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PLANT HORROR: Terrifying Tales Of The Botanical Gothic

While never becoming as popular as other horror subgenres like ghosts or vampires, the tale of the killer plant was a literary phenomenon in the nineteenth century. During this time, the exotic plant market bloomed into a sensation for the wealthy with crazed collectors and enchanted onlookers. The expeditions to fetch prized specimens were long, dangerous, and expensive, so stories of man-eating plants and other dangers were told to justify high prices. These 3 eco-horror stories, tales that represent human fears about the natural world, were all written during this time in history.

1. "Rappacini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1844
image: from Dezsö Magyar's film 1980 film adaptation of Rappacini's Daughter

“When, in his walk through the garden, he came to the magnificent plant that hung its purple gems beside the marble fountain, he placed a kind of mask over his mouth and nostrils, as if all this beauty did but conceal a deadlier malice.”

Perhaps most well known as author of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s story develops an interconnectedness between femininity, flowers, and death. Set in Padua, Italy, home of the world’s first botanical garden, university student Giovanni falls for the maiden Beatrice as he observes her in her botanist father’s garden of poisonous plants. Upon visiting the luscious garden to speak to Beatrice, lured by her beauty just as the carnivorous flower lures its insect prey, Giovanni learns some troubling information about his beloved’s true nature.

Rappacini's Daughter was adapted into a short film in 1980 and an opera in 1991.



2. "The Pavilion" by Edith Nesbit, 1915
illustration by James Durden

“The first man to sleep in the pavilion slept there ten years after it was built. He was a friend of the alchemist or astrologer who built it. He was found dead in the morning. There seemed to have been a struggle. His arms bore the marks of cords. No; they never found any cords. He died from loss of blood. There were curious wounds.”

Nesbit’s story follows Amelia, a typical wallflower considered plain and often ignored, who is outshone by her beautiful cousin, Ernestine. Amelia becomes the unexpected heroine in this story when two men who have fallen for Ernestine dare each other to spend the night in an ominous, vine-covered pavilion. Putting male bravado under scrutiny and challenging preconceptions about women, Amelia is strikingly brave and independent during a time when these were considered undesirable behaviors for women.



3. "The Voice In The Night" by William Hope Hodgson, 1906

art: cover of Sargasso #2: The Journal of William Hope Hodgson Studies: Volume 1

“‘It was on the thumb of her right hand, that the growth first showed. It was only a small circular spot, much like a little grey mole. My God! How the fear leapt to my heart when she showed me the place. We cleansed it, between us, washing it with carbolic and water. In the morning of the following day, she showed her hand to me again. The grey warty thing had returned…’”

This story is different from the others as it features fungi and not plants, but the fungi in this story shares the same narrative and symbolism of the immobile becoming mobile as food sources become the hunters. The all-consuming fungus that spreads around and eventually onto/into a man and his fiancee lost at sea stems from the same fear of contagion and infection as the modern zombie narrative, as these victims of the fungus experience insatiable and indiscriminate hunger.



Introduction and summaries of stories have been paraphrased from Daisy Butcher's "Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic."

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