‘The Willows’ by Algernon Blackwood

I gazed across the waste of wild waters; I watched the whispering willows; I heard the ceaseless beating of the tireless wind; and, one and all, each in its own way, stirred in me this sensation of a strange distress.

This is Blackwood’s most famous story and because of that I felt conflicted about choosing it. But it is famous for a very good reason. Blackwood is a cracking storyteller and ‘The Willows’ is a brilliant piece of writing. 

He carefully sets the scene before gradually ratcheting up the unease. The narrator and his friend, known only as the Swede, are making a canoe expedition down the Danube. One night, as they pass through a desolate and uninhabited region, they camp on an island in the middle of the river. Both island and the banks of the river are fringed with willows; in fact, there are only willows and water for as far as they can see. 

Blackwood describes the landscape with extraordinary intensity and even seems to give agency to it. The sense that they have arrived in a place in which they are unwelcome grows. The river is flooding, the wind is rising, and several strange incidents unnerve them; the Swede thinks he sees a dead body tumbling in the rapids, and they spot “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,” who, seeing them, seems to cross himself. The rushing waters are carving away chunks of the island on which they are camped and the willows appear to be drawing closer. And then things get very strange indeed.

“There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction,” he said once, while the fire blazed between us. “We’ve strayed out of a safe line somewhere.”

Blackwood was a mystic and an adventurer. He climbed mountains, crossed deserts and did indeed go down the Danube in a canoe himself. He writes from experience and it is deeply felt, and all the more affecting for it. The ‘weird’ elements of the story are brilliantly integrated. 

HP Lovecraft considered ‘The Willows’ to be the finest supernatural tale in English literature, perhaps because it articulates so well the feelings of insignificance before otherworldly cosmic powers that is such a trait of Lovecraft’s own fiction. 

First published in The Listener and Other Stories, 1907. Collected in Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories, Penguin, 2002. Available online at Project Gutenberg

‘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