The Lovecraft Reread

Thoreau Meets the Unnamable: Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo,” first published in 1910 in The Lost Valley and Other Stories. Spoilers ahead.

“No one troubled to stir the slowly dying fire. Overhead the stars were brillian in a sky quite wintry, and there was so little wind that ice was already forming stealthily along the shores of the still lake behind them. The silence of the vast listening forest stole forward and enveloped them.”

Summary

Dr. Cathcart and his nephew, divinity student Simpson, travel to Northwestern Ontario to hunt moose. They’re joined by guides Hank Davis and Joseph Défago, and camp cook Punk. Just to keep our cast straight, Cathcart and Simpson are Scottish, the former interested in “the vagaries of the human mind” as well as moose, the latter a good-natured tenderfoot. Davis is Walter Huston a couple decades before Treasure of the Sierra Madre, master of creative cussing and the outback. Défago is a “French Canuck” steeped in woodcraft and the lore of voyageur ancestors. As a “Latin type,” he’s subject to melancholy fits, but his passion for the wilderness always cures him after a few days away from civilization. Punk’s an “Indian” of indeterminate nation—naturally he’s taciturn and superstitious, with animal-keen senses.

Alas, the moose are uncommonly shy this October, and our party goes a week without finding a single trace of the beasts. Davis suggests they split up, he and Cathcart heading west, Simpson and Défago east to Fifty Island Water. Défago’s not thrilled with the idea. Is something wrong with Fifty Island Water, Cathcart asks. Nah, Davis says. Défago’s just “skeered” about some old “feery tale.” Défago declares he’s not afraid of anything in the Bush; before the evening’s out, Davis talks him into the eastward trip.

While the others sleep, Punk creeps to the lakeside to sniff the air. The wind’s shifted. Down “the desert paths of night” it carries a faint odor, utterly unfamiliar.

Simpson and Défago’s trip is arduous but uneventful. They camp on the shore of the Water, on which pine-cloaked islands float like a fairy fleet. Simpson’s deeply impressed by the sheer scale and isolation of the Canadian wilderness, but his exaltation is tempered by disquiet. Haven’t some men been so seduced by it they wandered off to starve and freeze? And might Défago be one of that susceptible sort?

By the campfire that night, Défago grows alarmed by an odor Simpson doesn’t detect. He mentions the Wendigo, a legendary monster of the North, fast as lightning, bigger than any other creature in the Bush. Late at night Simpson wakes to hear Défago sobbing in his sleep. He notices the guide has shifted so his feet protrude from the tent. Weariness wins over nerves—Simpson sleeps again until a violent shaking of the tent rouses him. A strange voice, immense yet somehow sweet, sounds close overhead, crying Défago’s name!

And the guide answers by rushing from the tent. At once his voice seems to come from a distance, anguished yet exulting. “My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire!” he cries. “This height and fiery speed!”

Then silence and an odor Simpson will later describe as a composite of lion, decaying leaves, earth, and all the scents of the forest. He hunts for Défago and discovers tracks in the new-fallen snow, big and round, redolent with the lion-forest odor. Human prints run alongside them, but how could Défago match the monstrously great strides of his—quarry? Companion? More puzzling, the human tracks gradually morph to miniature duplicates of the beast’s.

The tracks end as if their makers have taken flight. High above and far away, Simpson again hears Défago’s complaint about his burning feet of fire.

Next day Simpson returns alone to the base camp. Cathcart assures him the “monster” must have been a bull moose Défago chased. The rest was hallucination inspired by the “terrible solitudes” of the forest. Cathcart and Davis accompany Simpson back to Fifty Island Water. They find no sign of Défago and fear he’s run mad to his death. Night. Campfire. Cathcart tells the legend of the Wendigo, which he considers an allegory of the Call of the Wild. It summons its victims by name and carries them off at such speed their feet burn, to be replaced by feet like its own. It doesn’t eat its victims, though. It eats only moss!

Overcome with grief, Davis yells for his old partner. Something huge flies overhead. Défago’s voice drifts down. Simpson calls to him. Next comes a crashing of branches and a thud on the frozen ground. Soon Défago staggers into camp: a wasted caricature, face more animal than human, smelling of lion and forest.

Davis declares this isn’t his friend of twenty years. Cathcart demands an explanation of Défago’s ordeal. Défago whispers he’s seen the Wendigo, and been with it too. Before he can say more, Davis howls for the others to look at Défago’s changed feet. Simpson sees only dark masses before Cathcart throws a blanket over them. Moments later, a roaring wind sweeps the camp, and Défago blunders back into the woods. From a great height his voice trails off: “My burning feet of fire….”

