THE DEEP ONES: "The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood

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THE DEEP ONES: "The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood

helmikuu 8, 2012, 9:01am

"The Willows" definitely takes its time, starting off like a leisurely travelogue featuring the breathtaking natural wonders of the Danube, until the intrusion of the otter/drowned man and the boatman (a version of Charon?) - harbingers of what's to come.

While "The Willows" and "The Wendigo" work as perfect bookends of wilderness horror, I think I preferred the latter just a bit, with its paranoid THE THING-like overtones. The all-out assault by the supernatural in "The Willows" still works fine, though. I really liked the idea of the weird impressions in the sand (what made them - legs?).

I recently read somewhere a comparison of the Blackwood tale with Stephen King's "The Mist". I can see that in the multifaceted nature of the whatever-it-is.

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 8, 2012, 9:52am

I can see the elements that appealed to HPL in "The Willows," but I think I actually preferred "The Wendigo." There was never really any advance in the narrator's understanding of the strange phenomena in "The Willows," just a cascade of intuited claims, mostly without any sort of vindication.

The namelessness of everyone and everything was a little annoying. The nameless narrator and his nameless companion ("the Swede") were beset by a nameless something. They escaped because a nameless third person became a victim in their stead. I guess that tactic can cultivate a certain state of mind in the reader (other than annoyance), but it also seems like a sort of laziness in storytelling.

I thought that the seven paragraphs or so following "An acute spasm of pain passed through me," were terribly written, in the way that they doubled up the indirect quotation and the direct quotes of the same material. ETA: On reflection, it seems like there was a redrafting of the passage, and Blackwood failed to strike the earlier version. It's like a biblical doublet, but less interesting.

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 8, 2012, 9:58am

>3 paradoxosalpha:

I absolutely agree that "The Willows" is disjointed and seemingly anonymous on multiple levels that really prevent the reader from being drawn in very deeply. I did enjoy the weird elements such as the previously-mentioned otter/drowned man, "Charon", the twisted forms rising above the trees, the pressure weighing on the tent, and the Willow-Ents. Overall, though, they just don't gel in a truly satisfying way, as you find in "The Wendigo".

The story trajectory actually reminds me of one of William Hope Hodgson's "stranded at sea and at the mercy of the unknown" tropes, in which the reader actually gets a bit claustrophobic (and maybe impatient) with weird events taking place in the same nearly featureless setting for most of the tale. This often works in Hodgson's favor, but not so much for Blackwood.

I think that HPL was more than a bit off in declaring this to be the finest weird tale, ever (at least up to that point).

helmikuu 8, 2012, 10:09am

While I did prefer 'The Wendigo' to 'The Willows', I do like Blackwood's treatment of the Danube river particularly the marshlands where the Willows reside. The story drags on in some parts but his descriptive narrative of the landscape made immersion into the story much easier. I found it unsettling when the narrator would notice another chunk of 'the island' give way to the river, as they're steadily loosing ground to stand on, and the realization that they only have a set amount of time to get off that island before it's too late. Finally, I enjoyed the indirect approach to horror that Blackwood incorporates with his descriptions of the phantoms that the narrarator witnesses. The subtle horror of seeing, what would be normally a regular object, exhibit an unusual trait strikes terror in your heart as your brain tells you: this should not be happening. Blackwood's biggest shortcoming is that he tends to plod along in his storytelling, but the payoff is still worth it.

helmikuu 8, 2012, 10:15am

>4 KentonSem:

I can see why HPL would like this story, while I agree the nameless characters was detracting from the story overall, the fact that the narrator and his guide had no clue what was going on around them, and having to react at a moments notice to the turbulent and malevolent environment they were in, I feel it touched HPL's fancy in the very particular way of the base element portrayed in this story: fear. As we all know HPL felt that fear was the greatest emotion, and especially fear of the unknown.

helmikuu 8, 2012, 11:51am

>5 lammassu:

Yes - the crumbling island is a nice device that gives some added tension to the state of affairs.

