‘The Willows’ by Algernon Blackwood

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

‘The Man Whom the Trees Loved’ by Algernon Blackwood

It was quite arresting, this way he had of making a tree look almost like a being – alive. It approached the uncanny.

Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), the crease-faced and twinkly-eyed exemplar of a form that came to be known as weird fiction, has a large and varied output, ranging from the transcendent to the hokey. ‘The Man Whom the Trees Loved’ is one of his best, from a collection tellingly sub-titled ‘A Volume of Nature Stories’. Blackwood peddled his own brand of nature mysticism that could often be quite silly, but when channelled the right way gave us powerful work such as this, and iconic tales like ‘The Willows’ and ‘The Wendigo’.
The story articulates the latent feeling most people have that trees and woods are inherently frightening. A male artist begins to ‘listen’ to the trees in the woods beyond his house, much to the consternation of his wife, and, though we never fully know what happens to him, is somehow ‘taken’ by it. This is presented as both terrifying and somehow appealing; reflecting the feelings many people have towards the woods. We like them but we wouldn’t want to be lost in them forever.
First published in Pan’s Garden, Macmillan & Co. 1912