Tuesday, May 8, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #19: A review of "The Sumach" by Ulric Daubeny
This is one of the more unusual tales in this volume, in that it deals with something that not many people have covered in their fiction. Here we have our first (and possibly only) vampire tree.
This is the story of poor Irene, who has just moved into Cleeve Grange, a mansion left to her in the will of her cousin Geraldine. On this property is a mysterious tree. She feels drawn to it, yet at the same time she’s repulsed by the birds that seem to die around this tree. May, her friend, is disturbed by the tree. Not only are the dead birds off-putting, so is the fact that the family dog is buried at its base, to say nothing of Geraldine’s obsession with the tree mere days before she died of anemia.
Soon, Irene finds herself just as obsessed. She can’t help but sit among the branches, even though at one point she “fantasizes” about it closing around her, suckling at her skin. The next day, there is a mark on her, an open wound.
May sees this and is horrified. She fetches the doctor, who diagnoses Irene with anemia. That’s right, just like Geraldine. Suddenly, the tree seems a lot more sinister . . . . After they discover some of Geraldine’s journal entries, May comes to the conclusion that this tree is a vampire, and it is sucking the life out of Irene.
A pretty bizarre story, no? And even though it should be silly, Daubeny makes it seem not just reasonable, but just a bit creepy. Yet there is one problem: he’s not willing to let go of the polite horror that seems to enthrall so many other authors in this volume. Even though the characters refer to each other by their first names, Daubeny is too formal. May is Mrs. Watcombe and Irene is Mrs. Barton.
SPOILER ALERT: But the most interesting part of the story is how the vampire tree came to be. Apparently, thirty years ago, someone staked an actual vampire here and buried it with a mouthful of garlic. The stake wasn’t quite dead, and a tree grew from it, the sumach. The perfect final touch is when they cut the tree down and burn it. Thereafter, the only plant they can get to grow there is garlic. END OF SPOILERS.
Is this a great horror story? Maybe. But it certainly sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. Read it for the curiosity it is. It will stick with you for quite some time.
[This story first appeared in THE ELEMENTAL, pictured above as there was no author's photo available, and can be read here.]