The serendipitous appearance of the third victim/sacrifice at the end may have been the easy way out, but I do like this bit very much:

For just as the body swung round to the current the face and the exposed chest turned full towards us, and showed plainly how the skin and flesh were indented with small hollows, beautifully formed, and exactly similar in shape and kind to the sand-funnels that we had found all over the island.

"Their mark!" I heard my companion mutter under his breath. "Their awful mark!"

Anyone care to have a go at just what is encountered in "The Willows"?

helmikuu 8, 2012, 12:18pm

>7 KentonSem:

Yeah, the third victim from out of the blue was a copout. I would have been perfectly content if his guide was the sacrifice, though maybe Blackwood thought that would be too much like 'The Wendigo'.

As for the 'what' that is encountered, I don't know but they do seem tentacally in design, maybe they're the inspiration for the Outer Gods in HPL's Cthulhu mythos?

helmikuu 10, 2012, 11:43am

Here's an image of the book in which "The Willows" was first published:

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 10, 2012, 7:29pm

While reading I Am Providence, I was reminded of a very specific influence that "The Willows" had on HPL.

About "The Colour out of Space", Joshi writes, "The key to the story, of course, is the anomalous meteorite. Is it - or the coloured globules inside it - animate in any sense that we can recognize? Does it house a single entity or many entities? What are their physical properties? More significantly, what are their aims, goals, and motives? The fact that we can answer none of these questions very clearly is by no means a failing; indeed, this is exactly the source of terror in the tale."

These questions are, of course, very much akin to the ones that Blackwood's tale raises, and it's rather important to note that "The Willows" had such a strong influence on not only Lovecraft's fiction in general (after a certain point), but also on one of HPL's very finest stories.

I still liked "The Wendigo" better, though. ;)

helmikuu 10, 2012, 7:33pm

> 10

A very apt comparison!

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 11, 2012, 1:00am

Okay, finally finished my re-read.

I liked "The Wendigo" better, too (that's a consensus, right?).

This seems to me to be the key passage:

"You think... it is the spirit of the elements, and I thought perhaps it was the old gods. But I tell you now it is—neither. These would be comprehensible entities, for they have relations with men, depending upon them for worship or sacrifice, whereas these beings who are now about us have absolutely nothing to do with mankind, and it is mere chance that their space happens just at this spot to touch our own."

The reason there really isn't any direct description of the extradimensional beings the characters encounter is that they are, as ol' HPL would have it, "the apotheosis of the unnamable".

A sentence that struck me funny (in more senses than one):

Once or twice, too, I could have sworn it {i.e., the gong-like sound they kept hearing} was not outside at all, but within myself—you know—the way a sound in the fourth dimension is supposed to come.

But of course! :D

Another element of the story that seems to have really influenced HPL (besides the ones already mentioned) is that lyrical, haunting, atmospheric landscape description you see in the opening sentences of "The Willows" and, likewise, in the opening sentences of Lovecraft's "The Colour out of Space" and "The Dunwich Horror".

helmikuu 11, 2012, 9:23am

Well-chosen quotes, Art. Those stood out for me too.

helmikuu 11, 2012, 10:47am

>12 artturnerjr:

Yes, it's a little known fact that folks in the early twentieth century were much more knowledgeable about the fourth dimension than we are today.

helmikuu 11, 2012, 11:23am

>13 paradoxosalpha:

Thanks, paradoxosalpha.

>14 KentonSem:

Y'know, later on the Swede says:

All my life... I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region—not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind—where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by...

& so forth, which kind of brings the earlier quote into context; i.e., this is a matter of lifelong interest to him, he's probably read books on the topic, etc., so it's not really that unusual for him make a comment like that, but when I first read it it seemed so jarringly incongruous that I literally laughed out loud. It's the kind of thing that you would expect to be stated ironically by a character in a story about two self-aware science fiction geeks hanging out at a comics convention, not a story about two guys on a canoeing trip in Europe in the early 20th century.

helmikuu 11, 2012, 12:10pm

>15 artturnerjr:

Maybe the Swede, due to his paranormal sensitivity, acted as a kind of conduit for the strange events that occur. Especially if that area was already a supernatural hot zone.

