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