The Lovecraft Reread

Never Mess With the Trees: Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”

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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 Willows,” first published in his 1907 collection, The Listener and Other Stories. Spoilers ahead.

“The sense of remoteness from the world of human kind, the utter isolation, the fascination of this singular world of willows, winds, and waters, instantly laid its spell upon us both, so that we allowed laughingly to one another that we ought by rights to have held some special kind of passport to admit us, and that we had, somewhat audaciously, come without asking leave into a separate little kingdom of wonder and magic—a kingdom that was reserved for the use of others who had a right to it, with everywhere unwritten warnings to trespassers for those who had the imagination to discover them.”

Summary

Unnamed narrator and his companion, referred to only as The Swede, are in the middle of an epic canoe trip down the Danube River in summer flood. They come to “a region of singular loneliness and desolation,” where willow-covered islands grow and shrink overnight amid the rapids.

In early afternoon of an exhausting day, our adventurers make camp on one of the ephemeral islands. They’ve come to know the Danube well, and are looking forward to the rest of their time with her. They’re not dismissive of her dangers, though. At the Pressburg shop where they took on provisions, a Hungarian officer warned them that when the flood subsides, they could be left stranded forty miles from either water or human aid. They’ve stocked up well.

The Swede takes a nap, and Narrator wanders. The island’s less than an acre, and the flying spray at the far end is already eating it away. The rest is thickly grown with the ubiquitous willows. Amid his delight, Narrator admits a “curious feeling of disquietude.” Somehow this is tied in with the willows themselves, attacking the mind and the heart.

Narrator doesn’t mention this reaction to The Swede, whom he considers “devoid of imagination.” (This is a guy he likes, we swear.) They pitch their tent, and agree to continue on the morrow. As they collect firewood, they see something strange: a man’s body, turning over and over in the river! The eyes gleam yellow. Then it dives—only an otter, they realize, laughing. But just as they’re recovering, they see a man going past in a boat. He stares, gesticulates, shouts inaudibly, and makes the sign of the cross before passing out of sight. Probably just one of Hungary’s superstitious peasants. He must have thought they were spirits, hah-hah.

Still, Narrator is awfully glad that The Swede’s so unimaginative.

The sun goes down, and the wind increases. “It made me think of the sounds a planet must make, could we only hear it, driving through space.” They stay up late talking—not of the incidents of the day, though normally they’d be prime topics for conversation. Before finally turning in, Narrator goes to gather more kindling. This time he perceives the “note” of the place—they’re not wanted here, and the willows are against them!

In the middle of the night, Narrator wakes. He comes out of the tent to see shapes among the willows: monstrous bronze-colored figures dancing and rising up to the sky. He tries to convince himself that he’s dreaming, but all his senses admit that this is real. He creeps forward, awestruck. As he tries to come to some rational explanation, the figures disappear.

Back in the tent, Narrator hears “multitudinous little patterings.” Something presses down. Suddenly an explanation occurs to him: a bough has fallen and will soon crush the tent. But outside, there’s no indication of any such thing. Tent, canoe, and both paddles appear fine.

In the morning, The Swede discovers true horror: a sliver taken out of the canoe, one paddle missing, and the second sanded away to slender fragility. “An attempt to prepare the victim for the sacrifice,” asserts his companion. Narrator scoffs, but is even more upset by this change in his companion’s mind than by the physical sabotage.

They patch the canoe, knowing the pitch won’t dry until the following day, and argue about the hollows pocking the sand all around. The Swede scoffs at Narrator’s “feeble attempt at self-deception,” and urges him to hold his mind as firm as possible.

The island grows smaller; the wind abates. “The forces of the region drew nearer with the coming of night.” They secure their canoe and remaining paddle, and set to work preparing a comforting stew. But the comfort is short-lived, for their bread has gone missing. Maybe Narrator flaked on picking it up in Pressburg? Yes? Plausible, right? Something sounds repeatedly in the sky, like an immense gong.

They sit and smoke in silence, Narrator aware denial is not a river in Eastern Europe and that they must eventually discuss their situation. The Swede mutters about disintegration and fourth-dimensional sounds. Narrator thinks he’s right: this is a place where inhuman beings peer through onto the earth. Stay too long, and you’ll be “sacrificed,” your very nature and self changed.

