How Algernon Blackwood Turned Nature Into
Eugene Thacker on the 1907 Novella The Willows
In the summer of 1901, 32-year-old Algernon Blackwood made two trips down the Danube River: the first with a friend and the second alone. Traveling by canoe and bringing with him only the sparsest of supplies, Blackwood’s voyage began “not one hundred yards from the Black Forest” for a “journey of four and twenty hundred miles to the Black Sea.” This was not the first such voyage Blackwood had taken, nor was it in any way unusual for him; though he was in many respects a modern, cosmopolitan figure—traveling widely, he worked as a farmer, bartender, hotel manager, business investor, radio presenter, and journalist—Blackwood, by his own account, was more apt to be found hiking in the mountains, camping in forests, or drifting down the isolate and languorous byways of winding rivers.
But the Danube boat trip seemed to make a particular impact on Blackwood, so much so that he would later write about it in a two-part article, “Down the Danube in a Canadian Canoe,” published in Macmillan’s Magazine in the autumn of 1901. There Blackwood writes about those things we have come to expect in nature writing: the urge to flee the modern city, the peace of solitude in nature, encounters with rural village life along the way, and the many scenes of majestic natural landscapes. In one passage, savoring the solitude of the trip, he writes:
Soon the water increased and the canoe sped onwards among the little waves and rapids like a winged thing. The mountains became higher, the valley narrower. Limestone cliffs, scooped and furrowed by the eddies of a far larger Danube thousands of years before, rose gleaming out of the pine-woods about their base… One moment we were in blazing sunlight, the next in deep shadow under the cliffs.
In the article, Blackwood shows himself to be an acute observer of nature, endlessly fascinated by the constant transformations of the landscape around him. But there was something about the Danube canoe trip that seemed to reveal to Blackwood another kind of nature. In certain passages he seems entranced by a kind of deep time, one of the indifference of the slowly swaying trees along the shore, of still waters and the stoppage of time, of landscapes shaping themselves according to an impersonal logic that evades even the shrewdest naturalist:
When we went to bed at ten o’clock the full moon shone upon the white cliffs with a dazzling brilliance that seemed to turn them into ice, while the deep shadows over the river made the scene strangely impressive. Only the tumbling of the water and the chirping of the crickets broke the silence. In the night we woke and thought we heard people moving round the tent, but, on going out to see, the canoe was still safe, and the white moonshine revealed no figures. It was doubtless the river talking in its sleep, or the wind wandering lost among the bushes.
Already this is the stuff of Blackwood’s many stories of supernatural horror. But what gives scenes like this their ambiance of otherworldliness is not that there are menacing monsters in the night, but rather that the entire environment—the mountains, sky, river, trees—are somehow alive, and alive in an impersonal but sublime way that far exceeds the taxonomies of the naturalist or the theories of the biologist. At one point in the journey, Blackwood makes note of a scene that, in itself, has nothing supernatural about it—circling crows, swaying trees, crepuscular sky—but it is precisely its naturalism that gives Blackwood the sense of “a something alive”:
Big grey hawks circled ever over head and grey crows by the thousand lined the shores. That evening, after crossing and re-crossing the river, we found a sheltered camp on a sandy island where pollards and willows roared in the wind. As if to show the loneliness of the spot an otter, rolling over and over among the eddies, swam past us as we landed. About sunset the clouds broke up momentarily and let out a flood of crimson light all over the wild country. Against the gorgeous red sky a stream of dark clouds, in all shapes and kinds, hurried over into the Carpathian mountains…
In short, a landscape without human beings—except, of course, for the enigma of the solitary observer Blackwood himself, bearing witness to the absence of all humanity. And the landscape, the river, the trees, the sky, all persist, doing what they do, almost as if nothing had happened. In a way, this enigma runs through nearly all of Blackwood’s fiction, and, reading “Down the Danube”… one can easily trace the direct influence of this trip on tales like “The Willows,” first published in Blackwood’s 1907 collection The Listener and Other Stories.
However, this is only part of the story. Though Blackwood’s life is a life of drifting, wandering, and seeking, there are arguably two abiding interests that run through his varied occupations and travels. The first we’ve already noted, which is his affinity for nature. The second is Blackwood’s life-long interest in the occult, the paranormal, and alternative spiritualities. From an early age, he took an interest in Buddhism and Hinduism, would later delve into Kabbalah, Theosophy, and the varieties of mysticism, and would become a member of The Ghost Club as well as a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
And yet, in spite of this life-long interest in the occult, Blackwood never threw in his lot with any one organization or group; nor did he ever settle on any single theory, system, or hypothesis. In his intellectual interests, as in his life, he continued wandering. In “The Willows”—as in nearly all of Blackwood’s tales of supernatural horror—one finds a highly syncretic array of references, ebbing and flowing throughout the story, but never settling: from ancient animism to philosophical pantheism to modern scientific hypotheses of other-dimensional space-time.
