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.