intelligent plant organism. All existence is a maddening riddle anyway" (510). Yet on the same page as this matter-of-fact explanation, the very idea of plant intelligence becomes a source of overwhelming terror, described in prose achieving almost Lovecraftian heights of logorrheic paranoia: "And in the very ether about them both men sensed in subconscious depths the inimical alignment against them of plants and trees--of their cytoplasmic consciousness radiating an alien enmity for all things flesh and blood" (510). This deep resistance to what Darwinian science proclaims as perfectly possible within known parameters accounts for the way in which the naturally-evolved monstrous plant nevertheless receive supernatural epithets, as in this story the nickname "devil-plants of Nature" (513). We also see diabolical designations attached to monstrous plants in works like Frank Aubrey's The Devil-Tree of El Dorado (1897), and the multiple Weird Tales stories titled "The Devil Plant" (by Lyle Wilson Holden, May 1923, and by John Murray Reynolds, September 1928). The monster plant narratives of the pulps no doubt inherited this tension from their turn-of-the-century forebears, a simultaneous recognition that these animal-like monsters must be somehow natural, like the real carnivorous plants so carefully anatomized by Darwin, and that their very existence also threatens to destroy distinctions between the animal and plant kingdoms--as well as the hierarchy that those distinctions support.
Clark Ashton Smith's "The Seed from the Sepulchre" (Weird Tales October 1933) superbly illustrates how the monster plant, to quote Cohen's generalized meditation on monstrosity, represents just such "a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions" ("Monster Culture" 6). In Smith's story, a treasure hunter lost in the jungle discovers an arresting skeleton with a strange plant growing in it: "It must have been a plant of some sort, and apparently it had started to grow in the cranium. Some of its branches had issued from the cloven crown, others through the eye holes, the mouth, and the nose hole, to flare upward. And the roots of the blasphemous thing had gone downwards, trellising themselves on every bone" (Cassaba 18). But what Falmer, the witness to this scene, finds most gruesome is "that abhorrent, inexplicable mingling of the human and the plant" (18), and we see that Smith is employing the unique combination of the most visceral body horror and the most abstracted cosmic fear that characterizes high weird fiction. (19) Later in the story, the mingling of plant and human becomes literal when a parasitic plant germinates inside Falmer himself, and sprouts a flower resembling his face: "It was somehow like the face of Falmer but the lineaments were twisted all awry, and were mingled with those of something wholly devilish and nonhuman" (23). (20) Indeed, even when they are not described as hybrids, monstrous plants often bear uncanny resemblance to human body parts of all kinds, and these morphological homologies between plant and animal naturally contribute to the Darwinian troubling of the boundary between the two categories. For example, in the cover story of the September 1927 issue of Amazing Stories, "The Malignant Flower," we read of flowers that "simulated the human organs--ear, eyes, lips, and tongue," causing a character to conclude, "were they not half-flower, half-animal?" (Arment, Botanica Deliria 286).
Hybrids are always popular monsters, and there are numerous crossings and graftings-together of animals and plants in speculative fiction that point to a larger anxiety about taxonomy. Published one year after "The Malignant Flower" as the cover story of the September 1928 Weird Tales, John Murray Reynolds's "The Devil-Plant"--not to be confused with Malcolm Ellison's 1936 tale of "The Devil-Plant"--features an exemplary cross between carnivorous vegetation and the animal kingdom that takes the ultimate form of a "Zoophyte giganticus" (299-300). But of much greater significance is the way in which the human characters in monstrous plant narratives often decide to reclassify floral prodigies simply as animals. Thus, in the cover story of the June 1935 issue of Wonder Stories story, Laurence Manning's "Seeds from Space"--again, not to be confused with John Russell Fearn's 1937 Tales of Wonder story "Seeds from Space"--the hyper-intelligent genocidal plants from space themselves have difficulty determining their proper place in humanity's existing classificatory schemata: "Possibly we are animals" (14). More usually, of course, the extra-botanical classification comes from troubled humans: even in "Carnivorine," the mad scientist concludes that his creation must be "something more than a plant" (Cassaba 81). Such an act of taxonomic legerdemain paradoxically works to domesticate the horror of the monster plant, repairing the very hierarchy that the monster threatened by insisting that only animals can behave in this fashion. After all, if a man-eating plant turns out to be only an animal after all, there is nothing to fear except the physical danger it poses; the monster plant no longer threatens to efface the boundary that divides a human from a plant, or overturn the ontological hierarchy that elevates animals above plants and humans above other animals. Accordingly, we can observe in the plant monster the fundamental doubleness of monstrous origin and monstrous use that Cohen has identified so eloquently: "Every monster is ... a double narrative, two living stories: one that describes how the monster came to be and another, its testimony, detailing what cultural use the monster serves. The monster of prohibition exists to demarcate the bonds that hold together that system of relations we call culture, to call horrid attention to the borders that cannot--must not--be crossed" ("Monster Culture" 13; emphasis in original). We might say that the anthropophagous plant emerges from anxious awareness of universal common descent and its implications for human-plant relationships, but also serves the cultural purpose of containing that fear and restoring the hermetic instrumentalist hierarchy that subordinates other animals to humans and backgrounds plants entirely.
