Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Willows

As someone who has had a lifetime fascination with ghost stories and mythology I could hardly ignore the works of Algernon Blackwood. If you have ever picked up one of the multitude of anthologies that profess to contain the best ghost stories it is a good bet that one, if not more, of Blackwood's tales will be included. The Willows was first published in 1907 and is not a ghost story. It is, however, a horror story. Blackwood was a great lover of the natural world and it shows in the elegant first person prose characterizing the elements as described by the unnamed narrator of this novella. Two men are attempting to canoe the entire course of the Danube (as Blackwood himself had done) until they are forced by high flood waters to take refuge on a tiny, crumbling, willow infested island. One of the men is the aforementioned narrator and the other is an initially phlegmatic Swede. Once settled on the shrinking island the two men are disturbed by several unsettling happenings. Blackwood is a master of maintaining an eerie atmosphere; no small feat over 80 or so pages. The narrative that began with such imaginative and beautiful imagery starts to deteriorate as the story teller finds himself trying desperately to rationalise and quantify his experiences. The reader is forced to work harder as the psychological aspects of the story push to the fore. The story works on many different levels and is ambiguous enough for the reader to draw his own conclusions or speculate on the nature of reality and whether knowledge of something is something to be feared more than the unknown.

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