Weird Fiction developed early in the Nineteenth Century with the bizarre supernatural annals of Hoffmann, Poe, and O’Brien, but the peak of its philosophy began percolating in the grotesqueries of Arthur Machen (“The White People”), Robert W. Chambers (“The Yellow Sign”), and Ambrose Bierce (“The Damned Thing”), but it can arguably be said to first express its unique worldview in the following tale.
Before Lovecraft penned “The Call of Cthulhu” and William Hope Hodgson published “The House on the Borderland,” Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” expressed the chief tenants of Lovecraftian weird fiction: a malignant universe either indifferent to or indignant towards humanity; a supernaturalism that defies human mythology, expectations, or tropes; a philosophy that highlights human insignificance; a universe where reality is in doubt, where logic is made worthless, and where fear is primal and vestigial – eclipsing the petty concerns of modern man in the times when the dimensions of humankind intersect those of the outer terrors.
“The Willows” is infamous for its powerful atmosphere and its brooding, boiling crescendo of predatory terror. Lovecraft called it the finest supernatural tale in the language. While it lacks the grisly detail of slasher films, its command of psychological menace is virtually unparalleled, and its ability to access un-romanticized realistic dread is truly unique.
One of the first great camping horror stories, it is the revered ancestor of The Blair Witch Project, Deliverance, and The Evil Dead – [not] to be read by the light of a sparking campfire.
Our narrator is canoeing down the Danube on a sightseeing tour with his friend, Swede, and the two are just leaving Bratislava, Slovakia, when they enter a strange and deserted stretch of wetland dominated by sandy shoals and sliver-leaved willow bushes. He solemnly notes that it is “a region of singular loneliness and desolation where [the Danube’s] waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes.”
The currents shift mercurially, cutting channels one day where there were none, making or destroying sandy islands without notice, and making the navigation of such a fluid place tremendously treacherous. Seasoned adventurers, the narrator and the Swede dismiss warnings they get in Bratislava about the curious, misanthropic nature of the marshlands and press on in their Canadian canoe.
But the narrator thinks there may be something to the locals' anxieties: “The sense of remoteness from the world of human kind, the utter isolation, the fascination of this singular world of willows, winds, and waters, instantly laid its spell upon us both, so that we allowed laughingly to one another that we ought by rights to have held some special kind of passport to admit us, and that we had, somewhat audaciously, come without asking leave into a separate little kingdom of wonder and magic—a kingdom that was reserved for the use of others who had a right to it, with everywhere unwritten warnings to trespassers for those who had the imagination to discover them.”
After a long day of paddling, they land on a sandy island (although it’s a good acre in size, they note that the slushing waters are already dissolving its borders) covered with willow bushes. Something about their movement and omnipresence disturbs the narrator’s imagination, but his friend is utterly practical and seems to feel nothing but relief at stretching out on the sand.
As twilight falls, they search the island for firewood, and in the gloom over the marsh, they notice something odd in the water: it looks like a man’s body – turning over playfully (or helplessly) in the current, with yellow, glowing eyes. Shocked at first, they later realize that it is only (or appears to be only) an otter, and they laugh it off.
But as they do, a real man passes their island in a boat, shouting inarticulately to them in Hungarian, and making frantic gestures. Before he drifts out of sight, he makes the sign of the cross, leaving the narrator deeply disturbed, although the Swede assures him that the man must have taken them for ghosts.
As night falls, the wind stirs up from the marsh, rustling the willow branches for miles around, creating a strange, unholy humming noise that the narrator imagines to be “the sounds a planet must make, could we only hear it, driving through space.” There is something abnormal about these bristling, nodding willow shrubs, but who could be afraid of a sea of bushes?
Nonetheless, he senses that the sound is melting into a sort of common “note,” and that it has a message: “the note of this willow-camp now became unmistakably plain to me; we were interlopers, trespassers; we were not welcomed. The sense of unfamiliarity grew upon me as I stood there watching. We touched the frontier of a region where our presence was resented.”
Late that night, the narrator is woken up by his intuition and stumbles outside to look at the sky. To his horror, he discerns a flowing column of grotesque, luminescent elementals flowing into the heavens, parading madly in the air above the island. He associates them with the old gods before the Romans who have claimed this desolate territory as their retreat from modern man – wild elementals of Nature who have more in common with the black cosmos beyond than anything on earth.
He hopes that it is a dream, but he knows that he is awake. When the vision disappears, he returns to the tent, but is frightened by the sound of “patterings” on the sand outside: as if a host of strange creatures were sneaking around them.
That morning the Swede’s mood is dark and serious: the bottom of the canoe has been slit open, one paddle is missing, and another seems to have been sanded down “beautifully” to a thin pane of wood that will snap in the water. The Swede grimly claims that this is “an attempt to prepare the victim for the sacrifice.”
They sense that it is an intentional sabotage, and that the nets are closing in on them. On edge, they proceed to patch the canoe, but are revolted by a strange new phenomenon: conical pock marks covering the sand around them – the bizarre, telltale markings of the Willows, the narrator suspects.
As the island continues to shrink around them, the two men discover that some of their food is missing. The practical Swede is forced to acknowledge what is happening and proffers his own interpretation: they have wandered into a window zone where a fourth dimension makes contact with the physical world, allowing extraterrestrial forces to peek in on human activity. He fears that anyone who tarries too long in this frontier between the two worlds will become a sacrifice to the Elder Gods, being transformed into something entirely abhuman.
Apparently the Swede isn’t so unimaginative after all, because he admits that he has been sensitive to these liminal zones his entire life – spaces occupied by “immense and terrible personalities” which dwarf human concerns and make every day cares seem like dust. He recommends that they try to keep their wits about them and “keep their minds quiet” to prevent the elementals from “feeling” their thoughts.
He supposes that they could be spared if another sacrifice could be found, but doubts that this is possible in so uninhabited a place, and warns the narrator not to think, “for what you think happens!”
As night deepens around them, they hear the atonal music of the Willows and discern something inhuman and otherworldly moving towards them in the darkness. Terrified, they violently stumble into one another – the Swede is knocked unconscious and the narrator is rocked with pain. But this seems to have inadvertently saved them: the mental distraction of the pain has caused the humming to cease. However, when the narrator looks up, he notices that the tent has been knocked over, and that the sand around it is utterly peppered with conical divots.
Sleep is difficult for them, and the narrator awakens to hear the telltale patterings of the Willow Things outside, along with a wild “torrent” of atonal humming rising up from the marshes. He notices that the Swede is missing and catches his friend standing by the rushing waters, prepared to hurl himself in.
The two men struggle in the sand, with the Swede begging the narrator to let him take "the way of the water and the wind." But before he can slip out of the narrator's grip, something changes in the atmosphere: the humming stops, the patterings stop, and the Swede's reason returns to him. Relieved, but disturbed, he mutters that the Willow Things must have found another victim to take their place.
In the morning, the Swede searches their surroundings, certain that he will find the "sacrifice" nearby -- and he does: he discovers the drowned corpse of a stranger tangled in the willow roots on the border of the island. The men are shocked to find the body riddled with "beautifully formed" conical impressions, which the Swede laconically points to as "their awful mark."
They decide that they must "give it a decent burial," but as soon as they touch the corpse the humming noise rises angrily -- possessively -- from the marshlands. The two men cling to each other in terror, and before their eyes the water rises around the pock-marked body, washing it away into the river: "the body had been swept away into mid-stream and was already beyond our reach and almost out of sight, turning over and over on the waves like an otter."
Their identity is not necessary to convey the supreme malignity of their nature: the Willow Things – whether carnivorous extraterrestrials, resentful eldritch gods, or predatory elementals – are misanthropic forces too unimpressed to destroy humanity but too supercilious to tolerate trespassers without demanding human blood to satisfy the indignation. Blackwood strives to create a thick, billowing atmosphere of shifting reality, certain disaster, and chilling realizations of terrestrial insignificance; and he succeeds brilliantly: the story permeates with the surging proliferation of the Unknown.
“The Willows” stands out as an uncommon study in human helplessness in the face of unfamiliar forces (comparable only to the fantasias of William Hope Hodgson and the dreamscapes of Lovecraft) set in a mundane, almost placid environment (there are no crumbling castles, dark streets, or ominous mansions) which is nonetheless utterly redolent with misanthropic wrath and hateful otherworldliness.
Removed from the distractions of daily life, Blackwood’s unfortunate heroes encounter a hidden cosmic secret: reality as it has been understood is false, and (given the opportunity) the entirety of mankind could be sucked into a hellish dimension – and it would be were it not so dully insignificant. A mainstay of classic horror anthologies, “The Willows” has continued to be successful not because of its gore, not because of its horror, but because of its sickening psychological terror – a stunningly successful impression of mankind’s frailty, and his indivisible dependence upon knowledge, reason, and reality to thrive and survive. Without these intellectual safety valves, even the willow bushes blowing in the breeze would cease to escape our suspicion.