In the pulps, this marriage of the monster plant and anxiety about universal common descent likely reached its zenith in the two-part Wonder Stories serial "Evolution Satellite" (J. Harvey Haggard, 1933-1934). During an investigation that takes them to a Uranian moon, explorers encounter carnivorous plants capable of adapting so quickly that the humans can witness an evolutionary arms race happening before their eyes. Although they manage to escape from the first "vegetable monster" (430), the humans gradually discover that their own bodies are also subject to the accelerated evolutionary force, with the ultimate implication that the characters who choose to remain on the satellite will continue to mutate until they too finally become "great scabrous mushrooms" launching spores to begin the evolutionary cycle again, enacting an explosively deliquescent return of the repressed pre-animal origins of humanity (436). A similar premise drives Edmond Hamilton's similarly titled story "Evolution Island" (Weird Tales March 1927), in which a more or less sane scientist gains the ability to accelerate evolution through the manipulation of an evolutionary ray, and creates monstrous plants that his rather madder assistant hopes to use to conquer the world. The danger of this monstrous plant army also hints at the future evolutionary history of humanity as just another species among others with equal potential, as the scientist explains: "I saw that long after man has gone down to extinction, the world would be ruled by intelligent active plants" (56). Stories like "Evolution Island" and "Evolution Satellite" make clear the continuing explicit connection of the monstrous plant with evolutionary anxieties, and urge us to reconsider the special place of the monstrous plant alongside more widely read narratives featuring evolution's animal monsters like Wells's Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), an obvious source text for Hamilton's narrative.
Although this paper has focused on the pulp era and its own near precedents in an effort to trace the Darwinian origins of the monster plant, evolutionary horror continues to undergird much monstrous plant fiction beyond the early pulps. Later narratives like Manly Wade Wellman's 1949 story "Come Into My Parlor" (Cassaba 73-85) and Arthur J. Burks's 1950 offering "Black Harvest of Moraine" (Laumer 137-173) are particularly rich in evolutionary anxiety, as is Brian Aldiss's 1962 fixup Hothouse, a veritable bestiary of monstrous plants. Hothouse also has further implications for my general argument about the backgrounding of plants, as Aldiss repeatedly insists on the opposition of plant and mind: "[Earth] was no longer a place for mind. It was a place for growth, for vegetables" (3). This denial to plants of any capacity for sentience is all the more striking because, in Aldiss's rather idiosyncratic take on the "dying earth" setting of Vance and Wolfe, higher temperatures on a far-future Earth have resulted in a biosphere dominated by plants that have come to occupy the niche of almost every predatory animal species, including avians. Even so, Aldiss's monster plants cannot transgress this boundary of mind that divides plant from animal. While limitations of time and space prevent me from exhaustively analyzing or even simply cataloging the various permutations of the monster plant to appear
in the second half of the 20th century and beyond, as in Aldiss's fixup, we find evolutionary discourse increasingly combined with other concerns, most recently environmentalism. For example, in a film like M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening (2008), the fearsome pitchers, traps, and tentacles of early pulp plant monsters have given way completely to a collective plant intelligence that seeks to eradicate human parasites with subtler, more insidious invisible defense mechanisms. If the modern monstrous plant originated as a monster of evolution, it is clear that this monster has itself continued to evolve.