Through the night Cathcart nurses the hysterical Davis and Simpson, himself battling an appalling terror of the soul. The three return to base camp to find the “real” Défago alone, scrabbling ineffectually to make up the fire. His feet are frozen; his mind and memory and soul are gone. His body will linger only a few weeks more.

Punk’s long gone. He saw Défago limping toward camp, preceded by a singular odor. Driven by instinctive terror, Punk started for home, for he knew Défago had seen the Wendigo!

What’s Cyclopean: We never do get to hear Hank’s imaginative oaths directly with their full force.

The Degenerate Dutch: The characters all draw on simple stereotype, from the stalwart Scotsmen to the instinct-driven “Canuck” and “Indian.” Particularly delightful is Punk, who in spite of being part of a “dying race” scarcely looks like a “real redskin” in his “city garments.” There’s also one random but unpleasant use of the n-word (and not in reference to a cat, either).

Mythos Making: “Yet, ever at the back of his thoughts, lay that other aspect of the wilderness: the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man.” Sound familiar? Like Lovecraft’s cosmos, Blackwood’s forest contains forces beyond human comprehension—and through scale and age forces us to acknowledge our own insignificance. And like Lovecraft’s cosmos it tempts insignificant man, even unto his own destruction.

Libronomicon: The events reported in “The Wendigo” do not appear in Dr. Cathcart’s book on Collective Hallucination.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Dr. Cathcart uses psychological analysis to paper over his nephew’s initial reports of Défago’s disappearance with rationality. But there’s real madness in the woods, and eventually it’s all Défago’s left with.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Brilliant, but. “The Wendigo” is passages of staggering and startling beauty, drawing you ahead through eerie and terrifying lacunae—and then you plant your foot squarely in a racist turd. You wipe off your feet, continue forward, and again find yourself all admiration of the story’s brilliance…

I loved this story and found it deeply frustrating. The frustration isn’t story-killing—Blackwood’s prejudice isn’t Lovecraft’s bone-deep hatred and fear, merely a willingness to rely on convenient stereotype in place of real characterization. And unlike Lovecraft’s core terror of non-Anglos, the racism could have been excised and left a better story. I can see what Blackwood was doing with it—it’s deliberate as every other aspect of his craft—but he could have done something else. This week, this year, being what it is, I’m not willing to just gloss that over with a “but it’s brilliant.”

But, still. I should back up a moment and talk about that brilliance, because in spite of my frustration this is really, really good. Of Lovecraft’s “modern masters” that we’ve covered so far, Blackwood’s mastery is most apparent. If I hadn’t kept stepping in gunk, in fact, I might have been too caught up in the brilliance to dissect it—as is, I want to pull apart all the gears and figure out what makes it work so well, and if you could maybe fit them back together with fewer racist cow patties screwed into the works.

This may be the best use of implication that I’ve ever seen in a horror story. Blackwood leaves nothing to the imagination, except for precisely those things that gain the greatest effect from being left to the imagination. His descriptions of the Canadian woods are spare, but vivid and richly sensuous, familiar in their calm awe. I’m not normally tempted to compare our Reread stories to Thoreau, but Blackwood’s intimacy with nature shows.

When something unnatural intrudes, the contrast becomes sharper against the vivid reality of those woods. Blackwood sharpens the contrast further still by what he doesn’t show–the thing that pulls Défago from the tent, the shape of the footprints—or by what he shows inexactly. The Wendigo’s voice is “soft” but has enormous volume, hoarse but sweetly plaintive? Hard to imagine, but I keep trying. He didn’t do that by accident.

The obnoxious stereotypes of Scotsman and Indian, I think, are intended as a middle cog between the realistic landscape and the indescribable wendigo. Brushstroke characterization that would give the 1910 reader a swift image of the characters, no need to sketch out full and detailed personalities. Plus he can then invoke that cute hierarchy of civilizations, with “primitives” gaining story-convenient abilities instinctive to those of “Indian blood” (who of course never train important survival skills from childhood) and “civilized” folk overanalyzing the whole thing. And he can emphasize how both are in different ways vulnerable to the burning call of the wild. But for me, this middle cog grinds unpleasantly, and the over-simplicity and two-dimensionality bring me to a screeching halt in the middle of otherwise-perfect transitions.

I suspect I’d be even more annoyed if I knew more about the original Wendigo legend, but I’ll have to leave that to better-informed commenters.

One of the story’s inaccurate assumptions isn’t Blackwood’s fault, but the truth adds an interesting twist. You know those brush-cleared woods, the ones that would “almost” suggest intervention by “the hand of man” if it weren’t for the signs of recent fire? According to modern research, guess how those fires frequently got started? Turns out Scottish hunters aren’t the only people who appreciate clear pathways through the woods. First Nations folk did a lot of landscaping.

