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…

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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.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a fretful porpentine!

Tuesday Terror! The Other Wing by Algernon Blackwood

Wandering along the Nightmare Passage…

spooky-corridor

I have a recurring dream that happens whenever I’m feeling particularly stressed, which fortunately is quite rare. It’s not a nightmare exactly but it feels unsettling. I believe it’s quite a common stress dream. It varies, but the fundamentals are always the same. I am in a big house, which I know in my dream though I don’t think it’s based on a real place. It’s not a spooky house, but it’s full of long corridors and odd corners that lead to rooms that are never used. Someone is lost, and I am looking for them – usually a cat or dog, but sometimes a relative or friend. That’s it – I look for them and I can’t find them. Nothing bad happens and there’s no reason in the dream to think it will. Still, the wandering, looking and not finding leaves me uneasy…

So when I tell you this story made the hair on the back of my neck rise, you’ll understand why…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Other Wing
by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood
Algernon Blackwood

It used to puzzle him that, after dark, someone would look in round the edge of the bedroom door, and withdraw again too rapidly for him to see the face.

Young Tim is a boy of about eight or nine years old, living with his loving family and servants in a big old Elizabethan mansion. Since his older brother went off to boarding school, Tim has slept alone. He’s not exactly scared of his mysterious nighttime visitor – in fact, if anything he thinks of it quite affectionately. Even though some strange things happen at night…

When the coals settled with a soft and powdery crash, he turned his eyes from the curtains to the grate, trying to discover exactly which bits had fallen. So long as the glow was there the sound seemed pleasant enough, but sometimes he awoke later in the night, the room huge with darkness, the fire almost out — and the sound was not so pleasant then. It startled him. The coals did not fall of themselves. It seemed that someone poked them cautiously. The shadows were very thick before the bars.

Tim often wonders where his night visitors come from – where they spend their days. One day, after a conversation with his mother, he decides that they must live in the Other Wing – a wing of the great mansion long closed off, and forbidden to the children. So, of course, Tim has imagined all kinds of things about the Other Wing…

He believed it was inhabited. Who occupied the immense series of empty rooms, who trod the spacious corridors, who passed to and fro behind the shuttered windows, he had not known exactly. He had called these occupants, “they”, and the most important among them was “The Ruler.” The Ruler of the Other Wing was a kind of deity, powerful, far away, ever present yet never seen. And about this Ruler he had a wonderful conception for a little boy; he connected her, somehow, with deep thoughts of his own, the deepest of all. When he made up adventures to the moon, to the stars, or to the bottom of the sea, adventures that he lived inside himself, as it were — to reach them he must invariably pass through the chambers of the Other Wing. Those corridors and halls, the Nightmare Passage among them, lay along the route; they were the first stage of the journey.

So one day, when his parents are away, he sneaks past the servants and in through the green baize door that is usually closed, but on this day is mysteriously open, to search for the Ruler who, he now believes, is his midnight friend. And to his surprise, the Other Wing is exactly how he had imagined it… and he finds himself walking along the Nightmare Passage, carrying his grandfather’s old walking stick, until suddenly a door opens…

For the door opened with instant swiftness half an inch, a hand emerged, caught the stick and tried to draw it in. Tim sprang back as if he had been struck. He pulled at the ivory handle with all his strength, but his strength was less than nothing. He tried to shout, but his voice had gone. A terror of the moon came over him, for he was unable to loosen his hold of the handle; his fingers had become a part of it. An appalling weakness turned him helpless. He was dragged inch by inch towards the fearful door. The end of the stick was already through the narrow crack. He could not see the hand that pulled, but he knew it was gigantic. He understood now why the world was strange, why horses galloped furiously, and why trains whistled as they raced through stations…

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Ooh, this is good! It’s brilliantly written to get just that sense of unease of things half-glimpsed and not fully seen or understood. Tim’s youth means he’s beautifully unscared of things that leave the adult reader shivering deliciously. It’s not at all horrible or gory – fear not for little Tim, he will survive unscathed! In fact, one could almost think the whole thing had been a nightmare, if it were not for the… but no, that would spoil the story! You shall just have to imagine the ending…

Or perhaps you’d like to read it for yourself – here’s a link. It’s a bit longer than usual – about 7,500 words, but it’s worth it. Genuinely spooky, but also quite fun, and Tim is a great little hero, full of courage and goodwill. One for those of us who prefer our spookiness to come with a feel-good ending…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯😯😯😯

Overall story rating:           😀😀😀😀😀

terrified porpentine