I recently saw a newer and better Wandrei tale, The Tree-Men of M’Bwa, which he should have no difficulty selling to either Bates or Wright.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 14 Aug 1931, Essential Solitude 1.360
[…] I must congratulate you on the novel & original cosmic thrills, & the extremely effective climax, of The Tree-Man. I surely hope this has found—or will find—favour with the editorial fraternity.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 25 Sep 1931,
Letters With Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 271
“The Tree-Men of M’bwa” by Donald Wandrei was published in the February 1932 issue of Weird Tales. It is neither explicitly a tale of the Cthulhu Mythos nor not a Mythos tale. As with “The Fire Vampires” (WT Feb 1933), Wandrei makes no specific reference to Cthulhu, the Necronomicon, etc. But “The Tree-Men of M’bwa” involves some very Lovecraftian elements, passing references to Atlantis and Mu, and uses the incredibly ambiguous term “Evil Old Ones.” The ambiguity has helped ensure the general obscurity of the story: it has never been published in any English-language Mythos anthology. Indeed, it would probably not be considered part of the Mythos at all except that it was posthumously adopted as part of the Mythos by the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, appearing as part of the “African Mythos” in works such as Malleus Monstrum (2006), Secrets of Kenya (2007), and The Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion (2014).
The desire to incorporate “The Tree-Men of M’bwa” into the Mythos likely has less to do with the relative merits of the story than the general lack of Mythos fiction dealing with Africa in general. Lovecraft ghost-wrote “Winged Death” for Hazel Heald and “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” for Harry Houdini, but there are extraordinarily few stories from the first generation of Mythos-writers set in Africa, unless you count Robert E. Howard’s adventures of Solomon Kane, which do not deal with the Mythos directly.
Even then, there is nothing particularly special about this story that separates it from any other weird tale set in Africa and that doesn’t directly contradict any other bit of Mythos-lore, except that Donald Wandrei was part of the circle of Lovecraft’s correspondents and did write at least one actual Mythos story. Hugh B. Cave’s “The Cult of the White Ape” (Weird Tales Feb 1933) might as easily have been borrowed into the Mythos, but as Cave corresponded only briefly with Lovecraft it is generally forgotten, whereas “The Tree-Men of M’bwa” has gone on to its weird literary afterlife.
In context, “The Tree-Men of M’bwa” is a typical “mysteries of darkest Africa” story, where intrepid great white hunters and explorers (led by at least a dozen of the indigenous people who have been there their entire lives and know pretty much where everything is and why you don’t want to muck about with the crashed aliens, etc.) stumble into some unknown peril. The focus of these stories is almost solely on the white people who are telling the narrative, and center it on themselves; the black people are often little more than an afterthought, and Wandrei does not vary from formula.
Most of the country we were going through was unexplored. Even today there’s no telling what may turn up in some out of the way spot. They haven’t begun to exhaust the mysteries of Africa.
—Donald Wandrei, “The Tree-Men of M’bwa”
How much actual research Wandrei did for the story is debatable. The geography is roughly correct, if one makes general allowances (i.e. that the fabled Mountains of the Moon” referred to are the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda, and “Kola” is actually “Kole,” a town closer to the border) it’s safe to say that he at least glanced at a map. I have not yet found a people in the region named “Neguchi” or similar; either Wandrei picked the name out of an obscure text or made it up. The word “M’bwa” is Swahili, and means “dog.” Whether Wandrei knew that or not is, again, unknown; he may have simply liked the sound of it as sufficiently alien to English.
“M’bwa” is the only African named in the story. The indigenous guides are only the “Neguchi boys,” which turn of phrase could be read as discriminatory when applied by a white man to a group of black men in the 1930s. Africa itself is veritably a character in this story, hostile and alien to the white men who seek to probe its mysteries; Wandrei emphasizes early on:
Why my boat had stopped in this filthy hell-hole on the Gold Coast, I don’t know, but here we were overnight and I had gone ashore to break the monotony of scalding days at sea. It wasn’t much imporvement, even after sunset. Fierce, steamy heat that made you boil with sweat. An unpleasant smell, half-native, half-decayed vegetation, that every village seemed to have. (ibid.)
There are a couple of interesting details to the encounter with M’bwa and the Whirling Flux. The first is the number of trees—despite this being an “unexplored” part of Africa, it is quite evident that there have been at least twenty “explorers” there before him, and the indigenous peoples seem well-informed of the spot in general. The earliest visitors were an Atlantean, an Egyptian, and a Roman—in the 1930s, that would implicitly mean “three white men,” although such racial divisions would have been meaningless in ancient Rome or Egypt. The one tree-man that speaks to Daniel Richards did so apparently in English, suggesting he too was white.
The word zombie is never used in the story to refer to M’bwa, although the dead man has many of the attributes of the revenant; the word was just coming into vogue with the publication of William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929), and the film White Zombie (1932) which it inspired; many writers at Weird Tales penned zombie stories during this period, and readers would have been aware of that, even without a voodoo connection.
“The Tree-Men of M’bwa” is arguably not as bad as “The Cult of the White Ape” or “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch in terms of its portrayal of black people, but neither did Wandrei go out of his way to give an informed or sympathetic portrayal either. It is a white person’s story, written by a white person for what would presumably be a white audience, and it reads like that. That it has been seized on by the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying crowd as a component of the “African Mythos” speaks more to the general paucity of such material available than to any particular merit of the story itself.
Donald Wandrei’s “The Tree-Men of M’bwa” was first published in Weird Tales (Feb 1932); it was reprinted in Wandrei’s collections The Eye and the Finger (1944, Arkham House) and Don’t Dream: The Collected Horror and Fantasy of Donald Wandrei (1997, Fedogan & Bremer; paperback edition 2017). The long gap between publications is one reason why this story has remained so obscure for many decades, but now that it is more available perhaps it will find a new audience.