Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. Today we’re looking at “The Tree on the Hill,” a collaboration between Lovecraft and Duane W. Rimel written in 1934, and first published in Polaris in 1940. You can read it here.
“Surely you don’t think that the world is a rule for measuring the universe.”
Single, our narrator, has accompanied his friend Theunis to Oregon. While Theunis writes a treatise on Egyptian mythology, Single wanders hills and canyons the locals call Hell’s Acres. The isolated region’s supposed to be haunted, and the Nez Perce have shunned it for generations, believing it to be the “playground” of giant devils from the Outside.
One morning, he discovers an extensive area devoid of vegetation. It looks burned-over, except there’s no sign of fire. No grass grows in its rich soil; no animal or bird or even insect disturbs the silence. But on one hilltop stands a lone tree. To Single, it looks most like a huge-girthed oak, though its leaves are round and curiously homogeneous in size and shape. His impression is that the tree is “painted on canvas,” yet he knows it’s really there. He lies in its shade, on grass that flourishes nowhere else. To his amazement, he seems to spot the Bitterroot Mountains, which should be beyond the scope of his vision. Then drowsiness overcomes him, and he sinks into a cloudy dream of a temple by an oozy sea. Three suns hang in a pale red sky traversed by scaly-winged beasts. Within the vast door of the temple, Single sees swirling shadows and three flaming eyes. He screams. The vision fades.
He takes six photos to show Theunis, then returns to his place under the tree, for it holds an alien enchantment. Suddenly, he’s back before the temple. The doorway sucks him into a black void, a bottomless gulf teeming with entity. In the dream, he flees in terror. When he wakes, he’s back on the slope from which he first spied the tree, clothes torn and hands bleeding as if from crawling. Morning has turned late afternoon, and the tree is gone.
Theunis laughs until the photos are developed. They show a tree more bulging, knotted, hideous than Single remembers it. A mistiness veils the image, but both see that the tree casts three shadows, as if from three suns. What Single saw with his eyes, the camera saw differently, and Theunis is convinced neither caught the real truth. He fetches an old book, the Chronicle of Nath by Rudolf Yergler. From it he reads a passage pertinent to Single’s situation:
In the year of the Black Goat a Shadow fell on Nath and fed on men’s souls. It lured them with dreams of the Land of Three Suns, in which freedom reigns. The high priest Ka-Nefer had a Gem—if any man could look through it and see the Shadow’s true shape and live thereafter, he could dismiss it to the starless gulf of its spawning. Phrenes took on the task and disappeared with the Gem, but his sacrifice must have sated the Shadow, for it departed and will not return until the cycles roll back to the year of the Black Goat.
Theunis adds that the present year happens to be a year of the Black Goat! Luckily for Single, the Gem’s been found and resides in a museum from which Theunis can borrow it. They’ll go home, and he’ll construct a camera obscura, using the Gem as a lens, and look though it at one of the photos. Meanwhile Single must fight his urge to return to the tree, for his life and sanity depend on it—and maybe much more!
Sixteen days later, Single’s summoned to the hospital. Theunis has suffered a seizure in his house—a seizure preceded by screams of mortal fear. Theunis regains his senses by the time Single arrives. He says he’s seen the shadow, and sent it back until the next year of the Black Goat. Single and mankind are now safe. But Single must destroy the photos of the tree and remove the Gem from Theunis’s camera obscura without looking through the device as Theunis did.
Single obeys, detaching an oddly faceted amber crystal and storing it in Theunis’s safe. He collects and burns the photos. But then he notices a sketch beside the camera—could Theunis have drawn what he saw through the Gem?
Single can’t resist looking. He faints. He wakes to burn the sketch, but he’s forever changed, forever sensitive to the cosmic blasphemies that underlie the fairest mundane scenes. Because in Theunis’s Gem-enhanced view of the photographed tree, Theunis saw no tree at all. He saw, instead, a terrible gnarled hand or talon whose fingers or feelers grope at the grass beneath it. Grass in which—Single can’t be sure, given the hastiness of the sketch—there remains an outline to show where a man recently lay.
What’s Cyclopean: The imagery is all Lovecraftian, but the adjectives don’t get much more ambitious than “multi-dimensional.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Nobody degenerate here—the only culture mentioned is Egyptian, which comes off rather well in having created an effective counter to Goat-induced incursions.
