Some stories just chime with your inner soul. They cut to the quick, and speak to you in ways others don’t. Even different stories by the same author can get to you in different ways, some you might love, some you might be ambivalent about, and some you may even hate. Once in a while, though a story comes along that cuts past all the rest. One that stays with you and wanders back across your mind days, weeks even years later. The story you’ll go back to again and again, be it a grand epic such as Stephens Kings ‘Dark Tower‘ or something smaller yet perfect like Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ or Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’, or just a short story that echoes within you and your mindset, that says something to you that is true or at leats a truth of a kind. Lovecraft’s ‘The Tree’ is one that does it for me every time…
It is far from one of his more famous works, far from the strangest, it’s possible even far from the best-written. Its central tale is a little prosaic, and it certainly isn’t horror, though it contains a few horror elements in its makeup. It certainly lacks the eldritch grotesquery of some tales or the unsettling quality of others. It is nothing more in many ways than a study in human nature, human subtext, and the power of a lie, of concealing a truth even in its climax, that twists context on itself. Indeed the most powerful thing about this story is just that, it is a lie, told by one who does not understand the untruth in his words, so that the reader has to come to his or her own revelation in the end. If someone was to read it at nothing but face value, then the ending would make no sense at all. In short, it is a clever little tale that demands it’s readers are reading with their intellect engaged. Which is why I hold it in such high regard.
‘The Tree’ is no unique in this regard, lots of fiction requires it’s readers to think as they read and consider the subtext. But few writers, and fewer still tales, do it with such eloquence and even contemptuous calculation. It is in that a rare gem indeed. Demanding a cynism of its reader, or perhaps just exploiting the cynic within him.
The tale takes us back to ancient Greece and tells us of two friends, Kalos and Musides, both masters of the art of sculpture, who though wildly different in personality and tastes share a common bond. Both are lauded by all, and neither would claim mastery of the other. They even share a home so close is their friendship. Then the Tyrant of Syracuse invited Kalos and Musides to compete in the creation of “a wonder of nations and a goal of travellers”. Reasoning that the two masters we strive against each other to create the greater work. Which indeed they do, though to hear the tale told there is none of the usual traits of rivalry between them and their friendship remains as strong as ever. But as they work Kalos fall ill with a beguiling wasting sickness much, to hear the narrator tell it, to the dismay of Musides who nurses him throughout his long illness but Kalos wastes away to the strange affliction and dies in time. He asks to be buried with olive twigs near his head though his friend wants to make him an elaborate tomb. Musides follows his friends wishes and Kalos is buried with the olive twigs in the garden of their home and over time a tree begins to grow above his grave. A strange and far from a normal tree.
We are told throughout of the great love between the two men, of how Musides becomes morose and strangely tempers as his friend wastes away. After his friend dies he pours his energy into in sculpture, determined to create his masterpiece as much, he claims, for the memory of his friend. he is, however, a changed man, still dark humoured and angry with the world, and the strange tree grows as he works, an odd sinister aspect to its nature, that seems to scare Musides, though none can fathom why.
The lie is there, plain to see, yet kept hidden and dismissed throughout the tale. Which is why I love it so much. but I’ll not spoil the lie by telling the truth of it here. It’s a tale that needs to be read to be appreciated in my opinion.
Oddly enough Lovecraft did not share my appreciation for this tale. “if typed on good stock make excellent shelf-paper, but little else.” is his own somewhat damning summary of its worth. But then a tale owe as much to its reader as its writer sometimes. This one speaks to the cynic in me. Which make it fitting it is set in ancient Greece…
In case you can not guess its a whole six tentacles from me for this one. A whole squid if I am honest. I can not say you will enjoy it in the way I do, or love it as much as I do, in this case, it is all down to the reader’s view of the world…
Further Lovecraftian witterings
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