Weird #3 The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (1907)

No weird tale that I have read captures a sense of dread and impending doom so subtly and beautifully in its descriptions of the natural world as “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907), the third story included in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales.

In this story, two canoeists journey down the Danube and wind up stranded on a sandy island in the middle of a swampy part of the river that arrests their progress toward Budapest. This part of the river is described as a “region of singular loneliness and desolation…covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes” (27). No one can imbue the natural world with quite the same sense of terrifying, pagan dread as Blackwood. His other story, “The Wendigo,” also captures a sense of a predatory natural world, but nowhere near so exquisitely as in “The Willows.”

The willow forest the canoeists have entered is a living entity, a character in itself that is “full of tricks” and holds a “secret life” (29). The plants and creatures that inhabit it leave an undeniable affect on their human observers. Though the river may be treacherous at times, the two men “forgave her because of her friendliness to the birds and animals that haunted the shores” (29). But it is not long before the river matures and leaves the men at its mercy, aware of their “utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements” (30). In one of the most memorable images, what at first appears to be a man’s body floating in the water–perhaps the body of a fisherman spotted earlier–turns out to be nothing more than an otter that “looked exactly like the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current” (32).

In the wake of the Second Industrial Revolution, rapid industrialization and urbanization triggered a pang of guilt in the minds of those who revered nature as a  Romantic entity and as a sublime refuge from the bourgeois city. Blackwood’s species of the weird represents this contradiction in literary terms through its othering of nature, which has turned into an active predator. Representing this breathless terror in the content and style of his writing, Blackwood writes about how the narrator’s emotions of awe, wonder, and uneasiness

seemed to attach [themselves] more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting listening. (31)

Something of the paranoia in “The Wendigo” emerges here, except that the terror is not associated with some separate, carnivorous entity (a First Nations flesh-eating monster) but with the natural world itself. This demon is a projection of the guilt of the industrialized world and a premonition of the environment’s ‘revenge’ upon humanity. Blackwood’s weird tale is all the more horrifying a hundred years after its publication because of our retrospective knowledge that mass extinctions and climate change have been triggered by industrialization.

Perhaps the strangest moment in this story occurs when the narrator thinks he perceives the shapes of non-human entities in the willow branches:

They first became properly visible, these huge figures, just within the tops of the bushes–immense, bronze-coloured, moving, and wholly independent of the swaying branches. […] They were interlaced one with another, making a great column, and I saw their limbs and huge bodies melting in and out of each other, forming this serpentine line that bent and swayed and twisted spirally with the contortions of the wind-tossed trees. (35-6)

These creatures are of the kind that overtired eyes might spot in the complex, swaying patterns of a willow tree in a breeze. After all, humans like to see patterns in random shapes. Yet, for all that the narrator acknowledges the possibility he might be seeing things, he becomes utterly convinced of their absolute reality: “I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed. For the longer I looked the more certain I became that these figures were real and living, though perhaps not according to the standards that the camera and the biologist would insist upon” (36). These creatures exist according to a different set of laws than Enlightenment science provides. In this singular willow grove, scientifically-defined reality no longer holds sway, suggesting modernity has spread unevenly across Europe, leaving this glade untouched. As one of the characters states, “The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world” (39).

Next week, I will review Saki’s much shorter, though no less bizarre, “Srendi Vashtar” (1910).

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Vegetables of the Romantic Period

Here are simply a few humorous pictures I drew last semester for The Veg magazine, a McGill student literary magazine (not actually vegetable-themed, but that’s kind of a running joke…) You will recognize that the vegetables are all based on Romantic poets. Worth a laugh, I think. Kinda fits too–weren’t the Romantics nature poets? Now they belong to nature completely. In fact, you can grow them in your garden.

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Vegetables of the Romantic Period 2
Charles YamParsley Bysshe ShelleySamuel Taylor Cabbage
Vegetables of the Romantic Period 1
Elizabeth Carrot BrowningGourd ByronJohn Beets

 

Vision: Evening Prayer

The date was Sunday 6 August 2012. I had entered the chapel of the monastery in Taizé, France, late at night during the service of evening prayer. I had scarcely slept since arriving in Paris and after two days in the City of Lights, I was exhausted.

I was in the state of waking in which, if you close your eyes long enough, you experience flickers of unconsciousness and you become briefly deafened to sound—like dipping your toe into the unfathomable pool of sleep and drawing it out quickly again. While the brothers of the monastery recited the Gospel in several languages, my mind carried the brother’s words off into another kind of narration that echoed the Gospels but attained a more disturbing, Gothic tone and subject matter.

I do not presume to say that the story below is exactly the one my unconscious narrated to me at that moment, but there are some nodal points that unite the two narrations. The haunting persona was there initially, the association with Romeo and Juliet was there, and the misty forest landscape of rural France presented itself powerfully to me at that moment

In putting the disconnected images and feelings together into a linear narration, I have inevitably butchered and sawed my experience into digestible pieces—a necessity, but unfortunate. Nonetheless, you will gain a sense the general feeling that my ‘vision’ produced within me.

Now, time to quit my chattering Romantic persona and get to the prose piece:

 Gothic ruins and graveyard

Vision: Evening Prayer”

Outside the lapses of silence, there is a Kyrie and a hallelujah; outside the sung prayers, a thunderbolt crackles the air outside. Late days and early mornings have driven me to claim what I desire, rest. But I will stand vigil and not lose myself to sleep. My eyes are shut and my head sinks low, almost against my will. Then, a reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew.

I remember the words flowing through the brother’s mouth. To say I do not remember would be a lie. But the words came to me in a state hovering between light and shadows. I would tell the truth. The words changed ownership and I fell away.

***

When Sunday was over, Marie went to the tomb. It was early on the first day of the week, the sun having just risen. It is cold around her legs still, as she runs through the mist and forest. She dashes and skips, cracking twigs underfoot in her urgency.

She is running from something predatorial.

She does not know the origin of this fear. She merely senses something behind her, puffing shallow breath. Suppose she is a milkmaid from a French village a few kilometres from Paris. She has lived a green life, in the fields, approaching the forest warily, living in a stone house with roses near the porch and a beehive growing in the weathered stone wall. She had fallen in love, a deadly vulnerability.

As she flees down the unmarked path, Marie says to herself, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb?”

I shall. She has gone to give her respects to one dearly departed, who is not truly dead. She suspects him to be the gardener—there is a garden in the forest glade, near the old tomb—and so ignores him as his back is turned to her. Let the gardener handle himself. Because something is chasing her. The eye in the shadow tracking her is mine.

The gardener casts his gaze in search of her, but the only figure his eye catches, approaching through the mist, is mine.

When Marie reaches the tomb, she sees the stone has already been moved. She sees a young man sitting on it, dressed in a white robe, skin pale as death. “They have taken my Romeo and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Do not be afraid,” I say from atop the stone. “Romeo has risen from his sleep of death. He was never truly dead. He drank a special poison, and now he awaits you. He is standing over his tombstone, triumphant over the grave.”

Marie enters the tomb. She sees Romeo, his feet dangling over a crossed headstone, swaying in the draft.

Her screams fill the tomb as she jumps back and turns to run. She could say nothing else because of her terror and she was very afraid.