I never much cared for Algernon Blackwood’s work when I was younger, and I’m not honestly sure how many of his stories I’ve ever read, with the exception of ‘The Wendigo’ and ‘The Willows’, both of which have been regularly anthologised through the years.
Reading it once again, I can see immediately why I never warmed to this story. M.R. James’s stories are, for the most part, set in clearly defined spaces, public and private, inside and out, and even when his characters do venture into the countryside, it remains a world of clearly defined edges: fields, footpaths, land owned definitively. The liminal space of James’s world is often found in tiny moments that the reader might easily miss, and the critical actions almost always take place indoors or in confined spaces. The supernatural intrudes into conformity, so to speak.
In contrast, ‘The Willows’ is marked by the overwhelming generosity of its landscape. It overflows every boundary, literally as well as figuratively, erasing physical and psychological landmarks as it goes. Containment comes in the form of, first, a canoe, and then an island in the flood, shrinking as the waters rise, and while it still represents sanctuary of a sort, this is by no means guaranteed. (One might argue this is also true of James’s stories but there is a sense that even as the supernatural challenges his characters on domestic home ground, that very domesticity provides a place from which to fight back).
In ‘The Willows’, two men – the narrator and his companion, generally referred to as ‘the Swede’ – are on a canoe trip down the Danube. At the point the story opens, they have reached ‘a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where [the Danube’s] 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’ (27). It’s a wonderful description anyway, but note how, not only does the water overflow the boundaries of the main channel, but superimposed on it is a second ‘sea’, that of the willows. There is a very vivid impression of the ‘water’ of moving branches, and hidden under it the actual waters of the Danube. Those familiar with willow will know how it changes colour as the leaves move in the wind, and also the noise the wind makes as it moves through the branches. Here, Blackwood is already working on the senses, and just in case we were in any doubt about the fact that we are entering uncertain territory, he goes on to describe how, on the map, ‘this deserted area is painted in a fluffy blue, growing fainter in colour as it leaves the banks’ (27). There is no definitive edge, only a fading away.
The Danube itself becomes personified, ‘happy to slip beyond the control of the stern banks’, where it
wanders about at will among the intricate network of channels intersecting the islands everywhere with broad avenues down which the waters pour with a shouting sound; making whirlpools, eddies, and foaming rapids; tearing at the sandy banks; carrying away masses of shore and willow-clumps; and forming new islands innumerably which shift daily in size and shape and possess at best an impermanent life, since the flood-time obliterates their very existence. (27)
The reader is left in no doubt as to the capricious and destructive nature of this river, its ability to remake the landscape at a moment’s notice. This Danube is like a child, brushing things aside as it grows bored. Elsewhere, the narrator comments on its aliveness, its various moods, describing it as ‘holding our little craft on its mighty shoulders’ (28), but most pertinently, he observes that ‘we had come inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage’ (29). Female, too, and Blackwood describes their relationship with the river in such a way as to suggest a potentially deeper engagement, ‘since it told us so much of its secret life’ (29).
The change of mood comes suddenly, as they enter what the narrator calls ‘the land of desolation’.
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. (28)
That phrase, ‘allowed laughingly’, is the written equivalent of nervous laughter; they know already that they are in a place they shouldn’t be, that they have passed beyond the familiar, into a place beyond easy classification. They are, in effect, primed for what might come next. The narrator can experience ‘delight of the wild beauty’ but in the middle of this, ‘there crept, unbidden and unexplained, a curious feeling of disquietude, almost of alarm’ (30). The narrator cannot determine the source of the feeling beyond a ‘realisation of our utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements about me’, this coupled with ‘ a vague, unpleasant idea that we had somehow trifled with these great elemental forces in whose power we lay helpless’ (30).
For here, indeed, they were gigantically at play together, and the sight appealed to the imagination. (30)
It is clear, then, that the narrator thrills to the wildness of the landscape in which he finds himself, that he is cognisant of forces that he can barely apprehend, which he finds alarming but exciting. But now awe and wonder are offset by terror, and a terror attached specifically to the willows, which are oppressive in their multitudes. It struck me, in the passage I quoted earlier about the river’s behaviour, that it was rather like a crowd flowing through the streets of a city; here, the willows are similar. They swarm, they are vast in number, they threaten, they suffocate, and yet they are also oddly passive, ‘standing in dense array mile after mile’ (31). And again, Blackwood’s narrator turns to the idea of trespass:
Their serried ranks growing everywhere darker about me as the shadows deepened, moving furiously yet softly in the wind, 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, a world where we were not wanted or invited to remain – where we rang grave risks perhaps! (31)
This second expression of dis-ease suggests a layering of worlds, perhaps, one inside another, and a sense of penetrating further and further into a place where one is in danger; or one could read it the other way round, with a sense of moving further and further away from the familiar. It works either way, and I think that ambiguity is a necessary part of this moment. What is safe, what is not. And it will reappear at points throughout the story, as the narrator ponders the island, ‘tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows’ (33).
