Thursday, August 29, 2019

"The Willows" (1907)

Algernon Blackwood's beloved classic is a long story that feels a bit like a cross between Jack London and H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, Lovecraft was deeply influenced by it, citing it as his single favorite story. "The Willows" is set in a section of the Danube River that is less like a ballroom waltz and more like a Louisiana bayou, ambling through sandy marshes and swampy shallows. The first-person narrator and his companion, identified as "the Swede," are traveling by canoe, on some intrepid type of camping vacation apparently. They are trawling down the river in a high waters time, which means small sandy islands can wash away and boats lose track of the over-flooding channel and even become trapped in backwaters. Blackwood is good at wilderness and physical description though perhaps not as good as some others, such as London. Blackwood is often equally focused on his genre considerations, distracted from the natural by the supernatural threads in his stories which can be conventional.

Still it's the brooding things of wilderness that ultimately carry this one. Those willows, most obviously, swaying and bending in the high winds, an image returned to again and again. Filmmaker David Lynch has used a similar effect many times, notably in his Twin Peaks episodes, with the camera simply sitting and looking at trees in the wind. The high winds themselves are unsettling—windstorms, especially at night, are the most disturbing storms of all. Ultimately, of course, what we have here is a serious case of Ineffable Evil. But what's great about this story is not its interest in the evil but rather how perfectly strange that evil is. My grasp of it, though the story was written well before commercial radio, is as the sense of something peering back from behind the static between stations. It does not surprise me in a way that Lovecraft honored this piece above all others, as it is both an impressive enough feat of world-building and also such a solid slab of id-sourced weird. The point is that we can't understand it, whatever it is, though we know to our core it's awful. From Blackwood's description, this isolated section of the Danube is a place where two parallel dimensions are scraping against one another and the membrane has grown thin, heralded by the high winds and an ominous sound that recurs only inside the mind. The two men are in great danger. It is like an encounter of a bobcat and a squirrel and they are the squirrel. The hunting style of these superior beings appears to be like the feline style of playing with prey. The landscape is blurred between the physical and the mental. Much of the peril is an implicit threat of madness, literally losing their minds.

"The Willows" is considered Blackwood's best by a good margin though many also note how prolific he was at high levels. There's indeed something open and inviting about his work—I've enjoyed the handful or so stories I've read and intend to read more, but I'd put him closer to my idea of an adventure story writer rather than horror. Probably my own favorite Blackwood so far is the only very short story I've read by him yet, "Ancient Lights," about a man who can't find his way through a small patch of woods. "The Wendigo" appears to be Blackwood's consensus #2 best, but its North American setting wasn't at all convincing to me and I kept thinking of James Fenimore Cooper, not a favorite. "Glamour in the Snow" had an unconvincing supernatural story but was very good on snow and frigid conditions. I can see how "The Willows" is a notch above. The setting is inspired and the turn to an unknowable weird almost aggressive. It's not conventional supernatural, that's for sure.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.

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