Not quite sure what that implies about Blackwood’s wild and pre-human wendigo, except that perhaps humans are more responsible for its existence than they like to admit.

 

Anne’s Commentary

I hope I don’t shock anyone with this observation, but gardens and parks and farms are as indifferent to humanity as any boreal forest. They strike us as friendly and nurturing because we’ve planned them, made them, exploit them. They are, in fact, the basis of our civilization. Vast cornfields, admittedly, are creepy—see King’s “Children of the Corn” and Preston and Child’s Still Life with Crows. Weeds are bad, too, because they’re the first sign things are getting out of control in our rationally groomed environments. A haunted house or cemetery without rank vegetation is a rarity in Lovecraft’s work. Champion of weed horror may be Joseph Payne Brennan’s “Canavan’s Backyard,” in which the supposedly circumscribed overgrowth turns out to be as limitless as Blackwood’s Bush.

Okay, though. Trees are scarier than weeds—again, see all those twisted and grasping ones Lovecraft imagines to suck unnamable nourishment from the soil. Whole boreal forests of them are especially terrible, because as Défago tells Simpson, “There’s places in there nobody won’t never see into—nobody knows what lives there either.” Simpson queries, “Too big—too far off?” Just so. The cosmos in earthly miniature, you might say.

Lovecraft places Blackwood among his modern masters for he is king of “weird atmosphere,” emperor of recording “the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences.” Blackwood builds “detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life and vision.” This command of setting and psychology lifts “Wendigo” as high in my personal pantheon as the Wendigo itself spirits its victims into the sky. Blackwood’s love of the wilderness, his outdoorsman experience, resonate like voyageur song in every description—like the singer of voyageur songs, Défago, they push so deep and so acutely into the natural that they penetrate into the supernatural. Awe couples with terror. Man, those two are always going at it, aren’t they?

I don’t have space even to begin to explore Native American wendigo lore, which varies from people to people. Cannibalism, murder and greed are normally its dominant characteristics, and however much this malevolent spirit devours, it’s never sated. Therefore it’s associated with famine, starvation and emaciation as well as cold and winter. Blackwood makes use of both Wendigo as elemental force and as the possessor/transformer of its victim. Interesting that he doesn’t go into that cannibalism thing—his Wendigo is, of all things, a moss-eater; nor does Défago possessed try to munch down on his rescuers. Huh. Is moss-eating part of a Wendigo tradition I haven’t come across yet?

Cannibalism could be considered the most extreme form of antisocial greed, and so it was taboo among the native peoples, who embodied it in the wendigo. Greedy individuals might turn into wendigos. The culture-bound disorder called Wendigo psychosis, in which the sufferer develops an intense craving for human flesh, seems linked to the taboo. But Blackwood’s not interested, again, in cannibalism. The only greed Défago’s guilty of is a hunger for the great wilderness. His infatuation waxes so keen that it draws the Wendigo to him, or he to it.

The latter Cathcart would contend, for he deems the Wendigo the “Call of the Wild” personified. Simpson’s eventual conclusions are less scientific but perhaps more accurate. He believes the Wendigo is “a glimpse into prehistoric ages, when superstitions…still oppressed the hearts of men; when the forces of nature were still untamed, the Powers that may have haunted a primeval universe not yet withdrawn—[they are] savage and formidable Potencies.”

I think Lovecraft must have gotten a sympathetic charge out of Simpson’s “Potencies.” Are they not precursors or at least cousins of the Mythos deities? Do They not walk among us, as the veils between dimension are woefully thin in places? Do They not have a distinctive odor, and is it not by this (nasty) smell we may know Them? I want to host a fantasy dinner with Abdul Alhazred and an Algonquian shaman or two—they’d have much in common to discuss, no doubt.

Anyhow, in 1941 August Derleth made the connection between Blackwood’s Wendigo and his own creation, the Walker of the Wind Ithaqua. Brian Lumley would further develop Ithaqua in his Titus Crow series. I’m afraid Ithaqua is not given to a vegan (bryophagic!) lifestyle. And that’s as it should be. The great Mythos entities do not eat moss. Except maybe for the shoggoths, if there’s nothing juicier around.

 

We’re going to lose power any second now, so bowing to the power of nature I will not try and think of anything clever to say about Thomas Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” other than that we’ll read it next week and you can find it in, among other places, the Cthulhu 2000 anthology.

Image: Matt Fox’s illustration from Famous Fantastic Mysteries, June 1944.

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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