Let’s start with the plot.
Summary: Framing device established (i.e. I’m not insane I sweeeear!). Schall’s stillbirth + deaths. Dream. Sam’s breakdown + possession. Narrator’s midnight scare. Narrator returns. Art and narrator confront Sam. Follow her to Grove. Reveal of the tree & workers’ fates. Art gets eaten. Narrator flees. Narrator returns. Burns down house, kills Sam, unearths tree. End framing device + final reveal of baby monster.
Analysis: So, at the heart of this story is a miscarriage. A couple move into an abandoned home to revitalise it. The prior occupants were Jewish immigrants who died under mysterious circumstances but it remains well known that they had a stillbirth and that the baby was buried in the grove which is now rank and overgrown. That lingering pain is what drives the story forward. First it kicks off with a dream. Then the woman is possessed. Then it consumes the workers, and then the husband. And then it drives the narrator to kill Sam, burn down the house, and tear the grove apart.
I see a clear-cut parallel. Yes Jozsa’s child is a literal seed that grows into a literal tree but the idea of a small inciting incident growing rapidly out of control and causing multiple deaths also feels a lot like a metaphorical seed. A single loss is nourished (those lullabies keep on recurring) and grows rapidly out of proportion into a terrible source of pain across the span of decades. Similarly, whereas trees are typically presented as totems of fertility, growth and nature here the tree is literally sucking the life out of the world and its victims (“every drop of fluid sapped out of 'em”).
Babies, by the way, are also strong symbols of fertility and growth which also take nutrients from the world around them to grow. And really, neither the tree nor the babe do anything that is particularly out of character. The baby seeks comfort from a mother and consumes endlessly just as the tree plants roots and takes nutrients from the soil; this isn’t unnatural behaviour for what these respective entities are. Rather these same behaviours are presented in a way that is unnatural and beyond the natural order of things. This particular tree consumes flesh, and this particular baby is DOA.
On this note I’d like to draw attention to the biblical imagery of seeds and plantation. Not only will you almost always find a man’s sperm referred to as his ‘seed’ (drawing another direct connection to the process of conception/birth) but the Bible loves the imagery agriculture invokes with lots of sewing, reaping, seed-spilling, and field tolling. I find it fascinating that where biblical stories often use seeds as a parallel to the power of hope and faith—something small that can grow into a titanic power—Mike completely inverts the metaphor. It is the small and cosmically insignificant death of a child that grows into something much more powerful.
It’s not faith that is a resilient beacon of light; it’s Jozsa’s grief.
I also feel as though any potential religious motifs are possibly augmented by the image of the twisted gnarled tree. Growing up in a Catholic school I often walked past an image of Jesus Christ nailed to a giant tree; it was this tree I saw in my head when I read the passage above. There’s also the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden where humanity experiences its greatest loss ever. Typically images of trees have a history of positive symbolism and here Mike effortlessly uses it to evoke a sense of loss. It’s an inversion of something usually associated with hope (like say, a pregnancy) that is used to instead inspire dread.
So, we have a plot where the events are about a literal seed, but which also look at a metaphorical seed. We also have a plot that is about two couples’ failed attempts to turn a house into a holiday home as well as their failed attempts to start a family. What sticks out to me when reading this story is a sense of fragility or desperation. It’s not so much despair as it is a feeling of teetering on the edge of despair. I don’t know if it’s because the framing device is some guy pleading for his sanity, or because the story is built on a plot of failed dreams, or because the very setting itself is defined by a failed attempt to create a family, or if it’s because pregnancy and childbirth are inherently uncertain moments of vulnerability where things can go drastically wrong, or if it’s because the Schall’s were immigrants who arrived with a dream that fell apart or… well surely you get the idea by now?
The plot is all about a sense of loss and for me this story’s mood and atmosphere reflect that. There’s a lot of “what could have been” going on. Interestingly the dream sequence, which feels like a central moment in the plot, also seems built to reinforce the imagery of stillbirth/loss. Let’s look at it (it’s a lot of fun).
