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Entries in Blackwood (5)

Wednesday
Jan222014

Ancient Sorceries

I went upstairs to bed, my mind teeming with thoughts that were unusual to me, and of rather a haunting description.  By way of relief I kept thinking of that nice, prosaic noisy train and all those wholesome, blustering passengers.  I almost wished I were with them again.  But my dreams took me elsewhere.  I dreamed of cats, and soft-moving creatures, and the silence of life in a dim muffled world beyond the senses.

                                                                                                               Arthur Vezin

Surely you have heard in various and sundry situations that old adage, "less is more."  I encountered it many times as a child and adolescent, in the oddest of contexts: clothing, furniture, calories, exercise, sleep, color on a canvas, words to say to that one girl to whom you barely can say anything.  Once upon a time, this adage fell on the hardly deaf ears of perhaps the greatest musical genius the world has ever known, and he spurned it with the foreknowledge of his glory.  And in literature, it is strange how close two stories by the same author can be in motifs and how distant in effect, with the more effective story almost invariably being the one that reveals less.  A pithy introduction to one of the masterpieces of horror fiction.

At the onset of our tale we are reminded of one the world's many inequities: namely, that while it can understand the wild narratives of "the adventurous type" of person, because "such people carry about with them an adequate explanation of their exciting lives," little is to be thought of "dull, ordinary folk."  Nothing, we are informed, is to happen to these plain souls.  That is to say, nothing out of the way in what we may presume are boilerplate bourgeois scripts, the same roles and routines that drove so many European intellectuals to laud the grimy charm of the proletariat.  To what category then belongs our protagonist Arthur Vezin?  His initial account to Dr. John Silence disperses more than a few hints:

He was on the way home when it happened, crossing northern France from some mountain trip or other where he buried himself solitary-wise every summer.  He had nothing but an unregistered bag in the rack, and the train was jammed to suffocation, most of the passengers being unredeemed holiday English.  He disliked them, not because they were his fellow countrymen, but because they were noisy and obtrusive, obliterating with their big limbs and tweed clothing all the quieter tints of the day that brought him satisfaction and enabled him to melt into insignificance and forget that he was anybody.  These English clashed around him like a brass band, making him feel vaguely that he ought to be more self-assertive and obstreperous, and that he did not claim insistently enough all kinds of things that he didn't want and that were really valueless, such as corner seats, windows up or down, and so forth.

This most remarkable passage contains all the seeds of explanation for the events to come (in particular the three Latinate words beginning with "ob," which etymologically all involve some kind of force outwards), with Vezin's surname and curious bout of anti-patriotic fervor suggesting that we are not dealing with someone of Anglo-Saxon stock.  The imperfection of Vezin's French is underscored throughout the text – an integral feature, one supposes, of his 'ordinariness' – a ploy that allows the reader to comprehend his befuddlement at the series of events in the little town into which he wanders one evening.

Vezin's final view of the town will summarize symbolically his thoughts and fears, but his inchoate impression is positive.  Indeed, what struck him then was "the delightful contrast of the silence and peace after the dust and noisy rattle of the train."  So delightful, as it were, that he "felt soothed and stroked like a cat."  Dr. Silence proceeds on the basis of a contextual clue to ask more questions about why Vezin uses this peculiar analogy, and we do not need to belabor the matter.  Suffice it to say that Vezin enters the town and finds a hotel, but despite the alleged peace of mind achieved, never quite feels at ease.  After a string of encounters with the local townsfolk, Vezin decides that something untoward may be afoot:

'For the whole town, I suddenly realized, was something other than I so far saw it.  The real activities and interests of the people were elsewhere and otherwise than appeared.  Their true lives lay somewhere out of sight behind the scenes.  Their busy-ness was but the outward semblance that masked their actual purposes.  They bought and sold, and ate and drank, and walked about the streets; yet all the while the main stream of their existence lay somewhere beyond my ken, underground, in secret places.  In the shops and at the stalls they did not care whether I purchased their articles or not; at the inn, they were indifferent to my staying or going; their life lay remote from my own, springing from hidden, mysterious sources, coursing out of sight, unknown.  It was all a great elaborate pretence, assumed possibly for my benefit, or possibly for purposes of their own.  But the main current of their energies ran elsewhere.  I almost felt as an unwelcome foreign substance might be expected to feel when it has found its way into the human system and the whole body organizes itself to eject or absorb it.  The town was doing this very thing to me.'

