31 HORROR STORIES — “The Willows” (1906)

We’re in the final stretch here, so I’m going to try to pick the heavy-hitters. This one, by Algernon Blackwood (I was so close to choosing “The Wendigo”!) kicks off our run up to Halloween.

H.P. Lovecraft thought this was the most perfect expression of mood and cosmic horror ever written. It’s a DELIVERANCE-style story about a canoe trip down the Danube which results in a deadly brush against another dimension. The cosmic horror part is, I’ve got to agree, pretty cosmic and horrible.

But it’s the MOOD here that stays with me. Blackwood has the gift of being able to string together seemingly bland, non-descript sentences to create a sense of…something else…going on:

“I gazed across the waste of wild waters; I watched the whispering willows; I heard the ceaseless beating of the tireless wind; and, one and all, each in its own way, stirred in me this sensation of a strange distress. But the willows especially; for ever they went on chattering and talking among themselves, laughing a little, shrilly crying out, sometimes sighing — but what it was they made so much to-do about belonged to the secret life of the great plain they inhabited. 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 beings from another plane of life, another evolution altogether, perhaps, all discussing a mystery known only to themselves. I watched them moving busily together, oddly shaking their big bushy heads, twirling their myriad leaves even when there was no wind. They moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.

There they stood in the moonlight, like a vast army surrounding our camp, shaking their innumerable silver spears defiantly, formed all ready for an attack.”

And that’s just in the first few paragraphs, long before anything horrible happens.

And it does. It does.