This openness to possibility (really, a possibility beyond the comprehension of what is possible), as well as the reticence to believe in any single explanation, are also what ground “The Willows” as a story. The narrator is continually fascinated by the increasing unreality of the natural world, the deeper and deeper their travels take them into the willows, and yet he seems even more uncertain of what “nature” is by the end of the story than at the beginning.
Blackwood himself is also there in the refreshingly un-intellectual, pragmatic, down-to-earth character of “the Swede,” whose reliance on empirical evidence only leads the pair to question their own senses, eventually unraveling into a swarm of half-formed superstitions and dimly intuited, metaphysical conspiracies. As different as they are as types, both characters are perpetually uncertain about what they’ve experienced, or indeed if they’ve experienced anything at all.
What gives scenes like this their ambiance of otherworldliness is not that there are menacing monsters in the night, but rather that the entire environment… are somehow alive.
Here, as in other Blackwood stories, there is a basic sense of a “something else” behind it all, a numinous, impersonal agency that eerily animates the undulating willows and that is even there in the equally eerie moments of total stillness on the river. Though a wide range of explanations for what the characters experience are attempted (and subsequently rejected), there is also an underlying suspicion that this “something else” resides in a cognitive blind spot for them as human beings, forever beyond the pale of comprehension. “Nature” is not some bounteous Eden of generosity, providentially gifting itself to the provenance of human beings for their benefit, enjoyment, and utility. Instead, nature in “The Willows” becomes occluded from human understanding, hiding in plain sight—nature becomes “occulted.” A “something” makes its presence known, at the very same time that it recedes into a tenebrous blind spot that the limited range of human experience can only register in broken terms: a faltering of speech, a freezing of thought, a failure of reason, the inadequacy of faith.
The overall affect that results is a kind of negative epiphany: the awareness of the possibility of an impersonal—and ultimately cosmic—order, but an order beyond the horizon of intelligibility. If there is “nature” in a story like “The Willows” perhaps it is neither the nature of physics and its laws of nature, nor is it nature in the sense of forests, rivers, and mountains. Perhaps it is “nature” in the sense of the collapse of our human-bound categories of “natural” and “supernatural”; the point of frozen thought.
If we are to call Blackwood a naturalist, then we must do so with caution, for his sublime awe before the mysteries of nature is always coupled with an acute awareness of the indifference of what we dutifully tag as “nature.” “The Willows” suggests something different: perhaps what we call the “supernatural” is simply the nature either we don’t see or don’t comprehend. It is the site of myth, religion, metaphysics—and perhaps of science as well. At one point the narrator suggests as much: the strangest or “weirdest” understanding of nature is given to us not from ancient superstitions but from modern science. Perhaps the natural is supernatural, and vice-versa.
Blackwood, like many authors of weird fiction, revels in this affect. But instead of eliciting mortal terror or gothic horrors, for Blackwood this moment of frozen thought is a moment of tranquillity. In his autobiography Blackwood repeatedly writes with startling honestly about his affinity for the natural world:
By far the strongest influence in my life, however, was Nature… Bringing comfort, companionship, inspiration, joy, the spell of Nature has remained dominant, a truly magical spell… The early feeling that everything was alive, a dim sense that some kind of consciousness struggled through every form, even that a sort of inarticulate communication with this “other life” was possible, could I but discover the way—these moods coloured its opening wonder.
In this sense “The Willows” is a story that allows the mania for comprehension to flip into a kind of affective incomprehension—the human being confronting the horizon of its own intelligibility, producing not horror or terror but a strange sense of wonder.
It is difficult to write about Blackwood’s stories without one’s writing itself taking on the vast, zoomed-out perspective that those stories evoke. I am, admittedly, too biased to give “The Willows” the proper critical analysis it deserves. And while I’ve taught “The Willows” more times than I can count, I never tire of the way Blackwood uses language that is at once unadorned yet lyrical to articulate the ambivalent allure of the indifferent, the impersonal, and the unhuman. But there is also something very contemporary about “The Willows,” especially in an era haunted by an emerging consciousness of planetary microbes, tectonic shifts, climate-engineered skies, and a dark suspicion concerning a rare earth. Blackwood’s story raises deeply ambiguous questions concerning human-centric attitudes and the anthropomorphic world that has been arrayed around us, for us, by us.
“The Willows” is less a flight of fancy and more an attempt to articulate the ways in which what we dubiously still call “nature” is at once an object of human systems of knowledge and yet also something that undermines those same systems. Thus if “The Willows” is indeed a classic of “supernatural horror” (as H.P. Lovecraft would famously note), we might also be justified in calling it “natural horror” as well. In Blackwood’s wonderfully slow, patiently constructed scenes of atmospheric suspense, there is the sense of an impersonal sublime, a lyricism of the unhuman that shores up the limitations of anthropocentric thinking, as well as evoking the attendant smallness of human beings against the backdrop of this deep time perspective.
Excerpted from an introduction to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” from The Repeater Book of the Occult: Tales from the Darkside, edited by Tariq Goddard and Eugene Thacker. Used with the permission of the publisher, Repeater Books. Copyright © 2021 by Tariq Goddard and Eugene Thacker.