Last week we took a good look at seven of Algernon Blackwood’s best ghost stories (while unfortunately leaving out many contenders, so feel free to go back and comment on which stories you would pick!), and this week we look at seven of his best weird tales. In our anthology, The Willows, The Wendigo, and Other Horrors: The Best Weird Fiction and Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood, I divided his stories into three relatively distinct classes: ghost stories (occur typically in an urban environment, involve resurrected spirits or moments, and are concerned with the effects of modern callousness and dehumanizing anonymity), weird fiction (occur typically in the countryside, involve the supernatural forces of nature – elementals, gods, strange beings, alternate dimensions – and are concerned with the hubris of human individualism, a Lovecraftian cosmicisim that views the universe as essentially misanthropic, and the safety of close-knit community versus the vulnerability of isolated encounters with the wild), and strange tales (occur in either environment, though typically a combination – the city and the country share the stage – and involve clairvoyance, macabre events, murders, the appearance of elementals, reincarnation, or other paranormal events, and are largely pleasure reads with a more Jamesian and less philosophical direction). Today we look at weird fiction – Blackwood’s excellent wilderness tales, which all involve a self-sure individualist who meets his match when he decides to sashay into the hallowed domains of nature.
(One final note: in the future I may do a look at what I consider Blackwood's "strange tales" which are unquestionably weird but also more detective-y and have a different atmosphere that is vulnerable to logic and the workings of Man. This includes Ancient Sorceries, The Camp of the Dog, and the other adventures of John Silence (whom I personally... well, it's not a fond feeling). So before A.S. is missed, keep in mind that there may be a third article on strange tales in the future, but for now we put down the pen and pause)
7. MAY DAY EVE
Although it is long and lacks any sense of horror outside of a disturbing discombobulation of time, space, and reality, May Day Eve is a critical and seminal work of Blackwood’s that pours into most of his weird fiction. The story involves a sceptic who walks through the English countryside on May Day Eve – a day traditionally seen as Halloween’s springtime counterpart, also referred to as Walpurgisnacht, and associated with witchcraft, shifts in reality, and supernatural potency. Shrugging off the warnings of the savvy folklorist whom he is on his way to visit, he walks through the fields and hill country where he is beset by what seem to be elementals, fairies, or some kind of impish paranormal beings, who almost drive him insane by messing with his perception of space and time, and finally force him to reconcile his two Jungian selves: a beautiful woman representing Nature and spirit and a caged, catlike thing representing materialism and hubris. The tale is heavy-handed, preachy, and rather long, but as a philosophical treatise, it returns time and time again in Blackwood’s fiction, and should be read by any fan who wants a closer understanding of his sublime, romantic worldview.
6. THE SEA FIT
This curious tale features a sea captain who is visited by a group of friends – including a monotheistic cleric and a materialistic soldier – who are concerned about his mental health. Always an eccentric, he has an almost romantic monomania about the sea – an obsession that manifests as a personal religion to which he is more than willing to be a human sacrifice. As the night wanes, the little party gather on the porch of his seaside abode and watch the breakers crashing on the moonlit shore. After building a great deal of tension and dread, Blackwood releases his character from all of his inhibitions as he rushes into the embrace of the sea, sacrificing himself to his pagan beliefs, and morphing into sea water in the process. The combined violence, beauty, and power of the scene overrides its somewhat heavy-handed and unbelievable plot, which smacks strongly of Poe and the romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats. In fact, the tale is more poem and story, and is a beautiful haunting meditation on the thrills – as well as the terrors – of allowing individuality to be literally swamped and consumed by the collective soul of the natural universe.
5. THE VALLEY OF THE BEASTS
This protagonist is the exact opposite of our sea captain, though they share a proud and defiant charisma. Unlike the pagan sailor, this jingoistic hunter has no regard for nature and desires to dominate and master every acre he can. Lead by a nervous Canadian Indian into a valley said to belong to the Algonquian god Ishtot, the hunter eventually tires of his superstition and is glad to see him desert him as they near the holy country. But once he enters the Valley of the Beasts – a kind of Eden where animals reside in paranormal community – he begins to subtly, but steadily devolve. Abandoning gun, clothes, and inhibitions, he finds himself lapping water with deer, wolves, and bears, but if this is Eden, he is no Adam, and the magic wears away long enough for him to realize that he is in mortal danger. Crying out to Ishtot for help as a bear moves in to crush him, the hunter is mortified at the response: “I will not save!” The timely intervention of his returned guide is all that saves him, leaving him an astounded and changed man. The description of his devolution is tremendously hypnotic, and although the tale is more parable than horror story, its increasing tension as human civilization is pulled under the power of Natural whimsy is seriously chilling. A disturbing read, however, for any hunter who enjoys wandering off into the thick of the woods by himself.
