The Willows – by Algernon Blackwood; and a comparison with HP Lovercraft

The Willows is a short story by Algernon Blackwood, published in 1908. It is 34 pages long, and is available for free from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11438 . It is a work of “Weird” fiction, or, to simple folks like me, supernatural horror.

The story is about a man and his friend, who he refers to as “The Swede” on a canoing trip along the Danube. They camp on a small island covered with willows. They discover that the willows seem alive with malevolent intelligence, and there are forces at work that want to feed on their souls.

The Willows is one of Blackwood’s best known works, along with The Wendigo. The Willows is the first work I’ve read by Blackwood, and I came across it through my readings on HP Lovecraft. Many critics express surprise about Lovercraft’s popularity, and cite Blackwood as the better author.

However, having read The Willows, I find that I prefer Lovecraft’s work. I should first state that I found Blackwood to be very readable. I half-expected an opaque writing style that would seem difficult to read to modern readers. But this was not the case. Lovecraft’s writing style, on the other hand, often polarises views. People ask: “Was H.P Lovecraft actually a good writer?”, accusing his prose of being turgid and adjectives suffocating (http://is.gd/3AzYLQ). And oh, the purple prose, described as being delivered by the boatload, where the adjectives roam in packs. Was Lovecraft a hack, or literary genius? In my opinion, his use of words adds atmosphere. The reader really feels a sense of foreboding.

Perhaps it’s unfair to criticise Blackwood after having read only one of his stories, but what I find great about Lovecraft is his “world-building”. Individual stories feel as though they are part of a larger whole. I also think that the antagonists in a Lovercraftian tale have motive and purpose, even if they are only darkly suggested. With Blackwood, it seems that the spirits just seem to want to eat your soul. In a Lovecraft story, motives are only half-revealed, and seem more complex. The protagonists are often hapless wanderers into situations where they are hopelessly out of their depth. They venture too far into places where they are unwelcome, peering behind the veil of reality and into business where their presence is unwelcome.

Perhaps the beauty of Lovecraft is that he leaves a lot of blank canvas for you to fill in with your imagination. Lovecraft seems so much more inventive to me.

So, having read my first Blackwood story, I think the score is: Lovecraft 1, Blackwood 0.

That’s just my opinion, of course. Do you agree? Disagree?

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About mcturra2000

Computer programmer living in Scotland.
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