I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with the stories of H.P. Lovecraft for the last 23 years. I’ll spend a few months reading him regularly, then put him down for years; and I’m generally as likely to re-read a story I already know as to venture into untested waters. So, despite having been a fan for the better part of a quarter of a century, I probably haven’t read more than a couple of dozen of his works.
I’ve decided to correct this. I’m going to start working my way through his stories in the order they were written and reviewing them, at a rate of roughly one per week (though I may slow down a little when I get to longer works – I do intend to keep reading other authors, after all).
You can find a list of previous entries here.
“The Tree” (1921)
One of Lovecraft’s simplest and most lovely pieces of prose, “The Tree” is atypical of the author in a number of respects. It is a period piece, set in ancient Greece, it is narrated in the third person, and is ultimately more about a human relationship than its implicit supernatural elements.
Sketch by Jason Thompson for his site MOCKMAN.COM
The story follows two sculptors, Kalos and Musides, best friends of opposite temperaments, considered geniuses beyond any rival except one another. The two are called on to compete, each producing his own version of a statue, only one of which can win the approval of the Tyrant of Syracuse. As they work, the more restrained and meditative Kalos takes ill, and the rambunctious and social Musides stays by his side, caring for him, so both statues are abandoned until Kalos passes, and Musides can return to work. But not only does he complete his statue, he also creates a marvelous tomb for Kalos, although all Kalos asked was to be buried alongside some twigs from his beloved – possibly enchanted – olive grove.
Although there are some chilling implications to the story – both supernatural and entirely human – it is largely an ambiguous tale, and not in the self-conscious way that so many Lovecraft stories use ambiguity to suggest incomprehensibility. Frequently, Lovecraft is ambiguous about the exact nature of his horrors, but rarely is he so willing to let the reader decide whether anything truly strange or horrible has happened at all.
“The Tree” is an eloquent tragedy, and a charming change of pace, coming at a period when the more traditional “Lovecraft story” was really taking shape.
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