Tuesday Terror! The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Worse than whomping…

When two young men who are canoeing down the Danube in the middle of a great flood decide to camp for the night on a tiny island, what could possibly go wrong? Time to find out in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2The Willows
by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood

After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its 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.

Our unnamed narrator (I shall call him Jim) and his friend, known only as the Swede, have travelled far along the Danube on a pleasure excursion in a little canoe. They have reached a place where the river splits into three branches, and know that a high flood is due. They decide to continue anyway, both being experienced rivermen and having done many journeys together before. Driven forward by the fast waters and a howling wind, they have some difficulty landing for the night on one of the small temporary islands that spring up in this swampy stretch of the river, but finally they manage it…

Then we lay panting and laughing after our exertions on the hot yellow sand, sheltered from the wind, and in the full blaze of a scorching sun, a cloudless blue sky above, and an immense army of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing in from all sides, shining with spray and clapping their thousand little hands as though to applaud the success of our efforts.

Already Jim has shown that he feels the river as a mighty presence with its own character. At first he sees it as friendly…

How, indeed, could it be otherwise, since it told us so much of its secret life? At night we heard it singing to the moon as we lay in our tent, uttering that odd sibilant note peculiar to itself and said to be caused by the rapid tearing of the pebbles along its bed, so great is its hurrying speed. We knew, too, the voice of its gurgling whirlpools, suddenly bubbling up on a surface previously quite calm; the roar of its shallows and swift rapids; its constant steady thundering below all mere surface sounds; and that ceaseless tearing of its icy waters at the banks. How it stood up and shouted when the rains fell flat upon its face! And how its laughter roared out when the wind blew up-stream and tried to stop its growing speed!

But once on the island and with night approaching, a strange feeling of dread begins to fall over the travellers. The willows seem to give off a threatening air…

Some essence emanated from them that besieged the heart. A sense of awe awakened, true, but of awe touched somewhere by a vague terror. Their serried ranks, growing everywhere darker about me as the shadows deepened, moving furiously yet softly in the wind, woke in me the curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world, a world where we were intruders, a world where we were not wanted or invited to remain—where we ran grave risks perhaps!

As night sets in, Jim finds himself unable to sleep and wanders out of the camp. By now his imagination – or is it? – is working overtime, and he has come to see the willows as somehow malevolent…

What, I thought, if, after all, these crouching willows proved to be alive; if suddenly they should rise up, like a swarm of living creatures, marshaled by the gods whose territory we had invaded, sweep towards us off the vast swamps, booming overhead in the night—and then settle down! As I looked it was so easy to imagine they actually moved, crept nearer, retreated a little, huddled together in masses, hostile, waiting for the great wind that should finally start them a-running. I could have sworn their aspect changed a little, and their ranks deepened and pressed more closely together.

The Swede seems stolidly unimaginative at first and Jim relies on this to keep his dread at bay. But it soon transpires that the Swede, far from being unaffected, is way ahead of Jim in interpreting the strange events… and has come to a chilling conclusion…

…I think I felt annoyed to be out of it, to be thus proved less psychic, less sensitive than himself to these extraordinary happenings, and half ignorant all the time of what was going on under my very nose. He knew from the very beginning, apparently. But at the moment I wholly missed the point of his words about the necessity of there being a victim, and that we ourselves were destined to satisfy the want…

* * * * * * *

Well, this is a classic for a reason! The descriptive writing is fabulous, and Blackwood gradually builds up an air of creepy menace guaranteed to send shivers down the stoutest spine. Apparently Lovecraft hailed this as the greatest supernatural tale of all, and it’s very clear to see how it influenced his own later weird tales. There is the same suggestion of ancient and malign alien beings, with men caught up as irrelevant victims of a power at which they can only vaguely guess. But, unlike Lovecraft, this doesn’t get bogged down in endless repetitive description – it is novella length but it keeps going at a good pace and builds up to an excellently chilling climax. Nature is used brilliantly, at first as something for man to admire and revel in, and then, gradually, as something immense and uncontrollable, reducing man to tiny insignificance, fumbling to make sense of forces so great that they are incomprehensible to his limited mind. Great stuff – the porpentine highly recommends it!