Mythos Making: Is the Year of the Black Goat followed by the Year of the Dreaming Dead, the Year of the Crawling Chaos, etc.? There’s a whole implied zodiac here.
Libronomicon: One presumes that Yergler’s Chronicle of Nath, an alchemical text, found the gem of particular interest for its possible relationship to the philosopher’s stone…
Madness Takes Its Toll: In the shadow(s) of the Tree, one dreams things of madness and delirium.
Lovecraft’s collaborators vary in their level of shared authorship—but they almost always make their mark on a story’s geography. Howard himself his well-known Places, and his most vivid stories lovingly expand New England to encompass his favored terrors. But Zealia Bishop draws them out into the midwest plains—and Duane Rimel, born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, here creates an Arkham in Oregon.
Like Lovecraft County, “Tree” mixes real with imagined, giving the latter a texture and location that leaves one a little nervous about confidently denying its existence. But Hampden, Oregon, produces zero results no matter how many times I google it, and likewise the infamous Pirate House. The Blue Mountain Forest Reserve is real enough, as are the Bitterroots and the Salmon River. Hell’s Acres don’t show up on a search, either, but do you really trust that?
The imagery is frightening and vivid, even the understated parts. The blasted land around the tree, rich dark loam in which nothing will grow, sticks with me even more than the truly eldritch bits. Maybe it’s that we are in Oregon. Dark, lifeless earth suggests a recent eruption—and from what we see, something inimical to earthly life is bursting through.
Then, of course, there are the eldritch bits. I kind of love the inversion of the frequent horror trope in which the terrible thing you saw can’t be documented to share with others—doesn’t show up on film, is gone when you go back, whatever. Instead, the tree appears relatively benign when Single takes his nap under it, but looks far more gnarled and unnatural when he shares his photos with Instagram his totally platonic scholarly friend. And then, when modern technology combines with ancient invention… and the whole thing comes full circle as he sees the (partial) truth of what happened, not through his own eyes but through Theunis’ drawing of the photograph as seen through the gem’s revelatory power.
And yet, for all that vision is limited, it’s vision that ultimately has power. With all those intermediaries, Theunis has to look at the end result in order to drive back the monster. And looking leaves its own scars.
At the same time, this is a story that does better in recollection than in the immediate reading. This does not appear to be a piece that Lovecraft rewrote entirely in his own words—something that other collaborators accused him of. “Tree” could have used it. The over-the-top cosmic imagery suffers mightily when expressed in pedestrian language. We’re not talking economical understatement, either—the story’s as rife with repetition and almost-right word choice as Howard on a bad day, but with an average vocabulary and a taste for ill-timed clichés. Example: “I knew that this place was one that no man on earth had ever seen in his wildest dreams,” said of a place seen by a man, on earth, in a dream.
Rimel, whose work I’m not otherwise familiar with, seems to have become a relatively prolific and popular writer. Lovecraft’s mentorship started him on a career lasting through 1990, with results ranging from a poem about the Yith to several books described on the French version of Wikipedia as “lesbian pulp novels.” Pity he never combined the two. I’d read that in a heartbeat.
Duane W. Rimel was born in Washington State, so it’s natural he’d expand Mythos territory into the northwest, here Oregon’s Salmon River region. The Salmon River is also known as the River of No Return, and the canyons through which it runs are second only to Snake River’s as the deepest in North America. What more could Outside devils or gods want for a playground? At least, a playground they only use every few eons or so.
The travelogue opening reminds me of the opening of “Dunwich Horror,” though “Dunwich” takes the evocation of an eerie setting to much superior heights, as we’ll see next week. The two stories also share a blasted zone of cryptic origin and oddly shaped hills. Mythos entities are suckers for oddly shaped hills. Either that, or they oddly shape them to order after arrival. Other classic Mythos tropes: an other place of crazy angles and nameless colors; a narrator who runs/stumbles/crawls to safety without remembering the frantic escape; seizures and/or fainting at ultimate glimpses of the truth; and the intimate yoking of fear and fascination that cosmic stuff always evokes in the human psyche. And we get another tome!
