Tuesday Terror! The Name-Tree by Mary Webb

Torment among the trees…

Each autumn and winter for the last few years, I’ve been reading a ton of vintage horror short stories and I admit that most of them, while enjoyable at the time, are soon forgotten. But occasionally one lingers, and this is one of those. I read it a year or so ago, in the Weird Woods anthology, and it has haunted me a little ever since…

The Name-Tree
by Mary Webb

Mary Webb

Cherry Orchard was for sale. The impossible thing, the thing that had yet threatened them always out of the misty future, had become fact. She could not believe it.

Laura’s father has become an invalid and their small stock of savings has dwindled. Now her father must sell the orchard which Laura has loved all her young life…

‘I’d as lief,’ she muttered, ‘think of selling myself.’

The father and daughter have a new neighbour who has come to pay them a visit…

Julius Winter was the new owner of Bitterne Hall. He had brought with him a wife almost as rich as himself, a Lady in her own right, and exactly like a pink sweet. Before Julius shone a vista of pleasant days with many smaller pink sweets about him.

Laura’s father tells her to show Julius the orchard and as they pass the great laurel tree outside the house, Laura tells him it is her name-tree…

‘This is my name-tree,’ she said. ‘Do you know the old belief about name-trees? If the tree dies, you die. If you sicken, the tree withers. If you desert it, a curse falls.’

Julius is fascinated by Laura’s deep passion for the orchard and his fascination soon turns to lust and a desire to possess…

He watched her, standing slim and gauche, in her old brown dress, her soul tormented by love for something vague and mysterious, something he could not touch or name, that seemed to lie beneath the earthly beauty that she saw, like a dreaming god. Desire surged over him—the poignant longing that jonquils bring, the longing to touch the silken petals, to gather the brittle, faintly-scented stalks.

Apollo and Daphne by Henrietta Rae
Definite vibes of the Apollo and Daphne myth in this story…

And so he offers her a bargain…

….‘Would you like to keep Cherry Orchard for ever?’
….She looked at him, frowning.
….‘I will buy Cherry Orchard and give it you, if you will give me the keys of Heaven.’
….‘And Heaven is—?’
….‘Your love.’

Laura is silent for a long time, as if communing with her beloved trees. Then she replies:

….‘I have no love to give,’ she said at last, ‘to you or any man.’
….‘Before the fruit falls in your orchard,’ he said, harsh and low, ‘you shall give it to me.’

And Julius, sure of his own power, buys the orchard and Laura’s home…

* * * * *

It’s not just the obvious masculine dominance in the story that makes it disturbing, though that’s important. It’s also Laura’s connection with nature which seems to go well beyond the norm, into a kind of witchy-woman feel – an elemental thing, a sexless dryad made human, female and powerless. The orchard and the trees are given a consciousness and have a kind of symbiotic relationship with Laura, as if she is their guardian and they are hers, but neither with the strength to withstand male destructiveness. Julius is a strong, pitiless man and Laura’s father is weak and selfish, but they both understand the power of money as a means to possess those things they desire. But at what cost?

The trees brooded over them like jewelled birds in some ancient tapestry. They filled him with an ache of longing. He wanted to possess them, as a god might. He would possess them in her. His soul could only reach the outer fringes of hers; his voice strove to win her; his eyes burnt on hers, but she lowered her lashes and was mute. She remained aloof: but through the body he would reach her. She should have nothing of herself left, no corner of her spirit that was not his.

Very well written in a folklorish style and strongly feminist in message, all the darkest parts are left vague and undescribed, and are all the more disturbing for it. I can’t find an online version of the story on its own, but if you would like to read it it’s one of the stories in a collection called Armour Wherein He Trusted, which can be downloaded free at fadedpage.com – here’s the link. Or of course you can read it in Weird Woods.

(The porpy didn’t get scared but he got angry!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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48 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Name-Tree by Mary Webb

  1. Gee, what happened to this man’s wife? I can’t imagine her sitting idly by while he tries to possess this neighbor-girl. I’d never heard of a name tree before, but I don’t think I could believe in such a tale. It’s hard to think of something like a tree (that’s subject to pests, climate change, and so forth) dying and then the person dying, too. *shudders* Yep, totally creepy, FF, and I love Porpy’s expression.

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    • I’d never heard of a name-tree either – don’t know whether it’s a real superstition or if the author just made it up. Seems a bit unfair on the tree though! I fear the wife was just expected to put up with her husband’s behaviour – ugh! The whole thing was very much in the vein of a folktale – not believable, but with quite a lot to say about society nonetheless… 😀

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  2. I can see how this would haunt you a bit, FictionFan. It sounds as though there’s just enough vagueness for the reader to use her own imagination, which is all the more effective at building suspense, and even eeriness. And it’s an interesting use of an old legend, too. Little wonder you still remember it….

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    • It’s funny how some of these stories linger when others fade away, and it’s not always the stories that made the biggest impression at the time. This was very folktale-ish – not believable in its own right, but with quite a lot to say about society nevertheless. And her slightly purple style of writing fitted the story well…

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    • Yes, it was very overtly feminist for the era, though more in the old style of the women being powerless than the new feminism of women as having power, if you see what I mean. More of a protest than a celebration. I don’t know if her books are similar in style – all I know about her is that she was the author that Cold Comfort Farm was supposed to be mostly satirising!

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    • She seems to have been one of those writers that was quite famous for a few years and then just fell out of fashion. Apparently it was her books that Gibbons was mostly satirising in Cold Comfort Farm!