Such an observation would seem to be a product of the solipsistic nonsense common to "adventurous types"; but we also know that many ostensibly 'plain and ordinary' people suffer from delusions of grandeur (one of the most frequent manifestations is a professed link to a well-known catastrophe).  Yet here this is not the case.  For all his weird musings, Vezin truly senses that something personal is at stake ("something exceedingly vital to himself, to his soul, hung in the balance") that does not make him a more important being on this earth, but simply one who may belong to a different order of things.  That the town's cathedral "was ever empty, the old church of St. Martin, at the other end of the town, deserted," suggests what form of religious experience the locals may prefer.  It is the appearance of the hotel owner's beautiful daughter, however, that finally embodies our traveler's fears in a guise he can hardly misinterpret – and we should say no more.

Ancient Sorceries is understood by some as the inspiration for this famous film, and it gives nothing away to reveal that a quite similar theme is broached in another of Blackwood's tales, which shall remain nameless on these pages.  The difference between our story and the less successful effort is very much a study in omission: while occasionally, ahem, flashing its claws, Ancient Sorceries only implies that certain things may have occurred, and the forms perceived by the protagonist may necessarily be of his own composition.  The later story degenerates into one of the most flawed spectacles of otherwise first-rate fiction, irrevocably compromising the fine, if overly topical setting established in its opening pages.  Vezin's fate seems to be his doing alone, and not the work of continental strife or some other such nonsense, rendering the dénouement to our tale all the more plausible.  Plausible, that is, for a journey endangered by sleep.  And by cats.  

Friday
May312013

The Glamour of the Snow

But no one sought to stop him.  Hibbert recalls only a single incident until he found himself beyond the houses, searching for her along the fringe of forest where the moonlight met the snow in a bewildering frieze of fantastic shadows.  And the incident was simply this – that he remembered passing the church.  Catching the outline of its tower against the stars, he was aware of a faint sense of hesitation.  A vague uneasiness came and went – jarred unpleasantly across the flow of his excited feelings, chilling exhilaration.  He caught the instant's discord, dismissed it, and – passed on.  The seduction of the snow smothered the hint before he realized that it had brushed the skirts of warning.

There is something eerie about the snow-capped hills that the majority of us worship from afar.  Surely, it must be of staggering sensation to defeat these mountains, as the greatest of all mountains was conquered six decades ago.  Yet by acknowledging these peaks as the nearest earth to heaven, we effectively make them shrines replete with the martyrs cascaded in avalanches and buried beneath icy crags.  I have never been one for heights, much less deadly, freezing heights, yet a year without winter is incomplete and unmysterious.  Winter has concealed many crimes – be they anthropogenic or at nature's whim – but it is its allure, a call to come and melt into its everlasting ice as refuge from the sweltering hum of man, that remains its deadliest trap.  An appropriate segue into the bizarre happenings of this tale.      

Our soul in peril is the pagan soul of an Englishman by the name of Hibbert.  We do not learn much about the "forty odd years of thick experience behind him," except that he has never pursued any affairs of the heart, "with one tumultuous exception that left no fuel for subsequent fires."  At the present he has taken a room in a post office in Valais, "where he could be at peace to write his book."  The subject of this tome may be implied by his subsequent course of action, although perchance Hibbert does indeed have a book in him.  Many different forces, as it were, seem to clash within his mortal frame:

There was the world of tourist English, civilised, quasi-educated, to which he belonged by birth, at any rate; there was the world of peasants to which he felt himself drawn by sympathy – for he loved and admired their toiling, simple life; and there was this other – which he could only call the world of Nature.  To this last, however, in virtue of a vehement poetic imagination, and a tumultuous pagan instinct fed by his very blood, he felt that most of him belonged.  The others borrowed from it ... for visits.  Here, with the soul of Nature, hid his central life .... Now Hibbert was keenly aware of this potential conflict and want of harmony; he felt outside, yet caught by it – torn in the three directions because he was partly of each world, but wholly in only one.  There grew in him a constant, subtle effort – or, at least, desire – to unify them and decide positively to which he should belong and live in.  The attempt, of course, was largely subconscious.  It was the natural instinct of a richly imaginative nature seeking the point of equilibrium, so that the mind could feel at peace and his brain be free to do good work.