There is certainly further work to be done on the more recent manifestations of the monster plant, and I would like to conclude with an analysis of one of the most recent monstrous plants to appear in speculative fiction, also in its way one of the most interesting, and with the most potential to speak to the problem of the plant in animal studies identified at the beginning of this essay. Up to this point I have omitted to discuss any of the more "civilized" races of intelligent plant aliens that appear sporadically in science fiction, dating as far back as the 1930s, as Olaf Stapledon's 1937 fantasia Star Maker includes a brief account of a race of largely inoffensive plant men (in the section "Plant Men and Others"). But Joan Slonczewski's timely 2011 novel The Highest Frontier deserves close consideration here for the way in which it portrays a plant-intelligence as both monster and sentient, other-than-human person, and thus both engages with and offers a way out of the obsession with the plant-as-monster that has, with few exceptions, dominated the history of speculative fiction. Indeed, The Highest Frontier, in generic terms very much a campus novel "in space," is nevertheless obsessed with plants and plant ethics. In the second paragraph of the novel, we see a New Yorker from 2108 tend to her prize orchids; admire the ubiquitous kudzu outside; and come dangerously close to a rogue "ultraphyte," an invasive, plant-like extraterrestrial that photosynthesizes using UV light and releases cyanide as a stress reaction. Thanks to the satirical dimension of Slonczewski's world-building, however, we quickly come to understand that "the War on Ultra" might not be as simplistic as "Homeworld Security" wants citizens to believe. (21) We later learn that ultraphytes have the capacity for sapience and peaceable interaction with humanity--something the government of course knew all along--and Slonczewski's monstrous plant narrative thus turns out to be more of a plant empowerment narrative. Indeed, she envisions a future in which some people, at least, have a more highly developed ethical consideration for plants of the perfectly terrestrial variety: we hear of occasional "sit-ins against cruelty to plants" (90, and see 351-2), and a college student named Ken can apparently choose to be a "microvore" who feeds only on microorganisms, avoiding the consumption of food products like "murdered wheat" (71, 308). Finally, the (only slightly mad) botanist in the novel frequently emphasizes how each ultraphyte constitutes a kind of voting "community" (388), and thus, on a more abstract level, Slonczewski's search for wisdom in governance and meditation on distributed intelligence offers the plant, in its alternative way of knowing, as a model for democracy present and future.
Overwhelmingly, the lives of the monster plants imagined in speculative fiction are not so sanguine: anomalies like the courteous plant-beings of Festus Pragnell's "Men of the Dark Comet" (Wonder Stories June 1933)--whose own distributed consciousness is not framed as evil or unnatural, and who ultimately help save Earth from invasion--are distinctly exceptions to the dominance of vegetable monstrosity rather than participants in a robust competing tradition. And, when we absorb Houle's critique of animal studies, we must admit that we have perhaps not come so far from the 19th-century narratives of betentacled plant doom, even in a posthumanist literary studies that prides itself on its ethical sensibility. I will repeat that what I am getting at is not so much the dropping of the other shoe, plant liberation to follow animal liberation, plant studies to follow animal studies, precisely because Earth's biosphere and indeed the sphere of all possible agents has more than two feet, so to speak: the shoes would never stop falling. Again, the monster plant seems born of an anxiety about universal common descent, and perforce reminds us that the zoocentric perspective also backgrounds unicellular organisms and stranger forms of life--and indeed non-life, as a new materialist might well accuse a "plant studies" of biocentrism or biochauvinism. Therefore, I invite increased consideration of the plant not in order to found a new critical fad, but because such consideration seems an inexorable consequence of the theoretical underpinnings of animal studies, and possibly even a threat to its integrity if left unaddressed. A blind spot for many who work in animal studies--including and perhaps especially for some of its foundational theorists--equal consideration of the plant alongside the animal does raise uncomfortable questions about how far our kinship with non-animal nonhumans should and can extend. What does that kinship mean in practical terms, and what demands does it make on us? I have no firm conclusions on these difficult points, but I do believe that, by showing us our fears and exposing the strict instrumentalist hierarchies that have dominated our historical relations with plants, monster plants can spur us to rethink our many relationships with the real plants in our lives, which are, after all, really at the foundation of our lives and life on this planet. For his part, Hall suggests that we reconceptualize our relationship with plants and other organisms as a heterarchy rather than a hierarchy, and he also offers more practical solutions like working to reduce the needless killing of plants, limiting plant waste insofar as possible, and restoring habitat in order to allow plants increased dialogic space. But perhaps we can also begin by imagining them as something other than monsters.
