A wintry fantasia of Nature, Death, and the Sublime, “The Glamour of the Snow” features one of Blackwood’s most deceptively disturbing stories. While it lacks the psychological terror of “The Wendigo” or the gruesome horror of “The Insanity of Jones,” the implications it makes concerning the relationship between cosmic Nature and human beings (those few who are sensitive to the whims of their wild, untamed forces) fly in the face of many of Blackwood’s previous tales – those which portray Nature as a transcendental zone in which a human soul (if receptive) can be recalibrated to the common pitch of all Creation.
While this may sometimes involve physical oblivion (“The Sea Fit,” “The Valley of the Beasts”), those who tread authentically in the realm of the Outer Beings are received in good faith. Not so in this icy tale. Unlike the victim-protagonists of “Ancient Lights,” “May Day Eve,” and others – bourgeoisies with materialistic inclinations – this prey is a picture perfect Blackwoodian: sensitive, artistic, drawn to the majesty and desolation of nature, and worshipful of the universal spirit from the bottom of his “pagan soul.” Nonetheless, this admirer of the cosmos is punished savagely – not as an interloper, but as a possession, as an object of desire.
Hibbert, a middle-aged English writer, departs for a ski lodge in the Swiss Alps where he hopes to find time to focus on writing his latest book and communing with nature. He is a cheery loner who enjoys his rootless life – dipping his toe in society just long enough to rub shoulders but leaving before he risks growing close to anyone. Throughout his life he has been keenly sensitive to three dimensions, and he feels closest to them here at the base of the Matterhorn: the world of the English tourist, which he was born to (educated, upper-class, agnostic materialists who view nature as their playground), the world of the Swiss villagers, towards whom his sympathies are drawn (superstitious, agrarian, religious traditionalists who view nature as a dangerous presence which demands respect), and the savage domain of Nature itself.
He most easily blends in with the tourists, has most in common with the villagers, and feels most at home in Nature: “To this last, however, in virtue of a vehement poetic imagination, and a tumultuous pagan instinct fed by his very blood, he felt that most of him belonged. The others borrowed from it, as it were, for visits. Here, with the soul of Nature, hid his central life.”
He felt himself fought over by these three dimensions – torn between the British social elite from whom he came, the peasants whose sensitivity to the mystic side of nature which he admired, and the domain of Nature which called his soul by name. In Blackwood’s words: “It was thus began the singular conflict for the soul of Hibbert. In his own soul, however, it took place. Neither the peasants nor the tourists were conscious that they fought for anything. And Nature, they say, is merely blind and automatic.” As obvious as the pull of Nature is to him, however, it is charged with a sinister – almost treacherous – energy: “Now this battle for his soul must have issue. And he knew that the spell of Nature was greater for him than all other spells in the world combined—greater than love, revelry, pleasure, greater even than study. He had always been afraid to let himself go. His pagan soul dreaded her terrific powers of witchery even while he worshipped.”
Hibbert rubs elbows with the tourists, but always spends his time on the skirts of the crowd, and when things die down – when the Englishmen cluster around their fires
and break out warming drinks – he slinks away to explore the ice-caked slopes by himself. One night he finds his way to the skating rink and glides over its surface in silent isolation: “The thought of the stuffy hotel room, and of those noisy people with their obvious jokes and laughter, oppressed him. He felt a longing to be alone with the night; to taste her wonder all by himself there beneath the stars, gliding over the ice.”
Suddenly, there in the icy darkness, he noticed a figure sliding back and forth on skates across the ice from him. It appears to be a woman muffled in gray clothing – her face masked by furs and scarves, but her bare hands gleaming coldly in the light. He greets her and she responds in a strange, accented English, but still remains standoffish. She beckons him to follow her through a gap in the safety netting, towards the thin ice on the other side, and – thrilled by her adventurous spirit and her lithe skating – he grabs her hand and joins her. He is struck by its cold, dry feeling, but can tell that she is young and strong. The talk very little but skate wildly in the moonlight. Then, with a parting wave, she glides to the side of the pond and seems to disappear.
He can’t understand how she managed to vanish so quickly, but is mesmerized by her company. Somehow he feels as though he knows her from somewhere else and that she knows him, too: “For in her voice—a low, soft, windy little voice it was, tender and soothing for all its quiet coldness—there lay some faint reminder of two others he had known, both long since gone: the voice of the woman he had loved, and—the voice of his mother.” He returns to his bed and is consumed by thoughts of ice and stars and snow.
In the morning, he is aware that he may have been unwise to skate alone with the strange woman, and searches for her in hopes of making a formal acquaintance, yet no one seems to know her. He can’t find her anywhere, yet never once wonders if she has left – he knows she is near. He continues to relish skiing, luging, skating, and dancing, feeling increasingly euphoric as he melts away into the winter landscape. One night he prepares for a fancy dress ball and is carried away with anticipation: some “hidden instinct in his pagan soul” seems to know that his mystery woman will be out there tonight, and he knows that he will encounter her. He is teeming with excitement at the thought of meeting her in some wild place: “The forces of his soul and mind not called upon for "work" and obvious duties, all went to Nature. The desolate, wild places of the earth were what he loved; night, and the beauty of the stars and snow. And this evening he felt their claims upon him mightily stirring. A rising wildness caught his blood, quickened his pulse, woke longing and passion too.”
He admires himself in the mirror and notes how much younger he looks, and how much happier. He doesn’t choose to dress in a costume, and doesn’t plan to mingle, but does hope to catch up with some of the men to talk about skiing – and if he should run into her… well, all the better. Before he goes out, though, he packs his writings in a box and writes a note with his brother’s address on it with the ominous heading “in case of accident.” He is suddenly struck by the oddness of this move and wonders if something deep inside of him is trying to communicate a serious warning. But he is too peppy to notice: “A delicious happiness was in his blood. Over the edge of the hills across the valley rose the moon. He saw her silver sheet the world of snow. Snow covered all. It smothered sound and distance. It smothered houses, streets, and human beings. It smothered—life.”
