Lately I’ve been finding myself increasingly drawn to the genre of Victorian (and post-Victorian) ghost stories, many of which are now available for free online. (This is a great collection for instance). Most of the stories have aged incredibly well, despite being on average, about a century old. I’ve always felt that the Victorians were cursed with an unhealthily dark and tortured perspective on the world; perhaps that is why their darkest, most deranged dreams, their Draculas, Frankensteins and restless spirits, are so strikingly haunting.
Anyhow, during my foray into the world of late 19th and early 20th century nightmares, I came across one story which (in addition to being a fantastic piece of horror writing) I suspect may contain the hints of an explanation as to why Victorian dreams tended so heavily towards the nightmarish.
Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” (1907) is devilishly well written – in fact, the word that best describes my experience of reading it would probably be ‘harrowing’, (in an enjoyable sort of way). It helped of course that a mischievously perceptive lightbulb in an adjoining room spontaneously exploded into non-life one night as I was reading it, but that’s neither here nor there.
Undoubtedly, a good deal of the story’s effectiveness boils down to the fact that Blackwood is an absolute wizard when it comes to the English language – take, for instance, the description of the River Danube his protagonist offers early on in the tale:
“… the Danube, more than any other river I knew, impressed us from the very beginning with its aliveness … it had seemed to us like following the growth of some living creature. Sleepy at first, but later developing violent desires as it became conscious of its deep soul, it rolled, like some huge fluid being, through all the countries we had passed, holding our little craft on its mighty shoulders, playing roughly with us sometimes, yet always friendly and well-meaning, till at length we had come inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage.”
A wordsmith like that could make a story about anything affecting, and when that talent is turned to the dark themes of Victorian horror, the result is fated to be memorable to say the least. But there’s a theme that runs powerfully through “The Willows” that I suspect, captures rather pristinely (at least in part) the matter and essence of Victorian nightmares.
While being light on details, so as not to rob you of the experience of reading the story unspoiled, the narrator himself seems to acknowledge that his tale channels a sort of horror fundamentally unlike that of other, more conventional horror stories. “What I felt of dread,” he says, “was no ordinary ghostly fear. It was infinitely greater, stranger, and seemed to arise from some dim ancestral sense of terror more profoundly disturbing than anything I had known or dreamed of.” This is more than typical Victorian hyperbole on Blackwood’s part; there’s something powerful and peculiar about the fear that “The Willows” engenders in its readers that digs far deeper than mere physical danger.
Everyone knows that in fiction, an unseen, off-camera threat is always scarier than one that can be clearly seen – it’s the monster that disappears when you swing open the closet that you’re more likely to be thinking about long afterwards. Some argue that this is simply because the imagination can fill the empty closet with more horrible things than words or pixels could ever capture, but I think it goes deeper than that. You see, we humans have an almost pathological need to be in control. To be completely powerless, to have no influence over one’s fate, is generally a harrowing, humiliating and almost dehumanising experience. Our need to exercise our will over the external world is very deep seated indeed, and before we can control the elements of the world around us, we must first be able to understand them. An unseen threat can’t be understood or planned for and therefore can’t be controlled or resisted in any meaningful way. An unseen threat becomes the most terrifying thing imaginable: an uncontrollable variable, a piece of the world that can torture, despoil and destroy us, while we remain completely powerless to stop it. That sense of impotence is supremely terrifying because of the suggestion it makes about us – it suggests that we aren’t really in control at all, that forces far greater than us will ultimately decide our fate.
In “The Willows”, Blackwood takes that suggestion to its ultimate, terrible zenith by suggesting that the entire world in which we’ve invested all our hopes and dreams is really nothing but a tiny speck of dust floating through a universe of incomprehensibly greater possibilities. In other words, none of us are really in control – our lives are so fleeting and petty that they carry no ultimate significance at all. Nothing we can do will ever make a difference – we are at the mercy of ineffable and incomprehensible forces to whom we matter not at all. Our impotence is absolute.
This sense of impotence is powerfully expressed in the story’s brilliant pacing; the slow, grinding hum of building anxiety, interspersed with brief, climactic moments of soul crushing terror. It becomes terribly clear early on in the tale that very bad things lie ahead, and that nothing can be done to avoid them. There is an undeniable fatalism in the constant sense of impending tragedy that permeates the story, which only strengthens the disquieting feelings of powerlessness and insignificance that lend the tale most of its emotional weight.