Aldiss, Brian. Hothouse. 1962. San Diego: IDW Publishing, 2009. Print.
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Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden, a Poem in Two Parts: Part I, Containing the Economy of Vegetation; Part II, The Loves of the Plants; with Philosophical Notes. Intro. Donald Reiman. New York: Garland, 1978.
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Fessenden, Ford, and James Dao. "Rain, Lines and Litigation Slow Smooth Effort in Ohio." Nytimes.com. The New York Times Company, 3 Nov. 2004. Web. 10 Jan. 2012.
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(1.) The second epigraph can be found in Arment, Flora Curiosa 43. The translation from Innocent is my own, but also compare the translation provided in Lewis's facing-text edition (106-7). Innocent is invoking a medieval and early modern commonplace, ultimately derived from Aristotle, that the human body resembles an inverted plant (see Aristotle's On Youth and Old Age); compare La Mettrie's whimsical meditation on man-as-plant in L'homme plante, and Erasmus Darwin's tour de force of botanical personification in his poem The Loves of the Plants.
(2.) For the plant monster that besieges the poorly settled part of England, see David H. Keller's 1930 short story from Amazing Stories, "The Ivy War," also reprinted in Arment, Flora Curiosa 101.
(3.) For a few prominent examples, see Charles Saunders's The Woman Eater (1958); Michael Carreras's The Lost Continent (1968), and of course Steve Sekely's The Day of the Triffids (1962). Original posters for all three of these films emphasize the peril that "man"-eating plants pose to women, and indeed the phenomenon of the monster plant could be productively considered using the lens of gender and sexuality studies, as well as postcolonial and queer theory. For example, a text like John Boyd's 1969 novel The Pollinators of Eden develops the connection between abnormal plants and abnormal sexuality at great length, such that the following line of dialogue becomes the most ironic statement in the book: "There's nothing sexual about a tree" (28).
(4.) The field has grown too expansive for me to compile even a brief bibliography here, but Sherryl Vint's 2010 monograph Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal provides the best starting place for a scholar of speculative fiction interested in animal studies.
(5.) Houle persuasively demonstrates that, while foundational thinkers for animal studies like Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari do not explicitly exclude plants from consideration, they restrict themselves almost exclusively to examples drawn from the animal world. She points out, for example, that although Deleuze and Guattari speak of the possibility of plant- and bacterium-becomings, "in truth, that plateau is overrun by dogs, wolves, birds, cats, horses, whales and tic[k]s" (93-4). I would also add that, for all that Deleuzian animal studies extols the rhizomatic, it has done little to advance our thinking about the real rhizomes that power the metaphor. To adapt a memorable line from Donna Haraway's Companion Species Manifesto, we must remember that rhizomes, too, are not here just to think with, but to live with (5). Of course, science fiction writers have a way of anticipating critical theories, and Ursula K. Le Guin writes that her 1971 story of monstrous plants, "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow," originated from a deep sense of the connectedness between plants and animals--"The relation of our species to plant life is one of total dependence and exploitation"--as well as an attempt to capture the "panic" that a human can feel when contemplating that relationship (Buffalo Gals 83-84). In Le Guin's story, the "pure phytosphere" (100) of an alien planet achieves intelligence, like any brain, as "a function of the connected cells" (118), and comes to represent absolute connectedness: this entity itself becomes equally afraid of the alternative model of individual consciousness presented by its own human Other.