The Swede, incidentally, is supposedly devoid of imagination, a useful counter to the narrator’s excess of it, one might think. Rather as with Captain Braddock in ‘The Screaming Skull’, it is wise to be careful about claims of a lack of imagination, as this is so often proved wrong. A failure to voice a reaction is by no means indicative of a lack of one, while a minute examination of a situation may as often suggest there is no actual situation to consider. The Swede provides a counterbalance to the clearly fanciful nature of the narrator, but also to his acute awareness of small details, which is not the same thing at all.
The two men are moored on an island in the flood, an island which is slowly disintegrating as the river nibbles it away, almost as though it is playing a perverse game with them. A series of disconnected events occur: the black thing they see in the water, which they identify as an otter, but does an otter, such a graceful thing, really ‘lurch’? And there is the man in the boat, an unusual sight, according to the narrator. He appears to gesticulate at them, makes the sign of the cross. They wonder at his presence, and it is down to the Swede to point out he probably thought they were spirits, even as they are not entirely sure about him.
But while the narrator is beset by the psychology of place, the growing awareness of something not being right – the willows are now an army, ‘shaking their innumerable silver spears defiantly (34) – the Swede remains silent for the most part. His observations are few, laconic, focused on the here and now of being on a crumbling island during a storm, of surviving.
One of the great moments in this story comes in the second section, which is devoted entirely to the narrator’s observation, in the night, on ‘the threshold of a new day’ (35), when he witnesses what may be the spirits of the trees, manifest as ‘a series of monstrous outlines’ (and here we should think again of Jeff VanderMeer’s own perception of the monstrous, the intersection of the beautiful with the strange, the dangerous with the sublime’ (Monstrous Creatures, 9)). The narrator’s response is interesting; he decides not to wake his companion, suspecting he doesn’t want corroboration, but also he notes ‘I was possessed with a sense of awe and wonder such as I have never known. I seemed to be gazing at the personified elemental forces of this haunted and primeval region’ (36). This lack of fear is significant, because it is the clearest signifier in the story so far that there is more than one force at work in this story. The narrator is once again caught up in the majesty of nature, the beauty, the subliminality, if you like. It is not even that it responds benignly to him, more that it simply doesn’t see him. He is, as he noted earlier, insignificant, and he can enjoy that sense of being a small part of the universe without experiencing any sense of danger. ‘I felt that I must fall down and worship – absolutely worship’ (36).
That entire section reminds very strongly of two other, very disparate pieces; first, the chapter in The Wind In the Willows entitled ‘Piper At the Gates of Dawn’, when Mole and Rat have their mystical encounter with nature, personified in Pan, and also, the moment in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, when the spirits of the trees are awakened again. It doesn’t have the force of this extraordinary section, for sure, but Lewis was writing for a different audience, and within those parameters, it is still one of the best incidents in that novel.
From here on, in ‘The Willows’, the mood darkens. Awe is replaced by terror: the sense of people or things moving around, not monstrous outlines but something much more corporeal: noises for which there is no explanation, a landscape that is more immediately hostile, apparently acting directly against the narrator. He has changed from someone revelling in nature to someone now seeking rational explanations for the inexplicable, more so as they discover the canoe damaged, a paddle gone, food gone missing. He has become the practical person, though, while the Swede seems to have discovered his imagination, believing that their survival will be at the whim of elemental powers focused on the island, and drawing the narrator’s attention to the oddities of their situation, in particular to the strange noise, ‘like the humming of a distant gong’ (43).
One wonders how to account for the shift in mood. The answer lies, perhaps, in the fact that the narrative mimics the passage of the river, constantly twisting over and over on itself, braiding strands of story, undoing them, suddenly destroying ground that once was stable. One could also say that while the narrator is more affected by awe, the Swede is more responsive to the sense of terror. Whereas the narrator has, until now, relied on the Swede for the practical outlook, the balance of the storytelling has shifted and he is now, to all intents and purposes in charge, from the moment he determines to mend the canoe, ready to leave. He becomes the optimist, planning for the future, while the Swede is pessimistic, fearful. Alternatively, one might also consider that whereas the narrator is a mixture of feelings and apprehensions, the Swede knows one thing for sure, that they are to be a sacrifice to some mysterious power. It is the narrator’s ignorance which protects him, and the Swede’s knowledge which places him in greater danger.
The nature of the supernatural threat is different, too, to the monstrous outlines that the narrator witnessed. The Swede talks about a ‘fourth dimension’, and there is a sense that these mysterious invisible creatures come from an entirely different world. The narrator paraphrases the Swede’s conclusions thus:
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. It was a spot held by the dwellers in some outer space, a sort of peep-hole whence they could spy upon the earth, themselves unseen, a point where the veil between had worn a little thin. As the final result of too long a sojourn here, we should be carried over the border and deprived of what we called ‘our lives’, yet by mental, not physical processes. In that sense, as he said, we should be the victims of our adventure – a sacrifice. (45)
And finally, the narrator allows the lavish description, the minute observation, to disappear: ‘I’m in a blue funk, and that’s the plain truth’. (46). It’s an incredibly naked moment, almost an admission of defeat, and it is at that moment that the two men can finally, honestly, talk about their joint experiences, and can help one another to survive. And it is here that the Swede reveals his own perception of a world beyond the familiar. If the narrator deals in nature worship, the Swede’s perception of the world is darker, Lovecraftian perhaps, a world: