Rivaled in popularity only by “The Willows” – and the contest is a close one – Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” pairs finely with its older cousin, being a horror story of which follows two campers as they steal away from the distractions of civilization, into a remote hinterland of un-peopled wilderness. Both stories are haunted by an Outer Being – a supernatural force spiteful of mankind, redolent with cosmic power, and only tangentially recognizable through the blind impressions of local mythology. While the Willow Things were an external threat – external to humanity and to the planet itself – the Wendigo stalks the interior: not only is it endemic to terrestrial Nature – the “Call of the Wild personified” – but the greater source of it calls out to corresponding doses which hibernate in each human soul… sleeping until they are summoned.
For those who are familiar with the windigo of Algonkian lore, (a cannibalistic spirit that possesses those who have, in hardship, resorted to eating human flesh, and transforming them into a variety of cannibal-werewolf) be reminded that Blackwood does not at any point allude to cannibalism: he has adopted the myth and remade it in his own cosmic mythos. Rather than examining the taboo of cannibalism, Blackwood appears to be exploring the threats of extreme wanderlust which drive a man further and further from civilization until he finds himself face-to-face with the violent forces of Nature that reside within him. The lay term for it may be “cabin fever”; some may call it “going stir-crazy; for Blackwood, the phenomenon in question – the impulsive rejection of shelter and safety in favor of endless and chaotic Nature – is described simple, chilling terms: “seeing the Wendigo.”
The story begins in the dark, boreal forests near the boundary between Ontario and Manitoba, where two hunting parties are camping before they embark in the morning. The groups consist of two Scottish adventurers (young theology student, Simpson, and his psychologist uncle, Dr. Cathcart, who studies mass hysteria), an indigenous cook named Punk, and two Canadian guides, the foul-mouthed outdoorsman Davis and the nature-obsessed French-Canadian Défago. Since the moose are uncommonly scarce (a week has gone by without a kill), the groups decide to split up, which seems to worry Défago. When Cathcart inquires into his worries, Davis rolls his eyes and intimates that the Quebecois is scared of an old fairy tale, which Défago angrily denies. They go to sleep, but Punk stays up late, smelling the air coming down the lake: it has an unfamiliar odor that concerns him, but he keeps this to himself.
After eating Punk’s breakfast, Simpson and Défago canoe down Fifty Island Water, one of the many elongated lakes cut through the glacier-scarred wilderness, and Cathcart and Davis head in a different direction. They plan to meet back at the camp after several days, and as the two pairs head off, there is a sense of impending tragedy as they are swallowed into the yawning woodlands. Simpson notes that the dozens of small islands look like a “fairy fleet,” and is deeply struck by the vastness of the Canadian wilds. In the midst of his awe, he senses a tinge of horror: he is reminded of stories about travelers who are so overwhelmed with the sublime that they have run into the woods never to be seen again. Défago, who seems less impressed, is characterized as a man who is simultaneously in love with and terrified by the wilderness – sensitive, intuitive, and quiet. He can grow manic and excitable after being in civilization for too long, but a few days immersed in nature tend to relieve his frustrations.
Shortly after the two men pitch their camp on the shore, Défago begins to grow nervous: he smells something unusual on the wind, and stares anxiously into the dark circle outside of their campfire. He eventually tells Simpson about a silly fairy tale that, notwithstanding, seems to be haunting him. The Wendigo is said to be an elemental creature of the wilderness – a kind of spiritual personification of Nature like Pan – which is impossibly fast and massive. The Wendigo is said to call to woodsmen, who are seduced by its Siren voice and forced to run after it. Simpson tries to comfort his guide (which only increases his own terror), and the two go to bed while the wind and snow blow about their tents. In the middle of the night Simpson awakens to the sound of Défago whimpering and wailing in his sleep – terrified by the presence of some creature or entity outside of his tent. The whimpers turn to sobs, and Simpson looks outside to see Défago’s bare feet sticking out of his tent flap in spite of the brutal cold. Perturbed but weary, Simpson falls back to sleep, only to be awakened by a sudden rumble, which rustles his tent. Then he overhears a sublime voice (it is both cosmically massive and weirdly delectable) call out Défago’s name, slowly and repetitively. Overcome by anxiety, Défago rushes off into the wilderness without a word to Simpson. He disappears almost immediately, but Simpson can still hear his cries – which mingles agony and ecstasy – which continuously repeat: “My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! … This height and fiery speed!”
Terrified, Simpson dresses for the woods and heads out in search of his guide. The air around him is perfumed by a strange, musky odor which reminds him of the lion cages at the zoo, decaying leaves, and wet earth: the deep, leonine scent of pure Nature personified. As he ventures forth into the night, he finds massive, round foot-prints in the fresh snow: prints which glow softly and emit the same lion-like musk. Alongside these are bare, human footprints which eventually start to resemble the larger, round prints. Suddenly, the tracks end, suggesting that the two entities had either taken flight or completely disappeared. Far off and above, Simpson once again hears the plaintive-but-ecstatic cry, “My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire…”
Simpson wastes no time in returning to camp, and when his uncle reappears with Davis, he relates his story to them. While Cathcart writes the creature off as a bull moose combined with mass hysteria-inspired hallucinations, Davis and Punk are less sure. While Punk watches their camp, the other three return to Fifty Island Water, where they assume Défago – barefoot and insane – has died of exposure. They make a camp that night and Cathcart retells the myth of the Wendigo, which he interprets as a fable used to explain Cabin Fever. The spirit is said to call its victims by name, causing them to run after it until their feet are burnt off by friction, at which point they sprout Wendigo feet.