4. ANCIENT LIGHTS
The first Blackwood weird tale that I ever read, and in spite of its brevity and its lack of actual horror (though terror is certainly in place), I cannot help but give it high marks. In the most unassuming of natural locations – a woody glen on an English farm set for demolition – a small-minded clerk encounters a terrifying attack. Working for the firm that has been contracted to grub up the so-called “Fairy Wood,” our protagonist crosses over the fields to inspect the copse in search of some adventure. As he enters the property he disregards a sign as a typo: “Trespassers will be persecuted,” but it is he who is making the mistake. As he wanders through the little wood he finds paths shifting, trees moving, and vague figures appearing in the corner of his eye. The confusion suddenly becomes alarming when – in a bid to flee – he cannot discover the way out, his face is scratched up by branches, and his hat and umbrella are knocked away. It just goes to show that the penalty for defying nature can be just as severe on the back lot of an English farm as it can be in the Canadian wilderness. An excellent, exciting, and very short read.
3. THE GLAMOUR OF THE SNOW
One of Blackwood’s absolute gems, this tale bears comparison to his strange story, “The Dance of Death,” wherein a man with a heart condition decides to defy doctor’s orders at a town frolic and dance with a strange, otherworldly woman – with predictable consequences. In this tale, our hero feels torn between nature and society, as though he is equally part of both, but not entirely at home in either. The story is tremendously Freudian (and Jungian), and involves his pitching between dignified, social cultivation and careless, animalistic release. During his stay at an Alpine resort, he meets a solitary woman whose ice skating mesmerizes him – and whose voice recalls those of his dead mother and deceased first love. Continually haunted by the encounter, he resolves to abandon society in favor of the snowy wilds that seem home to his fascinating new friend. At night he meets her skiing up an Alp, and rapidly attempts to overtake her, before he realizes that she is luring him to an almost certain death in the white embrace of the snow (as a side note, “glamour” here means spell or bewitching power). The story is very Blackwoodian: romantic, sublime, but chilling to the core.
2. THE WENDIGO
And now the absolute, undenied masterpieces. The Wendigo may disappoint fans of folklore, because Blackwood’s entity has nothing to do with cannibalism: in some ways it is far worse, a demon-god who enslaves those it calls to in an eternal race across the skies. The ultimate camping story, “The Wendigo” follows an untested hunter and his Canadian guide Defago as they break away from their main camp in search of quarry. But Defago is distracted: it is said that the Wendigo has been on the prowl lately, and while he laughs off the legend (in perhaps the most disturbing and frightening passage in the tale), his terror is clear. That night Defago wakens his client with his moaning and crying, and not long after he disappears, leaving horrifyingly long treads in the snow. When the traumatized hunter returns to the party, they head out to recover Defago’s body, only to encounter the now puppet-like figure in what is one of the most eerie and tension-laced episodes in all of horror. The tale highlights the fear of reason, rationality, and civility being overwhelmed by impulse, whimsy, and madness – certainly not a trade-off that one would welcome miles away from food and shelter – and it remains one of the most gripping and shiver-inducing tales in the English language. Not to be read before camping (or to be read if you enjoy a sleepless bivouac).
1. THE WILLOWS
The dean of Blackwood stories, and one of H. P. Lovecraft’s absolute favorites is – like most of his tales – based on a real-life experience wherein Blackwood and a friend encountered a rotting corpse as they canoed down the loneliest stretch of the Danube. In this tale, two men follow their route, leaving Budapest and paddling into a swampy, shifting mess of sandbars, islets, and morphing channels dotted by willow bushes (don’t picture the pleasant trees; these are creeping shrubs whose glinting wands grow twenty-feet or less in height). Several omens darken their stay as they land and set up camp on a dry sandbar, including a strange otter (or is it a dead body), a terrified peasant waving them down, and an overwhelming sense that they are being watched and resented by some force that lives in the willows. The two men endure a harrowing night as the shrubs seem to move, murmur, and grow around them, and after the narrator observes the theophany of supernatural beings twining in a column above the willows, the story grows darker and darker. Whatever they are – ghosts, gods, aliens, elementals, or monsters – the willows hate their guests, and are determined to destroy them for trespassing. The canoe is damaged, the oar is taken, and disturbing funnel-like holes begin to appear in the sand: the willow version of a vampire’s fang marks. The danger moves closer, becomes more intimate, and their situation grows in desperation as the two are increasingly taunted into surrendering themselves to the willows. A greater and more alien threat cannot be imagined from a less unassuming source, but Blackwood excels at making the inane insidious, and after reading “The Willows” we are left feeling quite uneasy about a world that is far less familiar to us than we care to admit.