Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Willows

The Willows
by Algernon Blackwood

Two men who are traveling along the Danube by canoe (in the early 1900s, one presumes) decide to camp for the night on an eroding island in a peculiar swampland covered in scrubby willow bushes.  They soon realize that there is something sinister about this mysterious place, and they begin to doubt they will be allowed to leave it alive...

My Reaction:
I enjoyed it!  There were some slow spots... places where the story seemed to bog down, slightly... but nowhere near as much as in The Damned, which is the only other thing by this author that I've read.  (Yet.  I'll definitely be putting him on my mental "Read More" list.)  If you love long short stories or novellas (not sure how to classify this...) with tons of eerie atmosphere but not a lot of gore, this is for you.  The setting is powerful and ominous.  I think it's of the type that will stay with you long after you've finished reading.  From the very start, there's an uneasy feeling, and the goosebumps get to come out to play on at least a few occasions. 

I really love these old-fashioned "ghost stories" (to use the term loosely).  They usually manage to be extremely disquieting without resorting to graphic descriptions of blood and guts, which suits me fine. 

More Specific Comments:
(Warning:  May contain spoilers!)

--  Apparently "sumpfe" means "marshes" in German.  I'm sure that little tidbit will come in handy, at some point in the future.  ;o)

--  The willow wilderness-- a beautifully wild, desolate, forbidding landscape-- reminds me somewhat of the Everglades.  It and the river are definitely characters in their own right-- and the narrator even says something to that effect. (" length we had come inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage.")

--  I'm unfamiliar with the part of the world where this is set, so the place names meant nothing to me. Fortunately, none of it really matters.  It could be set anywhere, really.

--  I was of course amused when the narrator's traveling companion turns out to be someone he always refers to as "the Swede".  Evidently they've been on "many similar journeys" together, yet he still calls him "the Swede".  The Swede is initially described as being "devoid of imagination".  It's a familiar stereotype of Scandinavians in literature of this era, and pausing to think about that, the word "phlegmatic" supplied itself in my mind.  Sure enough, later on in the story, that very word pops up.  To be fair, however, the Swede turns out to break out of the narrator's early pigeon-holing.

--  Of the Danube:  "...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."  Odd.  A quick Internet search isn't turning up anything about this, and I've never heard of it before...

--  I was struck by the narrator's perception of the "otherworldly" aspects of the willow swamp.  The sound of the wind on the water makes him think of "the sounds a planet must make, could we only hear it, driving along through space", for instance.  Then there are passages like this one: "And it was utterly alien to the world I knew, or to that of the wild yet kindly elements.  They made me think of a host of being from another plane of life, another evolution altogether, perhaps, all discussing a mystery known only to themselves."  The Swede refers more than once to a "fourth dimension".  The combined effect was that it seemed as likely as anything else that the Things tormenting the travelers might be some sort of extra-terrestrial beings.  (Of course, it's never really explained what they are; the reader is free to speculate.)

--  "I searched everywhere for a proof of reality, when all the while I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed."

-- The incident of the otter?  Totally surreal and creepy-- especially when they discuss it later in the story.

--  "'But you're quite right about one thing,' he added, before the subject passed, 'and that is that we're wiser not to talk about it, or even to think about it, because what one thinks finds expression in words, and what one says, happens.'"  ~shiver~  But really, who hasn't had that thought or feeling before?  It's superstitious.  It's illogical.  But it's still there...  The old "jinx". 

--  "Even the tourists would have been welcome."  Ha ha, very funny.

-- Interesting that using "located" instead of "found" (as in "have not found us") was supposed to be an American turn of speech.  

--  I have to admit, when the Swede starts talking about how "our thoughts make spirals in their world", he kinda lost me... Um, what?  And you know this... how?  

--  "'It is a question wholly of the mind, and the less we think about them the better our chance of escape.  Above all, don't think for what you think happens!'"  Creepy...

--  Sand-shoe.  I wondered if those might be sandals of some sort, but it turns out that they're canvas shoes with rubber soles.  So... Keds?

--  "...moving all over upon its surface--  'coiling upon itself like smoke'"... Shuddery.  Reminded me of the Smoke Monster on LOST... and the smoke-coil ghost in Ammie, Come Home

--  It seems this is a book I loaded from Project Gutenberg instead of Amazon (though there's a free copy there, too).  Eighty-four percent of the ebook was the actual text.  The last 16% was Project Gutenberg mumbo-jumbo.  Not a big deal, but a bit of a shock when you think you have several pages of story left-- and then it's just... over.