Monday, 13 February 2012

Strange Stories #5: The Willows By Algernon Blackwood

Strange Story #5: The Willows
Author: Algernon Blackwood
Collected In: Ancient Sorceries & Other Weird Tales
Anthologised In: The Dark Descent, The Weird, plus many others...


The psychology of places, for some imaginations at least, is very vivid...

I was reluctant to write about The Willows as part of this series, simply because so much has already been written about it: from HP Lovecraft in his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature from 1927, to Iain Rowan's blog post on it in his current series on his influences (interesting and well worth checking out). While Blackwood isn't a household name, this story is probably more well-known than any I've feature to date (except the Tom Waits song) and many horror fans talk about the first time they read it in awed tones - it's the weird fiction equivalent of hearing Teenage Kicks for the first time.

So what I've decided to do is write about one specific thing about The Willows - it's setting, which must rank as one of the best in horror fiction, and is a significant part of why I love it so. There's lots of other stuff going on in the story, naturally - the cosmic horror element, the psychological angle etc. - but focusing on the setting allows me to write about Blackwood's story without feeing out of my depth... and also without any spoilers. Result.

The Willows tells of two companions travelling down the Danube river, in a region where the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes - and right from the start it's clear the setting will be key to the story and it's atmosphere:

A rising river, perhaps, always suggests something of the ominous.

Blackwood was one of the first horror authors to extensively use nature and the outdoors as settings, rather than the traditional gothic castles or tombs. This natural background to The Willows is both a realistic depiction of an actual place, and evocative and symbolic. When the two of them land on an island for the night, it isn't a permanent place marked on any map, but a temporary refugee who's banks are tumbling away as the Danube rushes past them. They don't plan to camp on it more than a night, but it's little surprise to the reader when events conspire to ensure they stay longer. And all the time their island is shrinking, crumbling - much like their faith in a rational, everyday world.

It's clear that the two travellers have inadvertently strayed into somewhere where they weren't meant to be, and now cannot leave:

[the view] woke in me the curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world, a world where we were intruders...


And then there are the titular willows- constantly swaying, rustling, concealing, at times almost like a character or threat themselves.

But the willows especially; for ever they went on chattering and talking among themselves, laughing a little, shrilly crying out, sometimes sighing...

When attempting to write about Blackwood's use of setting and atmosphere, it's tempting just to quote ever bigger and bigger chunks of the story itself to illustrate my point... but that would be self-defeating. I hope, if you haven't yet had the pleasure of reading The Willows, that this blog post will have intrigued you to do so.  If you have read it, you probably don't need me to tell you how good it is.

All I know is, despite the bigger, awe-inspiring horrors hinted at in the story, one thing that always remains vivid for me is the faint crash in the night, as more of the island they are trapped on crumbles away.

Next Week: Strange Stories #6. The Screwfly Solution by James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon)

1 comment:

Iain said...

Great skill on Blackwood's part, I think, as you really feel the isolation, and the rush of the wind and the water. Very evocative, and like you say, brings the weird tale out of the gothic haunted places, and shows how the natural landscape can be as terrifying, if not more.