A necessary and laudable aim, if one belied by Hibbert's predisposition to winter daydreams and, unfortunately for him, amidst these white waves of death, visions of things that appear to reflect his own soul's struggle.  When the story was published before twentieth-century Europe's first shattering, the glamour of the title had yet to acquire the fashionable definition that is now most prevalent, although its original meaning, a magic spell, nicely predicts its semantic descendant.  Sure enough, Hibbert will be held in fascinated thrall of Valais's exquisite alps, leading some of the locals to impute his odd behavior to his alien mores (one such observer is a certain Henri Défago, perhaps a distant relative of a character in this tale).  An ice carnival complete with Chinese lanterns and extended curfews provides him an excuse to stay out of his wonderfully safe and protective hotel long enough to find a skating rink, and on that rink, something we may loosely term the embodiment of his long-held desires.

No other author provokes such feelings of unease with nature as Blackwood, an all-enveloping and wicked world perhaps forged, as some sects believe, by the Prince of the Air.  Even if the creepiest rendition of such idolatry can be found in this masterpiece, Blackwood's forests and mountains more consistently inspire dread.  For the creed obscured among these trees, disemboguing only into hideous clearings of hideous rituals, is often cited by the ignorant (invariably non-believers) as having bestowed upon Christianity some of its calendar and practices.  While some local adaptation was surely permitted, it would be unfathomable to consider Christianity, as benevolent a manual to life as has ever been encountered, in any debt whatsoever to animal totems, human sacrifices, and demonic spells.  That is because revealed religion, uncovered in the smallest and most abstract amounts, allows the believer, as they say, to connect the dots.  Paganism, the worship of the wild, is exactly the opposite: it overwhelms the senses with its alleged epiphanies that are really merely multifarious cloaks for its evils.  So when Hibbert feels "a longing to be alone with the night, to taste her wonder all by himself there beneath the stars, gliding over the ice," he is not entirely surprised about the form in which night elects to accompany him.  And those "fingers of snow [that] brushed the surface of his heart"?  Let's just say that some people long for temptation, if only to justify their own weak will.  For when one's will and flesh are weak, all hesitation gets conveniently shushed by the wind.  By a very cold wind. 

Sunday
May132012

The Insanity of Jones

Apart from one unfortunate line, this famous story is absolutely perfect – a miniscule flaw, admittedly, but a telling one.  Nevertheless, The Insanity of Jones still ranks as one of the most spellbinding tales of suspense ever composed, even if its suspense is a matter of when not what.  Its genius resides in its convictions; that is to say, our narrator is utterly convinced that John Enderby Jones can see something we cannot see.   In that particular argument our narrator cannot lose.  What Jones sees, however, and more importantly why, shall remain the subject of unflagging speculation.

Our Jones leads a "strictly impersonal life" in the type of clerical position which, in our modern times renowned for dehumanizing the mediocre with bureaucracy and insignificance, has spawned many a maniac.  We know nothing of his family or his future, in no small part because Jones cares little for what has yet to happen; instead, he is focused on what has already happened.  But if Jones floats in the plainest and most colorless of ponds, what events could possibly have shaped his turning squarely towards the past?  We must answer that question by first understanding what Jones sees as his anteriority:    

Among the things that he knew, and therefore never cared to speak or speculate about, one was that he plainly saw himself as the inheritor of a long series of past lives, the net result of painful evolution, always as himself, of course, but in numerous different bodies each determined by the behaviour of the preceding one.  The present John Jones was the last result to date of all the previous thinking, feeling, and doing of John Jones in earlier bodies and in other centuries.  He pretended to no details, nor claimed distinguished ancestry, for he realised his past must have been utterly commonplace and insignificant to have produced his present; but he was just as sure he had been at this weary game for ages as that he breathed, and it never occurred to him to argue, to doubt, or to ask questions.