The ball is a blur to him; he spends it lost in strange thoughts, and looking desperately for his strange companion. All seems lost as the band packs up and the lights go out, but just as it looks like she is gone forever, he notices her figure – white and enticing – flit in the shadows just outside. Knowing that she is outside, he instinctively rushes to his room and dresses warmly in furs before rushing out into the snow to meet her on the desolate alp. Only a few villagers notice him disappear in the night – one mutters sadly, “they’ve called him to go,” before crossing herself.
Indeed, he is called: he skis up the slope, instinctively listening to his “pagan soul” as it direct him towards her. He is only slowed – just for a moment – by the grounding sight of a church steeple, but shakes it off and moves beyond the world of villages and churches and lights. He spies her waiting for him – dressed all in white furs – outlined against the moon, and begs her to give her his hand to clasp. “A little farther,” is her response: this is still too near the village. He gives pursuit and they charge up the slopes – she always keeping just ahead and always saying “A little farther! Then we’ll make for home!” And he keeps following her, intoxicated by the dazzling power of the snow and the stars.
The village quickly melts away in the distance, and he is suddenly aware that he has never been quite so high before: the sky is now vast and black and the mountains look like jagged iron shards. He tries to tell her how long he has been looking for her (ten days) but seems to be losing his concept of time. Nonetheless, he can list all the places he looked. She replies, “’You looked for me in the wrong places," he heard her murmur just above him. "You looked in places where I never go. Hotels and houses kill me. I avoid them." She laughed—a fine, shrill, windy little laugh.”
Suddenly, she stops and seems to be right on top of him. He is conscious of a stabbing cold pain all over: she has touched him with her bare hand. He catches the flash of her eyes, but still not her face – “all the rest seemed white and snowy, as though he looked beyond her – out into space.” Hibbert doesn’t realize it, but he has been skiing for five hours, now, and his body is numb with exhaustion and exposure. He suggests that they turn back and head to the village. But she will have none of it: “Our home is – here! A little higher – where we cannot hear those wicked bells!”
Again she rushes at him and her cold face presses against his. He is horrified to realize that she has no face, and now the crushing weight of snow and exhaustion drives him down into the powder where she throws herself upon him bodily and smothers him with ravenous kisses. “She kissed him softly on the lips, the eyes, all over his face. And then she spoke his name in that voice of love and wonder, the voice that held the accent of two others—both taken over long ago by Death—the voice of his mother, and of the woman he had loved…”
Hibbert is lucky: as he begins the slumber that leads to death, a clump of snow falls over him, and the shock of the wetness against his neck is enough to wake him to his senses. Drunkenly, he staggers to his feet and begins the breakneck decent down the mountain – flying as fast as he can. However, he is still deathly weak, and knows that if he were to fall, even once, he would never get up again. He senses her touch on him and hears her silvery laughter, but is now desperate to live. Just as he is afraid that she will overtake him, he sees a light: the local priest is carrying a lantern as he delivers communion to an adjacent parish. Emboldened by the sight – and aware that the spirit of the mountain loathes the symbols of faith – he presses on, but the enraged spirit blasts him with a shrieking winter wind – raging in bitter defeat – and he is knocked back into the snow…
In the morning he wakes up, with a twisted ankle, recovering from shock in his warm bed, attended by a doctor. His exploit – earning him the nickname “Mad Hibbert” – is a cause-celebre amongst the English tourists and a cautionary tale amongst the villagers. A handful of brave skiers trace his tracks as far as they can go – for in fact, Hibbert skied higher up on the mountain than anyone had ever manager – and they photograph the terrain. When Hibbert sees the photographs, one thing stands out to him that he quietly keeps to himself: there is only one track of skis in the snow...
Combining elements of “The Dance of Death” and “The Sea Fit,” both of which follow the absorption of worshipful pantheists into the transcendental Over Soul, “The Glamour of the Snow” is, nonetheless, perhaps one of the grimmest, most terrifying of Blackwood’s tales – rivaled only by “The Willows” and “The Wendigo.” The result is an uncommonly pessimistic understanding of Nature’s larger relationship with all mankind: one of hostile savagery and sadistic possessiveness. The tale shares themes with Oliver Onion’s masterpiece, “The Beckoning Fair One,” both of which feature female specters which resemble the Gaelic vampire, the lenan sídhe, a beautiful fairy woman who takes a human lover (usually an artistic soul), becoming his muse in exchange for absolute devotion. These unfortunate men live “brief, though fairly inspired lives.”
The female vision lures Hibbert into its weblike influence by embodying those nurturing presences in his life which he has lost – his mother and lover – mirroring Nature’s apparent comforts (maternal and life-giving; sublime and inspiring), while disguising a third nature, a possessive, domineering spirit which desires to consume and dominate (rather than embrace and absorb) those sensitive enough to be pulled into the gravity of its spell – its glamour. Both erotic and abusive, her sadistic domination over Hibbert speaks to the duplicity of love in general (it is both rewarding and punishing) and of Nature specifically (it may at first conjure primitive, vestigial feelings of belonging, acceptance, and origin, but it turns to attack and possess once escape has become unlikely and the reminders of civilization are beyond detection).
Initially drawn in three directions – society, primitivism, and sheer Nature – Hibbert finds himself relieved to be restored to his once despised origin. Unlike Ericcson’s experience which brought him transcendence and transformation from the vulgarity of mankind to the sublimity of Nature, Hibbert is punished by the Powers he worships, and concludes his tale by careening madly towards society, horrified by his ordeal.