Beware, spoilers below!
Algernon Blackwood is one of the most prolific supernatural writers of his time and in the history of the genre. He is a superb craftsman in the art of weird fiction and I cannot be happier to have finally read his work. I know Lovecraft praised him highly and credited his work “The Willows” the best supernatural tale in the English language.
I couldn’t agree more – his language is haunting and it’s beautiful, a sophisticated horror voice that’s insanely liquid and tranquil even when it’s teary-eyed scary; it’s a flowing paragraphed river of tantalizing, skin-prickling goodness! Blackwood handles the tension in “The Willows” masterfully.
I never once got bored or tired or most importantly distracted, which is a key aspect for when I read something, and I presume for anyone for the matter. It’s a demanding tale – eye-averting is not recommended, because there is always something applying its supernatural pressure both on the physical world around characters and reader alike and on the minds of all participants. Who thought canoeing can be this occult?
Where I left my ramblings in the previous update was just right after the narrator and his companion, the Swede begin suspecting one another of the foul things occurring around their camp in the dead of night, but that situation escalates when the ever-rational Swede admits the presence of an outer great power that demands something, and it might just be a sacrifice with them both the victims.
Introduction into this change comes with much maniacal laughter from both of them, as something like the above assumption is both ridiculous and utterly frightening, because there might be truth in it, and as most know, naming one thing makes it real.
The willows themselves begin broadcasting their own gong-like noise after the wind dies, and it distributes itself over the whole of the swamp. At one point both adventurers admit to missing the howling of the wind.
The Swede’s explanations of the arisen situation and all the oddities are magnificent – they come in a chaotic way, true, and the narrator summarizes that unstable, near insanity of his friend with scary accuracy,
“He composed such curious sentences, and hurled them at me in such an inconsequential sort of way, as though his main line of thought was secret to himself, and these fragments were mere bits he found impossible to digest. He got rid of them by uttering them. Speech relieved him. It was like being sick.”*
What’s more unsettling is how far away from the rational his spoken thoughts stir. My favorite, and his initial impression of the strange sound, is this:
“I don’t think a gramophone would show any record of that. The sound doesn’t come to me by the ears at all. The vibrations reach me in another manner altogether, and seem to be within me, which is precisely how a fourth dimensional sound might be supposed to make itself heard.”
A sound outside humanity, as the Swede qualifies it.
Pivotal, the camping-place begins to settle a feel of “being utterly alone on an empty planet” inside the narrator. It’s strange how even the both of them feel inhuman at one point – all notice of human kind, of the business of the cities and the chatter in the villages, hell normality as simple as it can be is nonexistent and them two being in the center of this nexus ripple, even breach transforms them – their thinking, their mannerisms, their conversations. It’s quite thrilling! Might be just my slightly jumpy observation, but I refuse to give it up!
“We had “strayed,” as the Swede put it, into some region or some set of conditions where the risks were great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lay close about us.”
No wonder Lovecraft loved “The Willows”.
The narrator considers how both he and his friend take into understanding what is happening to them. The scale tilts both ways as the story goes; it’s never one-sided, nor is it explained. Neither is right, perhaps nor wrong; there are just speculations, wild accusations and sheer fear, because whatever is out there is aiming to make them the sacrifice that’ll calm either the gods or the elements.
The Swede’s explanations even stretch further as to call the masterminds behind their nightly torture beings that are neither gods nor elements, but such that have no connection with mankind. They just exist there.
“It took us in different fashion, each according to the measure of his sensitiveness and powers of resistance. I translated it vaguely into a personification of the mightily disturbed elements, investing them with the horror of a deliberate and malefic purpose, resentful of our audacious intrusion into their breeding-place; whereas my friend threw it into the unoriginal form at first of a trespass on some ancient shrine, some place where the old gods still held sway, where the emotional forces of former worshippers still clung, and the ancestral portion of him yielded to the old pagan spell.”
It becomes clear their insignificance wouldn’t save them. But I love the Swede’s next amazing theory that the powers are aware of their presence, but cannot see them, thus they should keep their minds clear of all thoughts related to said powers. I can’t help but view it as a frightened, desperate attempt to salvage what little of their sanity is left.
It’s impossible to not be impressed by the Swede’s idea – he makes it sound reasonable, so much that the narrator joins on it for a brief time, before again the idea of a victim for sacrifice arises in their conversation near the fire. It becomes a certain escape plan once the two of them start wandering about in the night, and the Swede nearly takes a plunge in the Danube river to make himself that sacrifice.
This emotional rollercoaster takes place in the span of twenty-four of which no single moment is left undisturbed. There are either noises, or things moving by their tent, things of inhuman proportions. It’s a right tease, but strangely enough I never once felt the need to have an actual visual of the powers residing by the willows.
Sure, the story doesn’t require of the reader to believe that anything at all was actually present there; for it is known that Mother Nature is capable of many things, a high percentage of which are damn scary, and the human mind is capable in its own right of twisting things up and attributing unnatural traits to perfectly explainable situations, objects and whatsoever.
That’s another reason to applaud Blackwood; he created the right atmosphere for the growth of both mind states – sanity and insanity. I was through and through in awe and curiously frightened, certain and not, but in the end it’s a personal choice whether to believe the supernatural resides within the domain of whispering willows or it doesn’t.
Near its end of the tale both men find a floating body, which is assumed the needed sacrifice and their salvation; the humming sound stops abruptly, but then this happens and by all means I shuddered a little when I read it:
“At the moment we touched the body there rose from its surface the loud sound of humming-the sound of several hummings -which passed with a vast commotion as of winged things in the air about us and disappeared upwards into the sky, growing fainter and fainter till they finally ceased in the distance. It was exactly as though we had disturbed some living yet invisible creatures at work.”
The body is taken by the river, swept away the stream. The narrator’s last thoughts are of watching the body turn over and over.
Whether the two men make their leave it’s not clear, though I do believe after all is finished they make haste and resume their adventure to a safer, more crowded place. It’s this line by the narrator spoken much earlier that made me think so: “I hardly know how to describe it now in cold blood, but at the time I remember….”
I could be wrong though.
To conclude the last update and final review of this year’s #NaNoReMo, I have to once more say that Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” has been a magnificent experience, and I am really glad I could share my thoughts on it with you. I hope my gushing has done a little favorable damage on you guys; if anyone decides to pick it, be it as a random read or as a choice for next year’s Novel Reading Month, I can guarantee you you’ll have a very scary and very entertaining time.
Hope your classics choice has made you as happy as mine did.
Now, I’ll be leaving “The Willows”.
*Once more, all quotes used belong to Algernon Blackwood