DART Review: The White Tree

A Tale of Inspector Legrasse

This episode of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre is an original story, a sort of sequel to Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu that continues the adventures of Inspector Legrasse as he investigates a report of a strange murder deep in Louisiana’s bayou. The inspector faces another cult and encounters not only a Lovecraftian horror, but an insidious evil that was quite real in the 1920s and unfortunately remains with us now.

Props for The White Tree

The White Tree begins with the now-retired New Orleans police inspector, John Legrasse (Sean Branney this time) in conversation with his grandson; the young man is keen on following in his grandfather’s footsteps and joining the police force. Grandpa wants him to go to college and take up a profession like architecture. He thinks the boy has an idealized image of the kind of work he used to do and of police officers in general.

“There’s good ones, there’s brave ones,” Legrasse tells the boy, “and there’s ones that aren’t so good and aren’t so brave…. It’s true, on the good days you get excitement. You work with good, brave men. You deliver justice. But Claude, they ain’t all good days.”

As an example, he tells the story of something that occurred in the summer of 1922, shortly before his retirement.

Since leading the police raid on a voodoo cult in 1907 (as described in Call of Cthulhu), Legrasse has been keeping an eye out for news of any other strange happenings in the bayou country; he feels that the case remains unfinished business. While looking through his precinct’s recent case files, he discovers the arrest report for one drunk and disorderly Antoine LaVache who was ranting about “a monster [that] came to life and killed a negro down in the bayou.” The arresting officer dismissed it as a drunkard’s ravings, but it’s precisely the kind of thing Legrasse has been waiting years for.

Legrasse attempts to follow up with LaVache in a small town called Vermilion, after calling on the local parish’s Chief Sheriff Morpain as a professional courtesy. Sheriff Morpain accompanies the inspector while he questions LaVache, a bruised and shaken man who now denies everything he said while drunk. The sheriff monitors LaVache’s replies, especially when the inspector asks who he got into a fight with, and is ready to prompt him when he falters.

Nevertheless, Legrasse wonders if LaVache did see something strange in the swamp and asks Morpain if he’s aware of any cult activity in the area. The sheriff recalls that 1907 raid (but doesn’t yet realize that Legrasse was the officer in charge). He refers the inspector to Widow Huberdeau, who owns the old plantation nearby. She and her late husband once made a study of the occult.

Morpain arranges an introduction to Mrs. Huberdeau, and they both are invited for dinner. After dinner, they settle down in the library for conversation.

It was the widow’s father-in-law who first began the impressive collection that Legrasse observes here. He particularly notes a large volume in a glass case, which his hostess says is a very old family Bible.

Cthulhu statue

Legrasse has brought along the Cthulhu idol that he confiscated during that long-ago raid.

When he shows it to Mrs. Huberdeau, she says that she’s never seen anything like it before. The name of Cthulhu is unfamiliar to her.

Then she sends her butler out of the room and acknowledges that there is one “secret society” at work in the neighborhood, although not the type of cult the inspector is interested in:

“Like-minded folks who’ve joined together to protect this great Nation and our way of life…. Local citizens, coming together to
take a stand against the moral threats to our community…. Adulterers. Bootleggers. Immigrants. Uppity negroes. Catholics. Threats to our Nation’s Christian values.”

Neither Inspector Legrasse nor the listener has any trouble guessing at the initials of this particular organization, which was in fact having a revival in the 1920s after the release of DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Legrasse doesn’t approve of the Klan’s vigilante activities, but he’s aware that a lot of Louisiana police officers are either involved in it or give it tacit support, and that Morpain is among them. Since he has to have the cooperation of these people to carry on his investigation, he tries to be polite and non-committal, but the sheriff senses his dislike.

Gris-Gris

They are frankly discussing the matter after they leave the Huberdeau mansion, when the inspector discovers something that’s been placed in his coat pocket: a small leather packet containing a scrap of snakeskin and a piece of paper with arcane symbols written on it.

The horrified Sheriff Morpain identifies this object as a “gregory”–a voodoo curse. He immediately drives Legrasse to an abandoned church where the local Voodoo Queen, Sarafine Glapion, lives to see if she can take the curse off.

Madame Sarafine has some slightly different information to give the inspector. The object is in fact called a “gris-gris” (which sounds similar to “gregory” if you pronounce it with a heavy Creole accent) and it can be a curse or a protective token, depending on the intent of the person who gave it to Legrasse. Either way, the inspector is headed for great danger. This gris-gris, she tells him, invokes the “great old ones” as well as “Le Grande Zombie,” which isn’t one of the walking dead, but the name of a snake god.

Then she goes into a trance and, in a deep and scary voice, speaks of a white tree on an island in “the Black Heart”. Legrasse is skeptical of the whole business, until her voice becomes even deeper and she uses a phrase he’s heard before, from those earlier cultists:

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu…”*

That’s enough to shake Legrasse, but not enough to stop his investigation.

The following day, the inspector hires a motorboat and a Cajun pilot who knows the bayou well, and heads out into the Coeur Noir–the Black Heart–of the swamp in quest of this island with the white tree. They do find an island with a large and very old oak in a clearing, along with the remains of a recent bonfire and some ominous-looking wooden posts with leather straps attached and fairly fresh bloodstains. A snake also makes a brief appearance, but the guide drives it off.

When Legrasse returns to the clearing in the night, he witnesses a Klan meeting with distinct occult overtones. The Cyclops, their hooded leader, turns out to be a woman with a surprisingly familiar voice. Perhaps not so surprising: there have only been two noteworthy female characters with occult knowledge in this story so far, one a black Voodoo priestess and the other a socially prominent white lady who’s a vocal proponent of the Klan. She was lying about recognizing the name of Cthulhu. The names of Yog Sothoth and Shub Niggurath are also familiar to her and her Klannish cultists. And that big book from the library certainly isn’t a bible.

The Klan is preparing to punish a local man they feel has transgressed–not Antoine LaVache, as I was expecting, but someone who hasn’t previously appeared in the story. They are about to sacrifice their victim to the White Tree, when Legrasse’s guide attempts to intervene before the man can be killed.

It doesn’t turn out well, and the Klan now is aware that Legrasse knows about their activities and is working against them.

The inspector finds an unexpected ally in the person who gave him the gris-gris.  He also learns about the origins of the White Tree from an elderly blind man who had been the slave of a Confederate Colonel during the Civil War and who witnessed the horrific rites the colonel performed when he and his men were trapped on that island in the bayou near the end of the war, rather than surrender to the Yankees; it was the last sight the old man ever saw. (I thought this colonel must have been Mrs. Huberdeau’s father-in-law on the first listen, but his name isn’t Huberdeau and after repeated listenings I’m not sure if/how they are connected apart from the fact that he was the previous owner of that big book.)

The White Tree isn’t just a tree anymore, but something monstrously alive and hungry. It’s been the site for meetings of the local Klan since.

“They spit out their hate and somehow that tree soaks it up.”

As the inspector sees for himself, when the Klan catches up with him and takes him to the White Tree to be their next sacrifice…

Well, we know that Legrasse survived his encounter with the Klan and the White Tree, since he’s telling his grandson and us about it some years later. This scene is the highlight of the story, as all Hell (pretty much literally) breaks loose. DART scenes of chaotic events are usually very well done in terms of layering of sound effects to tell us what’s going on, and this is no exception.

It’s not a story Lovecraft himself would have written–in which black Voodoo practitioners are the good guys–but it’s a gripping tale of diabolical doings in the bayou, an undying hate that twists and distorts nature to create a monster, and an honest policeman trying to do his job in spite of the secret acts of evil committed by those in positions of prestige and power around him. As the story concludes:

“There’s men out there we should be afraid of… But you’ll never know which ones they are just by looking at them.”

The props that come with the CD include:

  • A page from a book about the Klan-cult’s rituals featuring a map of the clearing where the White Tree stands, with handwritten notes.
  • A 1907 newspaper article about Inspector Legrasse’s raid on the Cthulhu cult.
  • A New Orleans police incident report.
  • My very own gris-gris! It appears to be written on part of a vintage sugar-bag.

___________


*The script notes tell me that the deep voice speaking through Sarafine is that of Castro, the cultist who told Inspector Legrasse about Cthulhu back in 1907; I didn’t pick that up when I was first listening to this audioplay.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.