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  3. I’ve never heard of the notion of a “name tree” before. Interesting… and creepy!

    It makes me feel better to hear you say you easily forget much of what you read (even if you were talking about short stories rather than novels). It sometimes disturbs me to look at a title from several months ago and not recall the basic premise without looking at the blurb. Then again, that usually only happens with books that didn’t particularly impress me!

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    • I’ve never heard of it either, and wondered if it’s a real superstition or if she just made it up for the story. Seems a bit unfair on the tree!

      Oh, I forget novels too – almost instantly! I wouldn’t be able to review at all if I didn’t take lots of notes, and even then if I leave it too long it becomes impossible because I’ve forgotten so much of the book. The upside though is that I can read the likes of Agatha Christie again and again – I reckon it takes at least three reads before I’ll remember whodunit…

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    • Ooh, I’m intrigued to know what you thought of it! I haven’t heard of name-trees either, and wondered if it was a real superstition or if she just made it up for the sake of the story. I knew it was supposed to be her books Gibbons was mainly satirising in CCF, but haven’t read any of them – I have a feeling her slightly overblown style might drive me mad in a longer format, though I thought it worked well for this story…

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      • Well! I didn’t see that ending coming! Not much in it for Laura, was there?
        I can see that Lady Angela’s repetition of an idea is similar to something a character in CCF says.
        I’ve saved the link to read some more of these stories, thank you for passing this on 🙂

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        • No, the ending really wasn’t uplifting, was it? I think that’s why it lingered. A modern story would have had the heroine become kickass and Julius would have got his comeuppance…
          I’d like to read one of her novels someday to see if they deserved to be satirised – I suspect they might! And I’m going to try to read some of the other stories in that collection too, though as usual I’m awash with anthologies for review this year. Hope you enjoy them – let me know!

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          • I suspect most authors would have written an ending where Laura won if they were given the story at a certain point and tasked with finishing it.
            I read a couple of the very short stories from the collection and didn’t find any to be as memorable, but those I chose were very, very short. I’ll keep going though.

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            • Quite often these mixed anthologies pick an author’s best and when I investigate further I’m not as impressed as I expected to be. Hope there are some other good ones in it though.

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  4. The porpy does look very fierce there! This sounds extremely creepy and unsettling, especially the quotes from Julius – I can see why it stayed with you in a way that some of the other stories haven’t.

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    • The story made both the porpy and me furious! Julius is lucky we didn’t know his address… 😉 It’s odd which stories linger – not always the ones that made the most impression immediately.

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    • I’d only heard of her because she’s supposed to be the writer Gibbons was mostly satirising in Cold Comfort Farm, but this is the only story of hers I’ve read. Don’t know how I’d get on with her rather purple prose in a longer format, but it worked very well in this kind of folk-tale story.

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  5. Interesting concept…so I had to read it immediately. (I’m procrastinating on doing my own writing that I’m struggling with. Can you tell?) I enjoyed the atmospheric writing and it accurately depicts how daughters were seen as property (in some places still are), handed over to a desirable suitor…in this case, even if the suitor is already married. He is her “landlord.” Ugh. And the wife convincing herself that this will be their son’s “property.” Creepy. And I’m repulsed by how the woman has to die to make her point. Double ugh. So this porcupine is getting even more prickly and fretful……

    Liked by 1 person

    • Procrastination is fun, though! Yes, yes, yes and yes!! That’s why I found it lingered, I think – it was disturbing on several levels and with no feeling of justice at the end. I doubt you could write that story today – people would expect the girl to fight or to have some kind of revenge – so maybe that in itself is a sign of progress?

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    • I’ve got more and more into vintage horror over the last few years – I never used to read much horror at all. But I find it’s like anything else – once you begin to understand the conventions and see the references it becomes much more satisfying. Ha, Julius is lucky the porpy didn’t know his address! 😉

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  6. I read Precious Bane some years ago. There is an overlap I think, in the style, the gender issues and perhaps in the witchy sense you identified. I’m intrigued by this one. May have to give it a try…

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    • I haven’t read anything of hers but thus story, but I’d like to try one of her novels some day. I’m not sure how her somewhat purple style would work for me in a longer format though – might drive me mad – though I thought it was very well suited to this folklore-ish kind of tale. All I know about her is that it was her that Gibbons was mostly mocking in Cold Comfort Farm…

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    • This is the only thing of hers I’ve read but I would like to try one of her novels some time, and a few more short stories – this one left quite an impression on me!

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  7. I agree this tale is disturbing on a number of levels, and it also has a haunted feel. The tree linked to human lives and purposes and the wild, abandoned orchard really do lead the reader to step over into folklore, as does the Bluebeard neighbour. And yet a level of reality ominously intrudes with the neighbour’s property and lustful claim on the young woman. Unsettling!

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    • Yes to all of that! I was as disturbed about Laura’s apparent disconnect from humanity and her lack of any kind of sexual desire as I was about Julius’ lust and power. I really must investigate her further – apparently she’s one of those writers who had a kind of cult status for a while, never achieving mass popularity but highly regarded by her peers.

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  8. I love the angry porpy! This one sounds good, and well ahead of its time, as you pointed out. I can see why it would be memorable, and I prefer when horror stories leave things unsaid, it makes it that much spookier I think…

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    • The porpy has calmed down a little now but still quivers whenever I mention this one! 😉 Yes, it’s a balancing act with the vague stuff – when it works it’s super effective, but I’m reading a collection now where a lot of the stories are just a little too vague. But in this one it works perfectly!

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