This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Luigi Ugolini (1891 – 1980) was an Italian writer who garnered an international reputation for his short stories. Early on, Ugolini wrote articles and tales for newspapers. Later he dedicated himself almost exclusively to fiction for young people, which included works of historical biography and a sequel to Pinocchio. He also worked as an illustrator, notable especially for work on a number of Jules Verne novels. A compelling tale of weird transformation, “The Vegetable Man” was originally published in 1917 in an Italian publication whose title translates as The Illustrated Journal of Travel and Adventure Over Land and Sea. Brendan and Anna Connell’s skilful translation of the story for The Weird is the first in the English language. Brendan Connell has lent further insights on this story, deriving valuable context for reading not just from the author’s experience and viewpoints, but also from the spirit of the times in which he wrote.
– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
Luigi Ugolini was born and died in Florence, Italy. The early part of his career was spent writing articles and short stories for many newspapers and journals, including La Nazione, La Gazetta del popolo, La Lettura, and Il Messaggero. Later he dedicated himself almost exclusively to fiction for young people. Ugolini was not so much a writer of the Weird as he was a writer who wrote some weird fiction—science fiction and fantasy.
Context is everything.
From the mid 1800’s until the beginning of World War II, the hunger in Italy for science fiction was vast, in large part due to the popularity of such writers as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Most of the work consumed was either distributed through publishers like Sonzogno who put out, amongst countless other things, the complete works of Jules Verne at modest prices, or periodicals, such as Per Terra e Per Mare, La Sfinge, La Domenica del Corriere, etc. The publishers for the most part concentrated on putting out translations of works from the French and English. But even this could not satisfy the demand of the public.
These publications offered a way for numerous Italian authors to make small amounts of money, gain experience, and a little exposure. Often stories were written one day and published the next. Novels were published as romanzi d’appendice, serial adventures which made up a portion of many newspapers. A number of famous Italian authors, such as Emilio Salgari, Carolina Invernizio, and Francesco Mastriani, were launched in this manner, the first for his adventure stories, the second for her lurid romances, the last for his mysteries and novels of social realism.
Luigi Ugolini started off in the legal profession, but left it early on to pursue a literary career. He turned his pen to almost everything: short stories, novels, poetry, technical manuals, and cookbooks. Under the pen name of Giulio D’Albenga, he wrote Musodoro, a novel about poaching, which was later made into a film. He used at least six other pseudonyms for other writings. He wrote articles on birds and hunting. He wrote plays, and the libretto for an opera. Amongst his works we find a sequel to Pinocchio. He wrote anti-fascist articles, for which he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison, taking advantage of his time behind bars to write several more books. In his life, he wrote over 150 books and more than 35,000 newspaper articles. He was also a skilled illustrator, noted especially for the work he did on a number of Jules Verne novels.
Ugolini’s “The Vegetable Man” was originally published in Giornale Illustrato dei Viaggi e delle Avventure di Terra e di Mare (The Illustrated Journal of Travel and Adventure Over Land and Sea) in 1917. It is about a scientist by the name of Benito Olivares whose studies push him deep into the Amazon jungle, where he discovers a new and baffling plant, the features of which are almost like those of a man. Stretching out his hand to pick a flower from it, he gets pricked by a thorn. From that time on, he is taken by a mysterious illness which leads him to a strange transformation.
All evidence points to Ugolini having composed the tale rapidly, with the story going to print without a great deal of editorial oversight. One can almost imagine him typing out the last word and handing it directly to the printer’s devil for last minute insertion in the publication. Judging by the number of articles he wrote (averaging more than one article a day throughout his life) there is little doubt that he worked this way.
Ugolini was a hunter, an ornithologist, and a naturalist, and this comes across clearly in his vivid descriptions of the jungles—which might have little to do with the Amazon, but certainly have much to do with nature—and fantasy, weird writing, is if nothing else about taking the world around us and rewriting it as our fears, desires, and melancholy dictate.
The protagonist of “The Vegetable Man” speaks of his adventures in the Amazon:
. . . I penetrated the virgin forests, discovering the remote sources of some of our magnificent rivers, measuring myself against death in that poisonous climate, risking the horrible bites of the deadly snakes that live in the mysterious jungle shadows. I wrung countless secrets out of that vegetable environment that knows no bounds, that rises to the highest glory of free and lush flora, seeming almost to declare its domination over the fertile land, as if jealously guarding its most beautiful and hidden mysteries, wanting to revenge itself on any intruder.
And later, describes a simple vine thus:
But a silent and insidious weapon rules the mute combat of the vegetable kingdom: the liana. It is the octopus of the forest, the paralyzing tentacle, the noose that cuts off the circulation of the sap and produces vegetable suffocation and gangrene.
So, it is a story of botany that at heart really seems to be about the merciless quality of nature—especially the nature of an exotic local from a writer who was on intimate terms with the much more tranquil Tuscan Maremma.
Mr. Ugolini’s work has been translated into Japanese, Spanish, German, Romanian, Czech, Hungarian, and Portuguese. One can only hope that with the publication of “The Vegetable Man” in The Weird, the first translation of anything of his in English, that others will translate and publish more of his work.