“I walked through an endless void of white mist, like I was standing on the ocean surface on the coldest night of winter. I walked on and on for what seemed like days until suddenly the fog lifted to reveal a blood red sky and an ancient, crooked tree towering over a field of shriveled greenery and sterile earth, with eight or nine limp bodies dangling from its naked branches like trophies. Not from nooses, Jerry: that damned tree gripped their broken necks like a child would his playthings.”
This is a kind of important transition. Let’s break it down. We have a big chunk dedicated to timelessness, or waiting, combined with cold imagery that feels sterile, or serene (“void/white/ocean surface/cold/mist”) We move from this quiet moment of waiting filled with dread and go straight into “blood red skies”. We face an ancient crooked tree and ‘shrivelled greenery’, ‘sterile earth’ and ‘limp bodies’. For me, this transition mirrors a still birth.
Waiting, waiting, waiting; blood, death, sterility.
And the tree itself? It is an ancient crooked thing that clutches numerous dead bodies held in its branches like ‘playthings’. It could be death itself or it could be a more specific reference to stillbirths but its presence feels enormous and it brings imagery of sterility and failed growth. In this specific scene the tree is also foreshadowing the literal threat. (And you wouldn’t be wrong to draw a comparison with lynching imagery even if the story tries to avoid that.)
Either way, for me at least, I took from this passage a sense of pain and loss. Its potency as a foreshadowing device is enormous if only because it establishes the mood so swiftly and because it communicates the gravity of the pain that is haunting this place. It’s also worth noting that nothing quite rams home the futility of human effort like a stillbirth. I’m close with people who’ve experienced them and the sense of futility is enormous; there’s a sense that all of our lives, no matter how small or great, are just something else’s ‘playthings’.
The narrator is the person we know the most and I’d like to look at him because I think he contributes to the sense of fragility. We meet him at an asylum where he’s at once pleading (“I don't belong in this loony bin!/ You got to believe me”) and strangely aloof (“I need another whiskey before I start, Jerry, if you don't mind/ I confess to the property's hasty demolition/ I was perfectly sound in mind until I uprooted that damned tree.”) He’s a big tough war veteran who stands defiant of the authorities (“Yeah, that's right, I said "liberate" because that's exactly what I did”) but also admits to waking up “with a sissy yelp” and who runs away twice from the threat at hand (“Scared too far out of my wits”). He seems aware of his contradictions but doesn’t take shit about it either (“if you'd only been there with me your hands would be shaking as badly as mine”).
I like that he owns his contradictions in a way that doesn’t feel cowardly but which reinforces the paradox and this gives the character a lot of texture. I like this because it fits the premise; he’s a soldier. He’s taken bullets for friends. He understands what the call of duty requires (“To do what had to be done”) but that means he’s deeply aware of just what’s at stake. He doesn’t want to die and he won’t walk bravely into his own execution but when it comes to the final shove he’ll step up and do what’s necessary.
He yelps when waking from nightmares, his hands shake when telling his story, he flees the present danger, and he admits to being unsettled by the whole affair. But he’s also willing to return twice to a place of enormous terror because a friend of his is in danger (even though he makes Art approach the possessed Sam which kind of made me laugh) and he won’t take shit from the people questioning him. Like I said; there’s some contradictions and a beautiful sense of uncertainty but it never feels broken; it is perfectly complimentary to what we know about him.
Still though; the overall sense of character I take from him is one of fragility. He feels close to the edge. It also makes sense that there would be some synergy between the character’s uncertainty and the mood/atmosphere because it’s him who chooses the words to describe each scene.
We don’t know that much about the setting. What we know though is very effectively shown. We have the house (“It was a fixer-upper for sure: everything was caked in dust, the furniture had all but fallen apart, and the ceiling had collapsed in two rooms and let the spring drizzles damage everything inside”) and the grove (“Jozsa let it all grow out of control until the Rock had itself a nice toupee of greenery”). More than any other area it’s the setting we get to see that efficiency coming through. Even things like the time period are effortless demonstrated with off-hand comments (“since the war”), names (“Art”), and actions (“He … Smacked the workers around from time to time”) which lets you know we’re looking at the first half of the 20th Century.
