“Our insignificance perhaps may save us.”
The genus Salix contains several hundred species of deciduous trees and shrubs that thrive in the northern hemisphere, especially in wetlands and along river banks. Commonly known as willows, these plants are remarkably tenacious, able to sprout roots from broken branches and twigs, and known for their tough, pliable wood. Often they are intentionally planted along streams, because their spreading and interlacing roots help hold the bank against erosion. The sap is watery and abundant and full of salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. Their flowers are the familiar catkins seen in spring, before the leaves appear. Botanically speaking, willows are dioecious; there are male and female willows which are differentiated—if one should care to do so—by specific structures in their respective catkins.
Because of their analgesic properties, willows are associated with medicine in various cultures. Besides their role in the management of pain, the sap has also been used as an astringent and a diuretic. However, because of their close proximity to water, willows are also connected with magic and spiritual processes, especially involving the moon. Willows are considered sacred to the goddess Hecate. In English folklore, they have an untrustworthy, evil character—suspected of being able to uproot themselves and follow passersby, muttering to them. This makes them an unreliable addition to the landscaping.
So it is no accident that Algernon Blackwood featured the habits of this tree in his classic weird story, The Willows (1907). Of this particular work H.P. Lovecraft makes the following comment: “Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note.” Elsewhere Lovecraft praises Blackwood for his ability to describe “…the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision.”
The Willows is probably familiar to many fans of weird fiction, and continues to appear in anthologies of weird fiction. It is mandatory reading for anyone who would like to gain a deeper understanding of what is possible to accomplish in this genre. Over a century since its publication, the novella is still able to provide chills and a sense of cosmicist awe. Aspiring horror writers will find it worthwhile to study Blackwood’s subtle technique of using minor details to alter perception and mood as the story progresses.
The plot is straightforward and bare-boned: two adventurers ride a canoe down the Danube River during flood season, and arrive at an island where they pitch camp for a few days. But the gist of the story lies in the malevolence of the setting—a tiny island covered with willows that is inexorably being eroded away by the violent flood waters—and the psychological responses of the two men to their predicament.
The story begins in the sunny, urban areas of human habitation, just outside the Austrian city of Vienna. But as the narrator and his friend travel downstream, the mood darkens and grows more ominous, even as the waters become more turbulent. Blackwood personifies the Danube River through vivid description of its behavior in various locales along its course, suggesting that the spirit of the water develops and matures as it travels downstream. As the two men drift away from civilization, Blackwood also simplifies the landscape: the river spreads out and becomes a roiling marsh, filled with ever shifting shorelines and small islands populated only by willows. Beginning to feel uneasy, the narrator notes that his growing disquiet is somehow related to
“…my realization of our utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements about me. The huge-grown river had something to do with it too—a vague, unpleasant idea that we had somehow trifled with these great elemental forces in whose power we lay helpless every hour of the day and night.”
Trapped on the island for several days, the two men experience physical, psychological and spiritual threats to their existence. As the river relentlessly whittles away at the edges of their landfall, the men suffer a parallel erosion of their sanity. From the perspective of Jungian dream psychology, the ever diminishing island, the surrounding wetlands filled with gesticulating willows, the presence of the moon and the frequent shape-shifting going on all around marks this setting as typical of the albedo stage of dream imagery.
Carl Jung created an alchemical metaphor to describe stages of dream fantasy that progress as the unconscious wrestles with some problem or frustration. Like the transmuting of lead into gold, the unconscious refines “base material” in three stages. These are broadly speaking, dark, intermediate and bright in quality. The nigredo is the initial point in the cycle of dream imagery, typified by themes of decay, disintegration, dismemberment, and gloom. Two other phases follow. There is an albedo phase in which dream images and change form and identity, shifting back and forth, and become lighter and more illumined—options are being considered. The Willows seems to float precariously here.
In the rubedo phase, a synthesis or solution is finally achieved, characterized by brightness, color and energy. The cold dark base metal of nightmare is transformed through an intermediate quicksilver stage to bright, warm gold. The sun comes out. It is uncertain at the end of The Willows whether the narrator or his friend reach this stage, or ever escape from the dwindling bit of land that sustains them during this psychic onslaught.
The interactions of the two men are interesting. The narrator is constantly seeking a rational explanation for the strange events, while his pragmatic friend—referred to as “the Swede”—intuitively understands their predicament, and its religious implications. In some sense, they represent two halves or perspectives of the same mind. Blackwood has accurately depicted the psychological torments of trying to comprehend an entity that is all powerful, unearthly and unconcerned with humanity. At one point, the narrator is trying desperately to relieve himself of growing anxiety and panic. He is heartened by a comment his friend makes:
“…he had so admirably expressed my own feeling that it was a relief to have the thought out, and to have confined it by the limitation of words from dangerous wandering to and fro in the mind.”
In a comment earlier in the story, the narrator offers what might be a core insight to be distilled from the men’s adventures on this weird little island:
“By Jove, though, was it all hallucination? Was it merely subjective? Did not my reason argue in the old futile way from the little standard of the known?”
In the end, when faced by the psychic horrors infesting an island in the middle of the Danube—a place no human is supposed to be—it will not avail one to think or talk or ponder. Better to paddle like mad, or even swim.