At last they talk. The Swede explains that he’s been conscious of such “other” regions his whole life, full of “immense and terrible personalities.. compared to which earthly affairs… are all as dust in the balance.” Their only chance of survival is to keep perfectly still, and to above all keep their minds quiet so that “they” can’t feel them. A sacrifice might save them, but there’s no chance now of another victim distracting their pursuers. “Above all, don’t think, for what you think happens!” (Enter the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man…)

They try to get ready for bed, but see something moving in front of the tent. It’s coming towards them! Narrator trips, the Swede falls on top of him in an unusual example of a character fainting for some reason other than scene transition. The swoon and the pain save them both, distracting their minds at just the point when they would otherwise have been found. The humming is gone. The tent’s fallen, surrounded by those odd hollows in the sand.

They sleep with difficulty. Narrator wakes, hearing again the pattering outside—and The Swede’s gone. Outside, a “torrent of humming” surrounds him. He finds his companion about to throw himself into the flood. Narrator drags him back as he rants about “taking the way of the water and the wind.” At last the fit passes. “They’ve found a victim in our place,” exclaims The Swede before collapsing into sleep.

In the morning, they find a corpse caught among the willow roots. When they touch the body, the sound of humming rises and passes into the sky. The skin and flesh are “indented with small hollows, beautifully formed,” exactly like those that cover the sand.

What’s Cyclopean: Blackwood gets the most out of relatively straightforward vocabulary. “We entered the land of desolation on wings…”

The Degenerate Dutch: The narrator’s companion is described only as “the Swede,” his wilderness skills characterized entirely by comparison to “red Indians.” Oh, and as in much Lovecraft, the Eastern European peasants who “believe in all sorts of rubbish” are the only people who really know what’s going on.

Mythos Making: Before you leave the safe lights of civilization consider whether you’ve “trifled with these great elemental forces in whose power we [lie] helpless every hour of the day and night.”

Libronomicon: Any books would get water-logged this week. Better leave them at home.

Madness Takes Its Toll: “That stew-pot held sanity for us both” … except that the forces on the island have stolen their bread.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

What a rich and glorious piece to finish out the year with! A piece and a half, actually—Blackwood’s original novella, plus the first half of Nathan Carson and Sam Ford’s excellent graphic adaptation. However, they both turn out to be rich enough, and glorious enough, that we’re going to split our coverage into two parts, the first week focused on Blackwood and the second on Carson and Ford.

The novella starts out following the form of nature writing, perhaps with a hint of adventure thrown in. I can read Thoreau’s idyllic descriptions of Walden Pond all day. I could definitely develop a taste for Blackwood’s combination of such descriptions with terrible-and-fair personifications of the wilderness’s inhuman dangers. The Danube in flood is a lush cornucopia of life, glorious and beautiful and… miles from any hope of aid if something goes the least bit wrong. Real-life wilderness narratives abound with examples of how easily seasoned travelers disappear in such places—even without unearthly disturbances. Our unnamed travelers aren’t all that different from those who wander off into the Alaskan tundra, on journeys where even the hardiest and best-prepared human is a moment of bad luck away from vanishing forever.

People take such journeys in search of all manner of epiphanies. Blackwood doesn’t get much into motivation; that these are two courageous and unattached men of action is assumed to be sufficient explanation. In the comic version, which we’ll discuss more next week, the gender-swapped protagonists have more explicitly described reasons to want to escape from civilization. For many modern adventurers, personal change may be an assumed result of extreme travel, and indeed much of the point—which makes it interesting that soul-deep change is the core of the island’s horror.

And its appeal. My favorite scene is the one where our narrator comes out to find the tent surrounded by dancing entities, terrifying and awe-inspiring. In that moment they’re beautiful, worthy even of worship. Even if the worshipper isn’t welcome, and the beings actively malignant towards him. The slice in the canoe is horrible in its simplicity. But then their groping search for the explorers’ minds, the fear of being changed, and the knowledge that they can only be avoided by thinking about something else—that last is one of my favorite horror tropes. You’ll be just fine, as long as your self-control is perfect. Don’t blink.

