Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Trees and Other Plants on the Cover of Weird Tales

Plants make human life possible, yet writers of science fiction and fantasy have often shown them to be strange and menacing. For instance, the title character in The Thing from Another World (1951) is a plant, a kind of super carrot. The aliens from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and the plague species in The Day of the Triffids (1962) are also plants. Then there was The Happening from 2008. Science fiction and fantasy artists often let us know that something is strange or alien by painting it green. So why should plants be scary or threatening? They may be alien to us, and they may be green, but they are mostly harmless. There are of course plants to stay away from: poison-ivy and giant hogweed for their toxins, briars and brambles for their thorns. Maybe those plants remind us of wild beasts with their poisoned fangs and their claws that catch. More disturbing are plants that move, like the Venus flytrap. Maybe we imagine that plants might want to devour us. After all, we have been devouring them since the beginning. (A moving plant large enough to devour a human is a staple of fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories.) I can think of a couple of other reasons why plants might be seen as strange or menacing. Both have something to do with weird fiction. First, the dense, dark, overgrown forest or jungle can seem frightening or oppressive. Wild animals lurk there. So might witches and demons and even the devil himself. The Puritans are supposed to have been frightened of the forest. Young Goodman Brown was stripped of his illusions after a night in the darkened woods. Second, if weird fiction is about the past and about decadence, then the image of a tree or a jungle overtaking or growing up among a ruined house or a ruined city becomes symbolic. It may just be too much for us to consider, for we, too, shall be overtaken as all things are by the passage of time.


Who says a weird story can't be told in the form of a gag cartoon? Charles Addams did it. So does Sam Gross. George Price (1901-1995), the creator of this drawing and one of my favorite New Yorker cartoonists, did it on occasion, too.
The great James Flora (1914-1998) told weird stories for children. I would highly recommend Grandpa's Ghost Stories (1978) and The Great Green Turkey Creek Monster (1976), about a plant that takes over a town. But then what would you expect from an artist named Flora? By the way, we just passed the one hundredth anniversary of Flora's birth--January 25, 1914. So Happy Birthday, Jim Flora!

Now let the covers begin.

Weird Tales, August 1926. Cover story: "The Woman of the Wood" by A. Merritt. Cover art by C. Barker Petrie, Jr. The tree on Petrie's cover is the most man-like of plants in this category. It would almost qualify as a monster except that it appears to be the woman's friend. When I first saw this illustration, I thought of the mythological story of Daphne and the laurel. 
Here's one example among many from the art world, "Daphne and Apollo" by the British Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Weird Tales, September 1928. Cover story: "The Devil Plant" by John Murray Reynolds. Cover art by C.C. Senf. We have seen this cover before in the category of man, woman, and monster. The sexual symbolism here is unavoidable except that the woman is being engulfed by the plant--an obvious symbol of the woman--while the man endeavors to cut her loose. If you would like to see more explicit sexual symbolism in the depiction of flora, look no farther than the art of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Weird Tales, April 1938. Cover story: "The Garden of Adompha" by Clark Ashton Smith. Cover art by Virgil Finlay. I pointed out before that there is a lot of looking in fantasy art, maybe in art in general. That's true in this image as well. Finlay had a talent for covering key parts of female anatomy with bubbles, stars, and other things. Here he used leaves and flowers such that we can look but not see. The plant isn't quite a monster, but it is moving.
Finlay's cover reminds me of "Persephone," a painting by Thomas Hart Benton from 1938-1939. I wonder if Benton would have seen Finlay's illustration before beginning his own composition.

Weird Tales, March 1952. Cover story: "Morne Perdu" by Alice Drayton Farnham. Cover art by Joseph R. Eberle. This is more or less a conventional haunted house picture of a kind we all drew as children, but of three monstrous trees (this image and the two to follow), I like this one the best.

Weird Tales, May 1953. Cover story: "Whisper Water" by Leah Bodine Drake. Cover art by Joseph R. Eberle. I guess nobody said, "We used a tree-monster on the cover last year. We'd better not do it again so soon," because here is another tree-monster. It looks like the white box is covering up a key part of the picture, but where else were they supposed to put the blurb?

Weird Tales, January 1954. Cover story: "Effie's Pets" by Suzanne Pickett. Cover art by W.H. Silvey. The illustration here is mostly about a Morlock-like woman and an unlucky guy, but there is also a monstrous tree in the lower right corner. Of all the plants shown here, this one reminds me most of . . .
The apple trees from The Wizard of Oz (1939), one of the creepiest parts of that movie.

Frank Frazetta got in on the act in 1970 with his own version of a monster-tree.

Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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