Either way, Mike rarely lets a word go to waste and it shows in how he constructs a setting with very little wording. Rather he’s focused on character actions (we see more of them clearing the house out than we do of the actual house) and on the place’s history than of an actual physical description (and even the history is more about the Schall’s than the place itself). Even the grove isn’t given a massive amount of real estate. Consider the line “Thorny bushes and sharp branches thrashed me bloody and I didn't care” which steps in and tells us, for the first time, that there are thorny bushes in the grove. You likely took it for granted but the story relies on your understanding of the grove as a hostile setting and trusts you to figure out that there’s probably thorny brambles. It’s just another example of economic writing and a great example of knowing when to trust your audience.
It’s worth noting that for the most part Jozsa’s Grove is light on heavy subtext and themes. Any symbolism I’ve mentioned is strongly reflective of my own interpretation. I disassembled my own experience of the story and took it apart to get a sense of why I felt the way I did when reading. Rather I make no claim to some great religious metaphor but rather would like to draw attention to the story’s use of recurring motifs and imagery to construct an effective atmosphere of dread (I suppose if I wanted to wring some bigger meaning out of this story it’d be “Don’t nourish grief” but that hardly feels fair).
So at this stage it’s worth considering a few things.
First; the imagery used in this story is powerful. I’ve drawn comparisons between the tree and the symbolism that possesses in religion and mythology (I’ve intentionally left out references to the tree of life so you might want to consider that yourself). I’ve mentioned the garden of Eden and the idea that trees are typically presented as symbols of nature, fertility and health. Similarly seeds are often used as metaphors for faith and hope. But this story makes a living out of inverting these, usually, hopeful images and twisting them into something frightening. All of this comes together to draw a strong parallel with the nature of stillbirths which are a tragic inversion of what should be a wonderful life-giving experience.
Second: the characters and atmosphere often feel fragile. The narrator’s behaviour, while smoothly explained, is objectively erratic. He runs away twice only to later return under the labour of guilt. He is riddled with contradictions but his behaviour is still consistent with his character (it gives him texture without making him unlikeable or difficult to relate to). Similarly, the mood and atmosphere often feels ‘on edge’. The words hang in between a sterile cold mood (mist, void, ocean, sterile, endless) and a violent bloody one (blood-red, gnarled, barracuda). This fine-tuned balance also integrates well with the narrator’s character (who feels similarly torn between cowardice and bravery) given that it is him picking these words.
Third: the story is very economic with its words. It is a brief 2500(ish) words and doesn’t mess about. In contrast to Jay’s Ned the Nihilist the emphasis is placed on the plot instead of themes which makes them interesting companion pieces if only because they feel so damned different. It’s interesting because both Ned and Jozsa’s Grove are powerful and consistent stories that make deliberate cuts to certain parts (neither, for what it’s worth, spend hours describing a geographical location) but their divergent choices result in wildly different reading experiences. It’s also worth holding onto the way that Mike uses things like character actions to build a sense of history or identity rather than thinly spreading descriptions across all of his moving parts. There’s an economic efficiency to each word used and you can start picking up on some neat tricks to save yourself time (e.g. don’t waste time stating a chronological setting, just make it clear through casual dialogue).
Oh, and one last thing; this story doesn’t sit well as a Lovecraftian tale despite the stylistic similarities. Rather consider the nature of the plot and its heavy emphasis on the human grief process and you’ll quickly find that this story is fundamentally opposed to Lovecraft’s core ethos of “humans don’t matter”. I like this because in this day and age it’s too easy to write a pastiche of Lovecraft and truth is Lovecraft had a lot of weaknesses. God knows I’m a super Lovecraft fan but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give him a “get out of jail free”-card for his many limitations. Rather we have to iterate and make progress from those who have come before us and one blatant shortcoming of HP Lovecraft was that his tales were devoid of the human aspect. Here we see Mike demonstrate the power of human emotions like loss, dread, and fear to create a great horror story. He doesn’t take Cthulhu and make us labour through some boring romance subplot (which is how some authors attempt, and fail, to get around this shortcoming) but he instead directly challenges the assertion that the significance of human experiences is counterintuitive to a good sense of fear.
Ultimately, the subject at hand is frightening because it is so human. It’s all well and good idolising the likes of Cthulhu and Hastur but it remains the case that the most terrifying things any of us are likely to experience are normal human grief and loss and Mike puts that to damned good use.