(6.) For some recent attempts to bridge the gap between these movements, see Sanbonmatsu, ed., Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, although for all of its differences I would also include Hall's book among such consilient efforts. In contrast to Steel, however, Hall's philosophical botany is finally grounded in Graham Harvey rather than Graham Harman, that is, the "relational epistemology and [...] relational ontology" of neo-animism (105), rather than the speculative realist critique of Western philosophy that has begun to cross-fertilize with animal studies. But on this point compare Jane Bennett, a guiding light for speculative realists and "the new materialism," who in her already-influential 2010 book Vibrant Matter mentions animism among the philosophical systems sharing some affinity with her own work (xviii), although her own primary interest lies in developing a renewed and reconfigured vitalism with its lineage in Spinoza and even Lucretius.
(7.) Although, as I am arguing, Darwin ushered in a radically new phase in the human understanding of our relationship to the plant kingdom, medieval and early modern thinkers largely retained the Aristotelian concept of the nutritive or "veg etable soul," that aspect of the triune human soul even lower than our "animal" desires. For Aristotle, however, the saving grace was humanity's unique rational soul, a distinction that many forms of post-Darwinian materialism have worked to erode.
(8.) Witness the various adaptations and appropriations of the triffids, continuing well into the 21st century. For example, the latest screen adaptation, aired by the BBC in 2009, naturally updates the Green Revolution-era purpose of the triffids as a source of nutrition, and explains that their potent oil has instead fed a global fuel shortage and saved us from global warming. Wyndham's novel itself has generated several different interpretations for the triffids, including Colin Manlove's argument that they recapitulate the trauma of World War II. Conversely, in his recent ICFA-33 presentation "'Bloody unnatural brutes'?--The Colonial Context of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids," Jerry Maatta has made the intriguing argument that the triffids possess characteristics that British colonizers attributed to their colonial subjects, and thus evoke a revolt against the empire in its twilight years.
(9.) I agree with Ketterer that Laurence Manning's 1935 story "Seeds from Space," with its tripod-like walking plants, almost surely helped germinate Wyndham's triffids, but Ketterer may overstate Manning's originality when he lists only three or four other possible precedents for monster plants in the pulps. Indeed, if nothing else, this essay should demonstrate that the number and popularity of pre-Wyndham monstrous plant narratives has generally been grossly underestimated. Nor were Wyndham's triffids a throwback to 1930s pulp monsters: in the 1940s, Frank Belknap Long published a series of long stories featuring "John Carstairs, Botanical Detective," most of which were collected and expanded in his 1949 book John Carstairs: Space Detective. As curator of the Interplanetary Botanical Gardens, Carstairs encounters exotic alien plant monsters as part of his daily routine, but his adventures lead him to confront even more sinister foes, including "[a] ghastly, invisible plant that isn't its own master and with an urge to slay that cannot be slaked," in the 1942 story "Plants Must Slay" (60).
(10.) Compare Edmond Hamilton's earlier story "The Plant Revolt" (Weird Tales, 1930), and, for more on the revolt of nature motif and many more examples of monstrous plants not treated here, see my entry for "Plants, monstrous" in the forthcoming Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters.
(11.) William Emboden's delightful if not wholly reliable Bizarre Plants makes a point of emphasizing how Darwin's publication brought insectivorous plants to the attention of the public (127). For the impact of carnivorous plants on English literature before and after Darwin's watershed publication, see also Smith, "Une Fleur du mal?"
(12.) To my knowledge, the mandrake is the only borderline monstrous plant that appears with regularity in medieval bestiaries. On the vegetable lamb and the barnacle goose, see Trettien, who not only traces their persistence into the early modern period, but also points out how they entailed a "strange reversal of Aristotelian hierarchies," pressuring the dominant botanical paradigm of their own day (5).
(13.) Alcott's story, tellingly published a few years prior to 1875, does not feature a man-eater, but belongs to an older tradition of deadly plants that soon merged with the rising tradition of motile and anthropophagous plants. For this and other stories, see Arment, Botanica Delira; works by most of the other authors cited above can be found in a number of other themed anthologies that can greatly assist the aspiring scholar of monster plants, including Arment, Flora Curiosa; Cassaba, Roots of Evil; Ghidalia, Nightmare Garden; and Laumer, Dangerous Vegetables. Only Lovecraft appears nowhere in these anthologies, but some of his most memorable monstrous races possess characteristics of both plants and animals, including the Mi-go or "Fungi from Yuggoth," and the Elder Things or Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness.