The usually macho Davis is deeply worried for his friend, and calls his name repeatedly into the woods. Suddenly, there is a rushing sound overhead, as if a gargantuan bird has flown by them, followed by Défago’s mournful voice. Davis calls again, and a crash is heard just beyond the camp. The three men stare in horror as Défago stumbles towards them, markedly changed: he moves like a marionette commanded by wires, and his face is a cartoonish distortion – more beast than man. He reeks of lion cages and rotting leaves. Davis argues that this isn’t Défago at all, and Cathcart challenges the strange-looking man to explain himself. In a raspy whisper, Défago claims that he has been with the Wendigo. Suddenly, Davis screams, pointing to what he describes as Défago’s transformed feet (Simpson looks, but sees nothing in the shadows, although they do seem larger). Suddenly, a wind gusts through the camp, and Défago is jerked up as if by wires, disappearing into the woods around them. High above they hear his lonely cry: “My burning feet of fire…”
The night seems to last forever: Cathcart attempts to speak reason to the hysterical Davis while Simpson is agonized by a deep, spiritual terror. When the three finally get back to camp, they are shocked to find Défago, desperately trying to warm his feet by the fire: they are black with frostbite, utterly dead and frozen. He has lost his memory, and is hopelessly insane. Robbed of his soul, his shambling body survives for only a few weeks before he expires. As for Punk, he has returned home without a word. When the party reconnect with him, he claims that he ran off at the sight of Défago, who staggered into the camp moments after Punk had caught a whiff of something strange: an odor of decaying leaves, damp earth, and lions…
Blackwood’s treatment of the windigo is vastly different from the cannibal werewolf of traditional folklore. Whereas the genuine tradition is the stuff of H. P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, and Stephen King, the Blackwoodian Wendigo is typical of its creator’s bogies: a cosmic actor grasped at (though not entirely realized) by mythology. While the cannibal link is never mentioned in “The Wendigo,” one might imagine that Blackwood, hearing of the tale in his Canadian journeys, said to himself, “there’s something to that, but it would be so much more than a call to cannibalism; it would be a call to the very Wild.” And Blackwood’s Wendigo is just that – a spirit which inspires its victims to something far more spiritually poignant than ghoulish cannibalism: to the surrender of all will, reason, and sense to a spirit of chaotic impulse and cosmic absurdity which defies the laws of terrestrial physics, rejects the logic of self-preservation, and embraces the empty, infinite space of raw, maddening Nature.
In one sense, Blackwood’s Wendigo is an Indigenous version of the Greek god Pan – the embodiment of Nature and impulse who was said to inspire panic (root word “Pan”) in country travelers who listened too closely to the Siren song of Nature. Pan became a pop icon in the Late Victorian and Edwardian Ages, when he was used as a symbol for the wild, hairy underbelly of cultivated civilization. With technology, science, and industry so far advanced, Victorians (especially in Europe) felt as if they were losing their grip on human passion. Although they were proud of human progress, there was a nostalgic malaise in the Victorian zeitgeist – a longing for a resuscitation of mankind’s wildness. As a result, Pan was welcomed back into the fold of Western culture, although he was just as frequently depicted as a ravenous beast, or an erotic totem of sexuality as he was a lovable trickster, or a mind-blasting personification of Nature. Pan made appearances in Arthur Machen, Kenneth Grahame, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and was featured in architecture, statuary, and paintings of the period. Whether sinister, sensual, or spiritual, Pan’s presence revived the animal in the human breast, trading rationality for impulsivity, restraint for indulgence, stoicism for passion, and moral compasses for unbridled desire.
When Défago and Simpson cross from the campsite, over the lake, to the opposite shore, they truly are passing from the realm of reason and intellect, across the black waters of the human unconscious, to a vast, impregnable region of human psychology which – like the wilderness of Canada – is too vast to blaze, and too illimitable to plumb. The horror of the Wendigo is not that of a monster lurking outside which wishes to consume your blood; it is the horror of a monster lurking within which wishes to consume your reason and your will. Like Pan, who inspires panic and disorder in the minds of his victims, the Wendigo overrides all sense of self-navigation, forcing the human spirit to surrender to the impulses of the animal within. Défago is sucked up into just such a mania, which burns away his feet (his connection to earth and reality), drawing him irrecoverably up into the limitless cosmos above where he has lost all context of space or time.
As a result, the shell of a man who returns to the camp is only the cast-off husk of Défago, while the real Défago – the soul of the man – has been absorbed into the spirit of Nature, sucked dry like a discarded shell and spat back down to earth. Nature, which had always been a balm to his restless heart, had finally overwhelmed and overtaken him. And Blackwood’s message is that such a fate is possible in even the most refined person’s spirit: this is why it terrifies the devout Simpson and unsettles the rationalistic Cathcart. Both are reminded of their basic spiritual nature and that they are susceptible to appeals from beyond their consciousness – that at any time a dog whistle from the cosmos might sound, calling their soul home, and destroying their body in the process.
To be confident in our ability to master our souls, Blackwood suggests, is to be unarmed against the sinister Call of the Wild – the clarion call to abandon sense, reason, and materialism, to be blown away on the winds of spiritual indulgence and cosmic chaos. During his trips into the Canadian interior Blackwood felt something of its allure – its mesmeric pull – to become lost in it. It was gorgeous and endless and wild; it was the seat of beauty. But in its sheer gravity Blackwood knew that the human mind was made vulnerable by that beauty, and in that primal vulnerability, he smelt the hot breath of terror.