In “Tree,” we learn that the Chronicle of Nath was written by German mystic and alchemist Rudolf Yergler, a scholar of Hermeticism. Rimel wrote another story, “Music of the Stars,” in which he adds that Yergler finished his Chronike von Nath (1653) just before he went blind. Penning it also landed him in a Berlin madhouse. The book faced public suppression, of course, but in 1781, James Sheffield issued an English translation. Probably the one Theunis owns. The names Ka-Nefer and Phrenes connect Nath with ancient Egypt, and hey, bingo, because Theunis is studying Egyptian mythology!
Which brings me to the kind of story “Tree” is. As with many shortish shorts, it’s constructed to showcase a striking image or images, here two: the three-sunned world where everything has three shadows, and the monstrous grasping hand that illusions itself as a tree. I’d bet the hand-tree was the initium or starting point, while the three suns/three shadows is a clever device to show that Single really did experience something strange on that hilltop, really did enter an alternate reality, it wasn’t a dream. BOOM-LAST PARAGRAPH-REVELATION stories can be good fun, and this one worked better for me than I expected from my preliminary skimming. Lovecraft and Rimel rush only semi-headlong to the revelation, leaving room for nice details like the names of the native vegetation (not just grass, bunchgrass; not just bushes, grease-weed and hackberries). It’s not just birds that are missing, it’s larks. It’s not any mountains in the distance, it’s the Bitterroots (appropriate name). The three suns of the weird zone are echoed by the three flaming eyes deep in the temple. Single doesn’t just see flying beasts, he hears the pounding of their scaly wings. The Gem is amber-colored, of devious angles, warm to the touch, electric. Electric!
But other details contribute little in either atmosphere or plot relevance, like the made-up town of Hampden, totally vague except for its Beacon Street, with an infamous Pirate House, built by Exer Jones. Croydon, to which our heroes retreat, could be the town in Utah, or Pennsylvania, or New Hampshire, or outside London, for all we know. And some plot-forwarding elements are way too convenient, improbable to the giggling point. I mean, what are Single and Theunis even doing in outback Oregon? Theunis is writing about Egyptian mythology—wouldn’t it be more convenient to do that near museums and libraries? No Internet back in 1938, after all. Theunis’s choice of subject is another clanking convenience, as is the fact that he just happens to have brought along the very rare book that explains Single’s encounter with the tree. And, natch, 1938 just happens to be a Year of the Black Goat. Out of all the millennia in all the cosmic timelines, Single had to come into this one.
I’d also say the stakes are too high for the heft of the story. Off-screen, Theunis saves not only his friend but all mankind! By looking at the Big Bad through a Gem. Which Gem had been lost eons ago, but luckily was rediscovered, and not only does Theunis know exactly where it is, he can borrow it, no problem.
How Theunis made his sketch while screaming in mortal agony and fear, I don’t know. Or why he made the sketch, considering it was crucial to destroy all images of the Big Bad. Oh, wait, so Single could have his revelation tempered, secondhand, so his brains stayed in his head instead of oozing out his ears. Because only Theunis could survive a direct revelation. Because he’s sardonic and leonine? I don’t know.
Lots of quibbles, but the hint that it’s Shub-Niggurath or one of her Thousand Young who haunt Hell’s Acres, that’s a big plus. She’s so elusive and mysterious, this Mother of the Outer God tetrad, we’ve got to be grateful for every glimpse and allusion. I always associate Shub with trees, too, probably because of the dendroid representation her Young often get.
Oh, one last cool detail—how Single first sees the tree as if it were “painted on canvas.” He’s exactly right, metaphorically speaking. The “tree” is an illusion, a disguise, a false face painted over the terrible reality of the eruption. Single’s camera “sees” through some of the illusion, recording a closer approximation to the truth through its misty, cloudy shrouds. Only the Gem, with its unearthly angles and energy, can pierce all the veils, and that makes for a fine progression of perception through the story, and good Mythos sense. Human perception is fallible. Human tech, a little better. But alien tech, ah, that’s the trick.
Next week, gorgons, hydras, and chimerae await in “The Dunwich Horror.” Plus, use this one weird trick to break into the Miskatonic Library!
Ruthanna Emrys’s non-Hugo-nominated neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land and “The Deepest Rift.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and LiveJournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington, D.C.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. The second in the Redemption’s Heir series, Fathomless, will be published in October 2015. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.