Liana

Weird #11: “The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini (1917)

a green man waterspout“The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini is a simple enough story of a man whose skin has turned completely green.

He explains how he became infected with this unique illness. Seduced by the mysteries of science’s unexplored frontier, Olivares goes on an expedition to the Brazilian interior in search of new forms of plant life. There he discovers a plant that “seemed to have been created deliberately to upset all of my botanical science,” a plant that cannot wholly be categorized as vegetable, but which has the appearance of “human limbs without skin” (98). Pricked by a thorn, he soon experiences the first subtle symptoms of what becomes a wasting disease that turns his skin green and leads to other mutations besides.

Soon, Doctor Benito Olivares literally becomes a green man: half-vegetable, half-man.

Appearing in the Italian journal The Illustrated Journal of Travel and Adventure Over Land and Sea in 1917, “The Vegetable Man” reads like a traveler’s tale from a distant corner of the earth. Like Indiana Jones, Doctor Olivares is an adventure scientist like you might find in a pulp story who is dedicated to “[penetrating] the virgin forests” and pushing the frontier of knowledge (97). However, with that sense of guarded mystery comes a sense of intruding into what nature never intended humanity to see. Twice, the Guaraní Indians try to warn him about the samples he took of the Inhuacoltzi, the great spirit of the plants.

Perhaps most uncanny are the leaves of this plant. Resembling a prickly pear, they have “two oval scuttulem” on them, resembling “two very human eyes that seemed to stare out at me in an unpleasant and sinister way” (98). When the green man pulls off his gloves, his hands are revealed to have been turned into these same, shapeless leaves, with uncannily human eyes.

Doctor Olivares claims to have been born in Santos, Brazil, and he donates his samples of the Olivara vigilans to the Museum of Natural History in Buenos Aires. This puts Ugolini’s story in the vicinity of another great weird fiction writer, Jorge Luís Borges. Buenos Aires is Borges’s storied home city; in his famous story, “The Aleph,” Santos happens to be the Brazilian town where Pedro Henriquez Ureña supposedly found Sir Richard Francis Burton’s manuscript on the Aleph.

Details like these have me imagining a weird fiction “shared universe.” What would Borges (who suffered from blindness) have thought of Olivara vigilans, a plant he would have been unable to see with his own eyes, even though the plant itself could “see” him?

I was astonished to find tangential links to Jeff VanderMeer and H.P. Lovecraft in Ugolini as well. For one, Olivara vigilans is described in a similar way to how Lovecraft describes the shoggoth fossils in At the Mountains of Madness. Both straddle the uncanny line between the vegetable and the animal. For instance, Lovecraft describes the shoggoth as a “barrel-shaped fossil of wholly unknown nature,” defying categorization, such that Lake cannot decide whether they are “vegetable or animal.”

In comparison, Ugolini’s scientist describes Olivara vigilans as “a living contradiction” in terms of classification, a plant that is “in itself an order, family, species, variety …  with palmate leaves that were thick and fleshy” (98). The discovery upends the categories scientists use to classify and order the physical world, throwing such artificial boundaries into doubt and uncertainty.

Furthermore, the liana, “the octopus of the forest” (98) which strangles trees in the grove where Olivares finds the Olivara vigilans, is almost an echo of the strangling vines that move around in the fungal lettering left behind by the Crawler in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Even more of  a strong echo are the all-too human eyes growing out of the plant’s leaves, which call to mind the all-too human eyes of the dolphin the Biologist glimpses in Area X. The implication in Annihilation is that those who visit Area X somehow get transformed into animals, yet retain uncanny traces of their humanity. In a similar way, this is Olivares’s fate; he becomes “reclaimed” by the natural world after being infected with the Olivara vigilans‘s poison.

As I continue to notice parallels between VanderMeer’s work and the stories he and his wife, Ann VanderMeer, included in this anthology, I am strongly reminded again of what Borges wrote in “Kafka and His Precursors”: every author creates their own precursor. The weird fiction authors included in this anthology may have seen each other as influences, or they may not have done so. But VanderMeer acts as both author and critic, creating the predecessors of the New Weird as a literary movement through his role as editor of this anthology, even as he drops teasing hints as to who his own, personal precursors may have been. Even if “The Vegetable Man” did not inspire Annihilation directly, they are both holding a conversation with the same literary zeitgeist.

Luigi Ugolini
Luigi Ugolini

Next week, I’ll be getting into pulp adventure with Abraham Merritt’s “The People of the Pit.” I have discussed one of Indiana Jones’s predecessors, Merritt’s The Moon Pool, elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll be in familiar territory when I write about it next week.

The Wonders in Wood

A tree along the shore in Auckland, New Zealand. Do you see the stag?
A tree along the shore in Auckland, New Zealand. Do you see the stag?

Today’s post involves that favourite pastime of fantasy artists–finding shapes in wood. The more interesting texture to the wood, the more shapes people tend to see within the fibers. I have seen my fair share of flat-out inspiring shapes. Take the above photo for example, which I took in 2008 when I was in New Zealand for World Youth Day. You can see what I thought resembles a stag turned into wood in the trunk of this enormous tree (the canopy of this particular species stretches very wide in either direction).

The above photo inspired me to write a narrative poem in the tradition of Ovid–imagine that Actaeon peeked at the nude Diana while she bathes, then the goddess in her anger transforms Actaeon into a stag, before taking pity on him just at the end by immortalizing him into wood so he can’t be eaten by his own dogs. If you can’t see the stag, maybe you can look below at the sketch I made which exaggerates my imaginative observation:

stag_tree

More recently than 2008–in fact it was 2013–I spotted a nymph who molded herself into a thin tree, embracing it as if trying to fuse her spirit into the plant. It mystified me. What it really was, was a kind of misshapen tumour growing on this young tree on Mount Royal in a small patch of trees close to the staircase near Pine Avenue. But I couldn’t resist the sense that if this strange growth on the tree wasn’t an imp, then it at least represented a beating heart. Unfortunately I did not have my camera at the time and when I returned in later months to take a snapshot, I could not find the tree again–that is, if it was still alive. This hand-drawn picture (coloured on Photoshop) will give a sense of what I saw, but also what I saw in it:

ligneous impjpgIt’s moments like this where you realize how old civilizations like the Celts and the Algonquins or Iroquois may have seen spirits in their natural world. Perhaps they saw strange things in nature that suggested this presence.

Lastly, perhaps the most traditional sighting of a spirit in wood is when a passing traveler notices an old oak and sees a man’s face in the leaves, or in the texture of the bark. This one even has a name: the Green Man. Here is a picture of him from Trafalgar Square, but you can see him anywhere, on most any stone decoration on an older building. And next to him I have attached a texture reference I took of an interesting tree on Mount Royal whose bark would no doubt serve as an extension to the Green Man’s beard. See more wood faces here.

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Photo Credits:

Green man: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trafalgar_Square_Green_Man_%28London,_England%29.jpg