Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Willows

"The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world."

Next choice in my series about influences and inspirations.

The first time I read 'The Willows', I was thirteen, and I had the flu. Proper flu, the kind that lays you out for days. I was over the worst, well enough to read, but still caught in that half-life between being ill and being well again, and now and then the fever would return enough that when I lay back down I would feel like I was dropping down through the sheets, through the bed, head as heavy as a boulder in an endless, infinite drop. Blackwood's languorous prose, the shifting temporary islands that come and go in the torrent of the Danube and the shaking, whispering willows seemed like part of my fever dream.

The narrator says at one point: "It seemed to me that my breathing came with difficulty, and that there was a great weight upon the surface of my body. In spite of the hot night, I felt clammy with cold and shivered." Yeah, knew how that felt.

The Willows is a story of two men, an un-named narrator and his travelling companion, who is only ever referred to as 'the Swede'. They are on an adventure, travelling in a canoe from the source of the Danube, all the way down to the sea. Beyond Vienna, the river takes them into Hungary, beyond civilisation, into 'a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes'.

The river surges, the water rises, the wind howls, and exhausted, they beach on one of the many small islands that the water will destroy in a day or two, and strike camp among the oppressive willows. They are not there long before they see something in the water that they think at first is a dead body, and then an otter. Maybe. Then they turn again, and see a man in a boat. Maybe.

Whether it was due to the slanting sunlight, or the refraction from the wonderfully illumined water, I cannot say, but, whatever the cause, I found it difficult to focus my sight properly upon the flying apparition. It seemed, however, to be a man standing upright in a sort of flat-bottomed boat, steering with a long oar, and being carried down the opposite shore at a tremendous pace. He apparently was looking across in our direction, but the distance was too great and the light too uncertain for us to make out very plainly what he was about. It seemed to me that he was gesticulating and making signs at us. His voice came across the water to us shouting something furiously, but the wind drowned it so that no single word was audible. There was something curious about the whole appearance—man, boat, signs, voice—that made an impression on me out of all proportion to its cause.
"He's crossing himself!" I cried. "Look, he's making the sign of the Cross!"
"I believe you're right," the Swede said, shading his eyes with his hand and watching the man out of sight. He seemed to be gone in a moment, melting away down there into the sea of willows.

Blackwood's fascination, as so often, is with the otherworldly, with powers beyond human comprehension. 'The Willows' is not a story that you can explain or understand. It's not a story of revenants come back for revenge, a ghost motivated by malice, an apparition pointing its bony fingers at a historic wrong, and injustice done. "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." Blackwood's story is about forces greater than can be imagined that cannot be understood, and that are as oblivious to humanity as we are to bacteria swimming around a dirty puddle. At one point, the character who is only ever referred to as the Swede observes that, "Our insignificance perhaps may save us."  It's easy to see why Lovecraft admired him so much, considered 'The Willows' to be the finest 'weird tale', and called Blackwood, "the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere".

"You think," he said, "it is the spirit of the elements, and I thought perhaps it was the old gods. But I tell you now it is—neither. These would be comprehensible entities, for they have relations with men, depending upon them for worship or sacrifice, whereas these beings who are now about us have absolutely nothing to do with mankind, and it is mere chance that their space happens just at this spot to touch our own."

And like The Owl Service, it's filled with a haunted landscape that is powerful, disturbing, alive. Which is one of the reason why it went on my list. Blackwood's good at that use of place and nature - the world and everything in it charged with a hidden power, the genius locii and the suspicion that somwhere, everywhere Pan is lurking in the trees.

You can read 'The Willows' for yourself, or download a free copy for your Kindle or whatever, over at Project Gutenberg


  1. Oh I love this one. What's striking is that so many people talk about "remembering when I first read The Willows..." like it's a song. You don't get that with many stories but definitely with this one. I just read it again, actually, in The Weird.

    The setting must be one of the best in 'strange fiction' - I love the way the island is literally falling away around them, like their faith in a rational world is too. In my opinion it beats anything Lovecraft ever did (high praise).

    I've never seen an otter in the wild, but I know if I did I'd instantly think of that scene.

  2. You're right, it seems to stick in people's minds, which has to be the mark of a great story, and for me at least that setting was haunting and unforgettable.