Blackwood’s characterisation of the landscape too, is positively masterful. Every bush, tree, wave of water and grain of sand plays a part in Blackwood’s dark, pregnant tale of ever-encroaching terror. A cast of poignantly characterful natural forces supplements the relatively small cast of human characters; the ancient and powerful River Danube, the transient and treacherous sand banks that dot the marshes, the incessant, roaring wind, and, of course, the eponymous, ethereal willow bushes that stretch out for kilometres in every direction. These form the setting the of ‘alien world’ upon which the protagonists have stumbled, and each of them observe the proceedings with ancient, impersonal eyes.
All of Blackwood’s talent is harnessed here to convey the sense that we are both insignificant and powerless, and that’s a deeply worrying thought. Postmodern rhetoric aside, there are precious few human beings capable of being completely undisturbed by the notion that our entire lives are really just so much chaff thrown into the wind of a cold, indifferent oblivion. We are, all of us who’ve truly lived and breathed the beauty of human life, made immensely uncomfortable, by the idea that it could all mean nothing in the end. That, I believe, is the ‘infinitely greater’ fear that haunts the protagonist throughout “The Willows.”
As a Christian though, there’s only a limited sense in which I can appreciate that fear; the darkly fascinating sense of impotence that the story embodies is not ‘real’ for me – it does not reflect the deepest nature of human existence as the best fiction usually does. Certainly I can empathise with the horrifying feelings of powerlessness and insignificance, but only as embodied in transitory, temporal episodes – not as a fundamental fact of life and the world. At best, that deep suggestion made by “The Willows” relegates it to the realm of “speculative fiction”, a haunting, feverish ‘what if?’ story, which offers the same sort of pleasure that a Ghost Train does (the ride allows you to enter a world where ghosts and goblins do exist, but this is pleasurable in large part because you know full well that such things do not actually exist). In the same way, the Christian can enjoy the ‘thrilling suggestion’ that they are only an insignificant speck in an incomprehensible, indifferent world, while maintaining all the while that to actually believe such a thing would be foolishly superstitious.
On a Christian worldview, ‘insignificance’ is almost a meaningless word, especially when applied to humanity. Everything that is has been brought into being by the divine Logos, and the Logos does not create things He does not need – everything is significant. Human beings in particular, were made in the Logos’ very Image and Likeness with the ultimate view of one day living in communion with Him. In a framework like this, the universe can contain no ‘surprises’, (things that are absolutely incomprehensible to us) because we know the universe’s Maker intimately and personally. (That’s not to say of course that Christians cannot write good horror. Christianity has a far more terrifying conception of evil – more terrifying precisely because it is not at all fictional).
And that got me to thinking that maybe, just maybe, the haunting fever-dream that is “The Willows,” is an expression of a uniquely Victorian fear. The 19th/20th century Western world was one of the first cultural settings where large numbers of people began to endorse a view of reality that did not place man at the centre of a grand cosmic ‘plan’, and that perhaps forced people to deal with a relatively ‘new’ anxiety: the prospect of absolute insignificance. There are many nowadays who think that our liberation from ‘superstitions’ about human significance was a happy step forward, but perhaps embracing one’s own irrelevance is impossible to do completely ‘happily’. Perhaps stories like “The Willows” are the tortured nightmares of a society that was so determined to be free of ‘meta-narrative’ and cosmic importance that it found itself coldly embracing its own impotence. The truly disquieting aspect of “The Willows” is its suggestion that mankind is nothing but a gnat, crawling on the back of worlds and possibilities so grand and terrifying in their incomprehensibility that their vaguest shadows rend men’s minds to pieces. And in a meaningless, uncaring and value-less world, that vision is not entirely fictional. The fathers and mothers of the ‘post-modern’ worldview may have shed their beliefs in God and the old demons, but perhaps, in the silence of their sleep, their dreams were haunted by new demons; formless monstrosities of fatalism, emptiness and helplessness.
The Willows can be read free here: http://www.yankeeclassic.com/miskatonic/library/stacks/literature/blackwood/stories/willows.htm