Blackwood’s maybe-living trees remind me of Merrit’s “Woman of the Wood,” a later story in which the noble dryads have somewhat more comprehensible motivations. They also make me think of Tolkien’s malevolent willows, an early hazard encountered by the hobbits on their way toward Rivendell. Old Man Willow is reminiscent enough of this story, in fact, that I wonder if there might have been some influence. Although I also have to wonder why willows are always the creepy ones? Haven’t these authors ever met a cottonwood?

And then Blackwood, after all this build-up, has the spirits accept as a sacrifice a nameless peasant whom we’ve never seen before and have no emotional connection to. I’m not sure what I would have preferred as an ending—I certainly liked our protagonists enough that I would have been sad to see them meet a Lovecraftian fate–but the serf ex machina just doesn’t work for me. It feels like Blackwood flinched at the end of an otherwise perfect piece.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Lovecraft posited that in his best weird tales, Blackwood was unrivaled in evoking a sense of extramundane worlds pressing in upon our own, and the best of these tales was “The Willows.” Allow me to add that an excellent way to amplify the mind-blowing eeriness of the story is to dive into it in the opening fever-throes of influenza. Add a dose of cough suppressant sufficient to make a water buffalo dizzy, and you too may mistake the otters sporting in your bedclothes for corpses, or the corpses for otters. Either way, nice to have company when you’re sick.

The first glory of “Willows” is its unusual setting, described with the depth and discrimination of a seasoned traveler. And a traveler for what? Here, importantly, for his own pleasure, the nourishment of his own curiosity and sensibilities. Maybe he writes travel books. Maybe he just roams for the joy of it, for the hell of it. Good, because sometimes there’s heaven to find in the wandering, and sometimes there’s hell, and sometimes the exhilarating braiding of the two that’s best of all. Should unnamed narrator fall down in worship of that undulating stream of beings rising to the stars, or should he run screaming? He’ll do both, pretty much, and so will his friend the Swede. That’s fine. Is there anything we like more around these blogging parts than a judicious mix of terror and wonder?

The second glory of “Willows,” which rises from the first like its one proper spiritual exhalation, is its slow-thickening, vibrating, vegetable atmosphere of dread. Did you know—have you ever sensed for yourself—that too many trees or bushes or even grasses of the same kind, crowded too close together, in the absence of those friendly human habitations that remind us who’s BOSS on this planet—well, that all these damn crowds of plants don’t just get in the way, they’re downright SINISTER? It’s starting to look like Tolkien was right. Trees talk to each other. Sometimes, when they’re stuck out on a sandy island in the middle of the Danube beneath a thinning veil to another dimension, they talk to Outsiders….

Lying here under six layers of blankets and quilts, with the otters still sporting at the foot of the bed and the laptop supplying additional warmth, I naturally think of “The Dunwich Horror.” Who wouldn’t, right? It strikes me as Lovecraft’s clearest antiphonal response to that much-admired “Willows,” opening as it does with a smaller scale river tour, this one by auto along the Miskatonic as it winds serpent-like amongst ancient round-topped hills, through woods too overgrown and ravines too deep, past marshes too strident with bullfrogs and whippoorwills, too fey-lit with fireflies. Then there are those enigmatic figures to be seen on rocky hillsides and decayed doorsteps. Somehow I don’t think you should trust their directions. They live too close to thinnings like the ones in the willow barrens. Blackwood’s narrator and Swede have their several theories about what hums in the air around them and makes cone-shaped marks in the sand. Lovecraft’s al-Hazred, ever the authority, can tell us with certainty what kind of invisible “visitor” makes tracks in the Dunwich mud: “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.”

Oh, the frustration. Barely dabbling toes beneath the surface of a comparison between Blackwood’s extramundane presences and Lovecraft’s and finding the waters beneath deep and riddled with cross-currents. And otters. I blame the otters mostly, by the way, on Nathan Carson and Sam Ford, whose comic adaptation of “Willows” we’ll enjoy next week. Because they have a very scary otter in there, and lots of other beautiful stuff. Hurry, look! Meanwhile, I’ll try to neither be too exhausted nor too feverish to be coherent, although, you know, coherence may be overrated (?)

 

Next week, we cover the first issue of Nathan Carson and Sam Ford’s graphic adaptation of “The Willows.” Part II, alas, isn’t out until June.

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her 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.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, 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 young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with 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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