If you would like to read it, here’s a link, though personally I found it too long to read comfortably online, so downloaded a Kindle version.

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a fretful porpentine!

34 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

    • You’ll be fine so long as no branches are rattling against your window. And no high winds. And no strange noises… otherwise you’ll be just fine! The ancient, malignant aliens only take a small number of human victims each year. So I’m sure you’ll be fine…

      • Hmm there are often strange noises in my room so I might not be able to tell the difference… however, I am only quite small and easy to pick up, which might make me an attractive prospect to malignant aliens. I am also noisy and need feeding regularly, so they might bring me back again! 😀

  1. What is it with willows? Whomping, Old Man Willow, these ones – I’ve always rather liked them. This sounds a good one for a Hallowe’en read- scary and quite short.

  2. I really like the sound of this, FictionFan, for a good Hallowe’en scare. It’s a bonus, too, that the writing is good and the setting well conveyed. I can see what that poor porpentine is thoroughly fretful today!

    • The porpy and I both shuddered several times during this one! It really is a classic – one of those ones where you can see straight away how much it has influenced all the ‘weird’ tales that came after it… 😀

  3. BigSister’s comment made me laugh! So true. I don’t think I can pass a willow now without cringing.

    Nicely done, FF. I have to wonder if M. Night Shyamalan read this story and was inspired to make the film, The Happening.

    • Haha – I know! Their publicity manager has done a rotten job! 😉

      Ooh, I haven’t seen The Happening, but from the blurb I see what you mean – there could well be an influence there. I must add it to my watchlist! Haha – just had to share this extract from one of the less enthusiastic reviews I spotted when I was looking it up… made me laugh…

      “…I make a point of never walking out of a film or switching it off before it ends…this is a habit that has robbed me of a not unsubstantial number of hours of my life. Those I lost watching this film will be the most sorely missed, I think. I could have been outside scooping up my dog’s excretion or nailed into a buried coffin and been infinitely happier than I was watching this.”

      Makes my 1-star reviews look quite polite… 😉

    • The porpentine blushes and says thanks! Ooh, no, I haven’t read that one and I’m always looking for good ones for this feature, so thanks for the recommendation! I shall look forward to it… 😀

    • Hahaha – you’d think they’d know better, wouldn’t you? But where would horror be without these willing victims… 😉 Enjoy – the writing’s great and it’s beautifully shuddery…

  4. Well, if both you and the porpentine recommend it, it’s got to be good!! Sounds ideal, especially at this time of year when the days are shorter — and cooler! Probably ought to fortify myself with a nice hot cup of tea first, though.

  5. This book almost seems a bit Canadian-the power of the mighty river, men being subject to nature’s whims, etc. The idea of nature being haunted is probably the creepiest thing ever, because it’s everywhere! You literally can’t escape it 🙂 I’m glad Porpentine agrees.

    • Interetsing! I assumed Blackwood was American but following your comment I googled and he was actually a Brit. I do agree there’s a New World feel to it. Ah yes, never trust nature! It’s… unpredictable! 😉

    • The writing is great! This is only the second story of his I’ve read and I loved the writing both times – really must read more. Once the porpentine has recovered, of course… 😉

  6. So, on your recc, I downloaded this onto the Kindle, and really liked the way the Danube is described at the start, feeding in to my love of nature and landscape writing, but, insidiously, it all begins to get a bit malevolent and I have started to feel quite scared………..I might not be able to read on before I go to sleep…….so that means, a good one, thank you

    • Ooh, I hope you enjoy it! I think the writing’s fab – and I love the way he makes nature so threatening… those willows clapping their little hands in the sunshine don’t seem quite so pretty when darkness falls… *shudders*

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