This is the story of two men on a journey through the Danube river who stop to camp in an area surrounded by willows. While camped, they begin to sense something unearthly about the place as mysterious things begin to happen and they feel trapped on this small island of sand that is being slowly overtaken by a river which is in flood season.
I only recently discovered The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood, as I was perusing some on-line sites on great works of horror literature. This longish short story was hailed as the greatest horror story of all time on one site, hailed as at least the greatest ghost story on another site. So of course I’m wondering how the hell I’ve managed to miss out on this story! Luckily I was able to get a copy of it free, fragments sent to my email account daily, at daily lit. (It’s under Famous Modern Ghost Stories….”modern” must indicated that this collection was printed a long time ago and was merely modern at the time…or else Stephen King would show up in the collect, as it seems to be impossible to leave him out these days.)
Though I’d never heard of The Willows, I have heard of Algernon Blackwood. He pops up in a lot of horror collections and is one of those classic writers who inspired so many horror writers after him. According to wikipedia H.P. Lovecraft was quoted as saying that The Willows is the finest supernatural tale in English Literature (which begs the question: what is the best supernatural tale in the WORLD then?….Maybe in some non English language there is a supernatural tale that would blow our minds! I must find it! It’s a new quest. I love reading quest! ….OK, so maybe it’s just me). I am sure I’ll make no friends by saying that I’m not a fan of Lovecraft so therefore don’t really value his opinion on the matter, but hey, seeing as how he is so adored I guess I have to at least consider that there is some merit to what he thinks.
So, we know what H.P Lovecraft thought about The Willows and what I think of Lovecraft. But what do I think of The Willows? Well, the writing style is, for my personal taste, flawless. He’s very elaborate in his descriptions yet somehow every word seems to count and draw you in very tightly to his world. It doesn’t seem like just long winded meaningless “let’s paint a picture” kind of thing. The story hinges so much on the feel and descriptions of place that it’s necessary to read pages of details on the Danube river and the willows etc. in order to really get the sense that you are there, to feel the impact of these surroundings. I became so “there” that at times I felt the need to look over my shoulder as I read. I became attuned to strange noises in the house. I jumped when the freezer dropped a few ice cubes into the tray. How he managed to make ME afraid of the willows shows the power of his talent as a craftsman. I thought the story began and ended in just the right place. If I had to say something negative about it, I’d say that our modern A.D.D mindset would struggle with the length of this story and would want the action to come on already! They’d prefer that the events towards the end of the story happen much sooner, cutting out some of the earlier parts. A part of me tends to agree. It would seem that it might be possible to maintain the isolated haunting power of the story without taking so long…but then, something about being there in that world for so long with such a slow suspense like build up really made the story so masterful because the length begins to create a sense of panic in the reader…well, this reader.
I wouldn’t recommend this story to everyone. Those who are not a fan of things that smack of “literature” or things you’d have to read for homework in an English class, probably wouldn’t enjoy reading this story. Those who are a fan of violence and gore in their horror stories might not like this story. I like gore and violence just fine in a story but I also like spooky stories with no gore….so, you decide. I give it a thumbs up.