(14.) For this issue, and to find many more reprintings and versions of the story, one can easily search American newspapers from 1836-1922 through the Library of Congress at <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov>.
(15.) In "M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire," the best existing theorization of the woefully under-theorized phenomenon of tentacle horror, China Mieville traces the prehistory of cephalopod-based tentacle horror to Jules Verne and Victor Hugo, but early plant fiction represents an overlooked locus of the "Weird" tentacle; the only weakness of Mieville's essay is, again, its complete neglect of plants.
(16.) For an accessible historical overview of orchid hunting, see the long chapter in Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, "A Mortal Occupation" (63-102). Orchids also have a long history of supernatural association, on which see Emboden's chapter on "Orchids in Witchcraft and Medicine" (25-51).
(17.) Rene Morot's "Drosera Cannibalis" is yet another early tale of a mad professor breeding a man-eater, and the ravings in his notebook insist that the known behavior of real plants "shows how close is the link that unites the vegetable and animal kingdoms, and confirms the kindly thesis of Claude Bernard, who proclaims the common life of all things" (279). This story also refers to the work of Jagadish Chandra Bose (279), a favorite botanist of the authors of the popular piece of pseudoscience The Secret Life of Plants; much more could be said concerning the relationship between the monster plant of fiction and other cultural phenomena like popular cryptobotany and the New Age interest in plants that surged in the 1970s.
(18.) Even were we to limit the list to monstrous plant stories published in the '20s and '30s, there would be far too many to enumerate here. One can, however, locate several of them using the subheadings for "plant" in the "Motif and Theme" indices of Everett F. Bleiler's two enormously useful and usefully enormous guides to early sf, the first of which attempts to catalog sf before 1930, excluding the major Gernsback magazines, and the second of which covers The Gernsback Years. Together these two indices point to approximately 125 stories featuring overgrown carnivorous plants, malevolent plant-men, and other vegetable monstrosities; Bleiler's earlier Guide to Supernatural Fiction adds about 20 more.
(19.) Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows," for Lovecraft the superlative weird tale, is the only story I have come across to use plants as the vehicle of a truly cosmic horror. More commonly, monstrous plant horror relies on the same appeal to the uncanny body that drives narratives of other tentaculiferous monsters; for more on the connection of bodily and cosmic horror generally, but chiefly through that curious mediation of the tentacle, see my "From Bodily Fear to Cosmic Horror."
(20.) The reader may recognize the plant that blossoms with the faces of its victims as a trope that famously appeared in Roger Corman's original 1960 film The Little Shop of Horrors, as well as in its own probable basis in John Collier's 1931 story "Green Thoughts." More recently, Mieville, that archetypal architect of "the New Weird," has picked up on this favorite device of plant horror from the Old Weird: in his 2004 novel Iron Council, the heroes encounter a tentaculate "wake-tree" that grows "prey-fruit" resembling the animal or human it devours (Iron Council 124). Mieville's name for the tree suggests that he has the Indo-Arabian legend of the Waq-Waq Tree in mind, as Clark probably did himself, being an enthusiast of Eastern and Orientalizing narratives of all kinds. I would only note that, in either case, it is the modern weird tale that has transformed the tree into a man-eater: again, in its original incarnations--or, rather, inflorescences--we see that the Waq-Waq Tree was more marvelous than monstrous, growing human-shaped fruits without practicing carnivory.
(21.) When the ultraphytes first arrive on Earth, the initial "attack" leaves three thousand dead, perhaps not by coincidence the same number often given for the September 11 attacks, themselves referred to several times in the text. Other examples of political satire and/or allegory abound in the novel: for one, President "Bud" repeatedly praises inept government responses to catastrophe with the infamous Bush-era phrase "heck of a job" (174, 431, with the latter example actually involving FEMA). Finally, the voting delays that plague the spacehab community are very clearly modeled on the local voting delays during the 2004 presidential election that put Slonczewski's Kenyon College in the national news (e.g., Fessenden and Dao, "Rain, Lines and Litigation Slow Smooth Effort in Ohio").
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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