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 12, 2012, 10:46am

>16 KentonSem:

That's an interesting idea and certainly a possibility that Blackwood leaves open for the reader. I think this points to one of the most important things about the more significant weird fiction writers of this period (Blackwood, Machen, Dunsany, Lovecraft, etc.) - none of them are particularly inclined to tie everything up in a nice little package for the reader and sort of say, "Okay, look, this is exactly what happened." There is a comfort with and an understanding of the aesthetic merits of ambiguity that is, I think, very much akin to to what you see in the work of more acclaimed modernist writers such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. This ties into my continued consternation with this attitude that you sometimes still see of, "Here's Joyce, Hemingway, etc., here in the center writing Literary Fiction, and here's Blackwood, Lovecraft, etc., over on the fringe writing this genre crap".

helmikuu 11, 2012, 6:06pm

> 17 none of them are particularly inclined to tie everything up in a nice little package for the reader

Yeah, I'm seeing that in the Wakefield I'm reading now too, even though he's more in the M.R. James traditionalist ghost story vein, which tends to have tighter plot closure.

Muokkaaja: helmikuu 13, 2012, 12:50pm

>17 artturnerjr:

The very best weird fiction, indeed the best horror fiction - if we really need to confine it to a genre that is constantly spilling over its borders - opens up a myriad of doorways for interpretation.

Hemingway, Joyce and Faulkner have always lived in the ritzy section of Literature Town, but I never get tired of reminding folks that Shakespeare, Dickens and Henry James wrote some pretty decent ghost stories, that Poe is generally considered to be one of the greatest of all American authors, and that Flannery O'Connor wrote a white-knuckle story about a mass murderer in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (included in The Dark Descent, I believe). And then, of course, you can get into more recent work by Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy, etc. etc. They're hardly slumming it!

But I'm just preaching to the choir!

>18 paradoxosalpha:

We do need to get to M.R. James!

helmikuu 13, 2012, 10:12am

>19 KentonSem:

'With this foundation, no one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist; and no better evidence of its tenacious vigour can be cited than the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them. Thus Dickens wrote several eerie narratives; Browning, the hideous poem "'Childe Roland'"; Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Dr. Holmes, the subtle novel Elsie Venner; F. Marion Crawford, "The Upper Berth" and a number of other examples; Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social worker, "The Yellow Wall Paper"; whilst the humourist W. W. Jacobs produced that able melodramatic bit called "The Monkey's Paw".'

-HPL, Supernatural Horror in Literature

It cuts the other way, too, of course, especially these days - we now have writers like HPL and M.R. James (agreed, we gotta get to him - he's the only one of Lovecraft's "Modern Masters" ( we haven't sampled yet) each have multiple volumes in the esteemed Penguin Classics series (thank you, S.T. Joshi), and Ambrose Bierce and Shirley Jackson in the Library of America (not to mention Peter Straub's excellent American Fantastic Tales volumes, which has the audacity to actually celebrate the work of living writers of supernatural fiction (What's wrong with you, Straub? Don't you know you're supposed to wait until decades after these folks have died penniless and forgotten to acknowledge the importance of their work?)).

So, in sum - things are looking up. :)

Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 4, 2019, 9:42am

Popping this up to the top to read later...

ETA: Finished this finally, on Kobo. The second read through was accompanied by an online audiobook with the background painted as the story progressed to reflect the themes in the story. Fascinating! The watercolour was lovely, the technique soothing, the story well done. My taste leans more to The Wendigo as a personal favourite, but both impact thoroughly. The sounds in one, the smells in the other, the senses suitably assaulted to leave a lingering disturbing image. Well done, Blackwood!

maaliskuu 8, 2:31pm

Really good. It's the intro to "The Willows" taken from a new book called The Repeater Book of the Occult: Tales from the Darkside.