This might seem obscure advice for writing a story. I’m a story-writer, you say, not an arborist. If I mention trees at all, they’ll be in the background, and even if my protagonist climbs the tree, or hangs from it, or chops it down, it hardly matters what shape the leaves are or what genus it is.
But it does matter, and in horror stories more than most. Just as a gardener wouldn’t just stick any old tree in the garden (a big old yew would end any hopes of sunbathing, for example), neither should a writer stick any old tree in a story, even in the background. Every tree, just through the way it looks has a certain character and can affect the atmosphere of a setting. It may also have certain mythical or cultural associations that the writer wants to tap into. Chris Priestly – as you would expect from the extract we looked at yesterday – likes to use trees in his stories to set the atmosphere. Here is a passage of description from the first story in Uncle Montague’s of Terror, Climb Not:
Beyond this door was a pasture of about two acres, bordered by the garden wall itself on one side, a hedge of hawthorn, hazel and dogwood on another and a wooden post and rail fence on the other two. Almost in the centre of this pasture was an enormous and very ancient tree.
If you’ve seen hawthorn, particularly if you’ve walked into it, you’ll know what kind message this sends out. Hard and thorny, with long spindly branches, it is nature’s very own barbed wire. In winter it is so hard and bare and dark, that one would think it were dead and could never bloom again, though it is quite beautiful when it does. In one plant then, we already have hints of violence, death and the forbidden. Hazel has a magic connotation too, as in Yeats’ poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus’ that starts
I went out to the hazel woods
Because a fire was in my head
And cut and peeled a hazel wand
And hooked a berry to a thread
It is also supposed to bring wisdom and protect us from creeping things – is that meant to keep intruders out or keep something in? Then there is dogwood. Dogwood also has its cultural and mythical baggage but I wonder if Priestly didn’t just choose it for its name: the hint of there being some kind of creature in the woods (and also because it does grow by hedgerows, of course).
The very image of an enclosed pasture with a forbidding tree at the centre might have the bells ringing of those of you who paid attention at Sunday school, but the type of tree is important too. The protagonist, Joseph, is told that it is an ancient elm – ‘It must be hundreds of years old,’ his father says.’ The things it must have seen, eh?’ If there’s one thing a gothic horror story needs, it’s something linking the present to a dark, mysterious past – and here the elm plays that function.
Willows figure in two of the stories in Uncle Montague’s Tales of terror. In ‘The Demon Bench End’ it lolls in the sleepy waters of the Cam (Cambridge’s river) as a bored young lad thinks about getting up to no good. It both reflects his boredom – pathetic fallacy at work – and hints at sorrows to come. In ‘Offerings’ the story starts to get strange when Robert has idly picked up and swished a long willow branch – without knowing it he has waved a wand.
In ‘Winter Pruning’ the trees being pruned are apple trees. If this seems innocuous, then – again – you really weren’t paying attention at Sunday school. Priestly may be trying to remind us of the lesson of one of the oldest stories of all – the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit. (Okay, it never states in Genesis that the fruit it an apple, but we kind of just assume it is, don’t we?) The lesson is – if you take or do what is forbidden then you’re in serious trouble – really! That’s a lesson which the children in Uncle Montague’s stories never will learn.
Write the opening of a story involving a yew tree. Before you do that, read a little about yew trees (on Wikipedia, for example).
More on that scary picture here, by the way: