The garden is an archetype deeply imbedded in our literary unconscious. In mediaeval poetry such as The Romance of the Rose, the enclosed garden, or hortus conclusus as it is termed in Latin, is both the site & the symbol of making love, with the object of the lover’s desire represented as a beautiful & fragrant flower. The beloved can also be imagined figuratively as a rare jewel or like Eros himself, as a winged creature, a beautiful bird, or perhaps a butterfly. But in the literature of supernatural horror, the garden of love has a diabolic counterpart, a garden of evil, fecund with poisonous plants, deadly nightshade, belladonna, overrun with weeds hiding hideous scaly creatures & toads. In the imagination of a master such as Bosch or Poe, the love garden subtly transmutes itself into the garden of death. Dot Hutchison bases The Butterfly Garden on this contrast. If I could chose a soundtrack for it, that would be “Beautiful Poisons” by Paige Anderson & the Fearless Kin. A very wealthy collector abducts teenage girls & transports them to his isolated estate. He inks them with exquisitely colored tattoos of different butterfly species that they will display their wings for his aesthetic pleasure in backless dresses, & after that he rapes them. He also gives them new artsy sounding names such as Maya & Ravenna. He keeps more than 20 of them, allowing them to flit about in a garden closed off from the rest of his estate till they reach the age of 21. Then he finds another way for them to gratify his artistic tastes. The girls refer to him as “The Gardener” but of course we’ve met him in horror stories often before–as the commandant of the concentration camp, the governor of the penal colony, the master of the slave plantation, the ogre in his castle, the demon king.
This tale is told by Maya (a.k.a. Inara), one of the girls, with her audience two FBI agents, & we learn @ the very beginning that many of the other abducted girls have been rescued as well. That is why I began this review by talking literary history & theory, not just to show off that I spent too much time in an English department. (Tho’ I’d love to have had Maya as a student; she is very well-read & could teach me a lot.) For I find the 1-star & dnf reviewers seemed to have in common trying to read The Butterfly Garden in the wrong way, as a failed attempt @ writing a realistic suspense thriller, & hating it. If instead you read it as a conte philosophique, a theological romance (like M. R. Carey’s Fellside, which I just finished, or C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength), & a full-bore-no-speed-limit tragedy, this book will blow your doors off.
The philosophy is that of the 17th-century mathematician & Christian Blaise Pascal: Qu’on s’imagine un nombre d’hommes dans les chaînes, et tous condamnés à la mort ; dont les uns étant chaque jour égorgés à la vue des autres, ceux qui restent voyent leur propre condition dans celle de leurs semblables ; et se regardant les uns les autres avec douleur et sans espérance, attendent leur tour. C’est l’image de la condition des hommes. Substitute “jeunes filles” for “hommes—tho’ the Gardener does something more artistic & kinkier in private than cutting their throats in full view, but each indeed looks on the other girls with sadness & without hope while awaiting her turn.
Maya hasn’t studied philosophy or French, but she does know Greek tragedy. This is her take on Sophocles’ Antigone: “I always thought she was pretty cool. She’s strong and brave and resourceful, not above a certain level of emotional manipulation, and she dies, but on her own terms. She’s sentenced to live out the rest of her days in a tomb and she says fuck that, I’m going to hang myself. And then there’s her betrothed, who loves her so much that he flips his shit at her death and tries to kill his own father. And then, of course, he dies too, because come on, it’s a Greek tragedy, and the Greeks and Shakespeare really love killing people off. It’s a great lesson, really. Everyone dies.” Her switch in “registers” (as a professor of linguistics would term them) from “fuck that” to “a certain level of emotional manipulation” to “flips his shit” fits a teenaged autodidact nicely, & we have to remember that she is quite deliberately playing the FBI agents like a couple of fat stupid trout @ the end of her line. There is indeed a character in the story who plays the role of Haemon to Maya’s Antigone, as well as acting a part in a diabolic parody of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.
But I had some Problems:
Maya is indeed “strong & brave & resourceful” which made me expect she’d play a much more active role in the girls’ escape. Maya has assumed the role of head-girl or big sister & she ought to be the one who effects the denouement. The ending seemed very flat. Having gazed repeatedly and deeply into the abyss, Maya & the other girls will have been marked & set apart forever. Some may, as is remarked, commit suicide. Some, & I hope Maya is one of them, may be even stronger, braver, & dedicated to doing good & combating evil. I’d like to see a sequel set a decade later.
Spiritually & morally, the author seems clueless. Like so many contemporary people with a modern education, she is very aware that there is something monstrously hideously wrong with what the Gardener is doing, but lacks the concepts & vocabulary to express that awareness, so the only thing Maya & the FBI men can say to describe this horror is that “it is against the law.” How the Gardener tramples upon & violates the moral & natural order (the girls’ unnatural tattooed butterfly wings & mounting the butterfly girls’ bodies in display cases are obvious signs of his unnatural appetites, like the metal trees in Lewis’s Hideous Strength), as well as denying the girls their most basic humanity in reducing them to objets d’art, is apparently inexplicable in contemporary culturally relativist terms known to these characters, & I suspect the author as well..
Anyway, let me know what you think. Borrowing a metaphor from Taylor Swift, I’d say The Butterfly Girls was a ride in a new Maserati up a dead end street. But this one’s a classic, not a new Maserati, rather one of those GP Maseratis from the ‘50s like Sterling Moss might have driven. And what a ride!