The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

At the halfway point.

This weekend’s short story was the 26th of my year-long, one story per week reading programme. I am now halfway through, and what a number of great stories and authors I have discovered! (So much that I think I will have some kind of “Short Story Project Awards” post at the end of the year.)

The Willows

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Story 26, picked by my drawing the queen of spades from my short story selection deck,  was one of the best yet: Algernon Blackwood’s (somewhat long) story, “The Willows,” named by none other than H.P. Lovecraft as the best “weird story” ever written. I own this story as part of the great anthology “The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories” edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I have read and enjoyed several stories from this weighty volume, and once again I’ll give a crediting nod to fellow blogger Nina, on whose blog “Multo(Ghost)” I first learned of the book. The Willows, first published in 1907, is a story of an interlude during two men’s canoe trip down the Danube river. They have the misfortune of stopping for the night on a small, acre-sized island, in a 50-mile stretch of the river between Vienna and Budapest where is found “a region of singular loneliness and desolation” in which the river sprawls into a swampy landscape dominated by small willow bushes (the transitory nature of the land does not allow for them to grow into full sized trees).

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On this island, the men slowly begin to realize that where they have decided to make camp is actually one of those rare points on the globe where the region of unknown forces and entities “touches ours – where the veil has become thin.” They spend a night listening to the strong winds blow and the narrator imagines all sorts of horrible reasons behind every slightest noise. His companion, (referred to throughout as only “the Swede”) though at first thought by the narrator to be a man “devoid of imagination,” is actually the first to catch on to the fact that they have blundering-ly trespassed where they neither belong nor are welcome.

“All my life I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region – not far removed from our own world in one sense yet wholly different in kind – where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs… are all as dust in the balance.”

What will become of them? Especially after damage to the canoe (caused by … the wind? They’d like to think so…) forces them to stay on the island a second night. I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own, should you choose to read this wonderful story yourself (link below).

After reading this story, I feel as though just-returned from the Danube river myself, as Blackwood’s narrative earns that favorite compliment of many authors: “I felt like I was there!” I don’t know if I will ever see the Danube with my own eyes, but that river has long held a particular fascination for me. As a long-term student of ancient history and “the classics’, I always think of it as the, at one time, northern border of the great Roman Empire, separating it from the mysterious, barbarian-infested lands beyond…indeed, in the early part of the story, they pass the ruins of the once-mighty roman garrison at Carnuntum, grounds (pictured below) once trod by none other than Marcus Aurelius…

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Much longer than most of the short stories I have read this year, I barely got this one done “in one sitting.” In spite of its lengthiness, however, I encourage you to read it, as I feel its acclaim is well earned. It may be found “for free” in many places on line. One place that I found is here:

(below: the Danube river.  The action of this story takes place somewhere in the stretch between Vienna and Budapest)

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(Below: Algernon Blackwood – a prolific author of stories of the supernatural)

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