I’ll defer to H.P. Lovecraft, archpriest of the peculiar, to grasp what it is that makes Algernon Blackwood, and particularly this story, so troubling. He writes “Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood’s genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences.” The final part of that quote, “the strangeness in ordinary things and experiences” is as good and concise a definition of the unheimlich as I’ve read, and there is no doubt that The Willows, a slippery, psychologically kaleidoscopic story describing a voyage by raft, sails into territory that is pure unheimlich. The river Danube itself seems to come totemically alive. The trees that menace its banks take on an alien intelligence, and the narrator’s mind doubles. It is both inside the boat and outside it. The landscape that surrounds alternates dreadfully between two equally awful poles. It is alien, intelligent and malign or a projection of the narrator’s mind, a madness. I think of Edvard Munch’s paintings, where the expression of interior states in exterior landscape reaches a lurid and panicky peak. As Pusha T had it earlier, when you know you know.
A super audiobook of this story (which is no longer in copyright) is available here.
First published in The Listener and Other Stories, 1907. Collected in Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories, Penguin, 2002