Thursday, December 03, 2020

"Lucky's Grove" (1940)

This delightfully heavy-handed story by H. Russell Wakefield, a student of M.R. James and English folklore, is about a damned patch of land that sits in the center of a fallow growing field, left untouched. Best avoided, in fact. Our main character, Mr. Braxton, is a self-made man. He grew up on the estate as a servant and now owns it. As a boy he wandered into the grove from time to time, compelled somehow to worship a particular tree. And so he did, and does now that he has returned. The locals, meanwhile, are full of horrible tales about this so-called Lucky's Grove, tales that apparently do not come to the attention of Braxton's estate foreman, who takes the Christmas tree for that year's celebration from there. The oblivious foreman did notice that the roots of the tree were stained red as they came out of the ground. When Mr. Braxton doesn't like it, the foreman assures him he will replant it in the grove again after the holiday. Of course, bad things start to happen right away. The tree branches slap people around, for example, raising welts and wounds that become infected. The foreman grows deathly ill, no one knows why, and takes to his bed. The thermostat goes bonkers and it's always way too hot in the mansion. One of the boys makes a snowman that looks like a hideous reptilian monster. He can't say where he got the idea. All this is going on on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The extended Braxton family carries on the best they can, but things keep getting worse. I was hoping for a little more of the Algernon Blackwood lost-in-the-woods effects—Blackwood an influence with James on Wakefield—but alas no. This is one of the reasons why Wakefield comes after Blackwood and James in the scheme of things. In fact, a very good companion piece for this story is Blackwood's "Ancient Lights," also about a small blighted patch. Wakefield works skillfully within a classic style of English ghost story, from the stained roots of the violated tree to the various cruel payoffs to the existence itself of such a patch of land, respected by all who come near (except that foreman). It's reminiscent in a way of Puritan superstitions about the deep North American forests and the witches and so forth who lived there, but this is an isolated copse in a field everyone just knows to leave alone. I like the implication, never stressed, that Mr. Braxton's unlikely rise in the world has something to do with Lucky's Grove and worshiping that tree. I like the Christmas setting too, though the story veers hard away from the kind of more cozy Dickens-derived spooky stories associated with the time of year. The destruction of Braxton and his family and estate is quite complete. There'll be no plum pudding this year.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Story not available online.

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