Why did he never consider that his sentiments might be flawed?  Do we all from time to time not have doubts about our dearest convictions?  A rather simplistic mind will answer that precisely because Jones does not have doubts is why the story is not called 'The Wisdom of Jones' or 'The Clairvoyance of Jones,' or even plainly 'The Knowledge of Jones.'  But Jones does harbor doubts: he wonders throughout our tale as to whether he may be deceived, especially by a man whom our narrator describes as unflatteringly as possible, a being only known as the Manager.

Perhaps it is important to note that Jones and his supervisor are strangers ("Jones had never exchanged a single word with him, or been so much as noticed ... by the great man"); indeed, in personality they are as opposite as two members of the same species could be.  While Jones remains lean in both physique and conversation, the Manager is fat, myopic, bald, sweaty ("in hot weather a sort of thin slime covered his cheeks") and red-faced, purple-faced "in moments of temper, which were not infrequent."  Lest we think him the epitome of pasty privileges – the description befits a debauched Roman emperor – a sidelight on the Manager reveals him to be "an excellent business man, of sane judgment and firm will."  What is the truth behind this portraiture?  And why can't the truth be both?  Why can't an oppressive man (our Manager is "coarse, brutal almost to savagery, without consideration for others, and ... often cruelly unjust") who has never sullied his fingers with daily labor also excel in his particular field?  Because we need an unadulterated villain, a monolith of evil, to be able to side with Jones and his instincts about, well, a prior existence in which he and the Manager were acquainted under very different circumstances.  Such ambiguity would never survive a lesser tale; but The Insanity of Jones is not about ambiguity, it is the exemplary short text that can be read two entirely different ways with equal plausibility.  So when Jones retreats as he does every night to his dinner in a French restaurant in Soho, he senses a "half-remembered appointment."  This turns out to be with a former colleague, "an elderly clerk who had occupied the next desk to his own when he first entered the service of the insurance company," a man by the name of Thorpe.  He sits down at Thorpe's table and they engage in serious exchanges, although those in their vicinity do not quite see it that way:

There was a wonderful soothing quality in the man’s voice, like the whispering of a great wind, and the clerk felt calmer at once.  They sat a little while longer, but he could not remember that they talked much or ate anything.  He only recalled afterwards that the head waiter came up and whispered something in his ear, and that he glanced round and saw the other people were looking at him curiously, some of them laughing, and that his companion then got up and led the way out of the restaurant.

Where this lonesome duo ventures and what the ultimate subject of their dialogues involves shall not be revealed here.  Despite his somewhat cadaverous appearance, Thorpe clearly holds some sway over his erstwhile coworker, who acknowledges Thorpe as a key component to an understanding of his multifaceted reality.  That Thorpe "had been dead at least five years" does not bother Jones, although it may indeed bother us.

Reading Blackwood is invariably a rewarding experience because even his missteps are the errors of genius.  The wayward line in Jones's narrative is less of a line and more of a phrase, but it taints the substance of what we are witnessing with wholly unnecessary psychological mumbo-jumbo (mumbo-jumbo is too massive and unwieldy; perhaps we should say mumbo-mini).  What may be most interesting about Mr. Jones is how he resists reveling in publications that would buttress his world view ("he read no modern books on the subjects that interested him") or in finding acceptance in a group of like-minded individuals ("nor belonged to any society that dabbled with half-told mysteries").  No, no one can quite relate to Jones, because he offers almost nothing to the outside world, firmly ensconced as he is in a realm within.  A realm, I might add, of a thousand screaming souls who all coalesce into the screaming of just one.  

Wednesday
Feb092011

The Wendigo

Presumably we all have nightmares (we cannot believe those who claim never to recall in waking what took place in sleep), but what those nightmares entail will depend much on the mind in their thrall.  Attempts to find commonalities among the legions of the reposed should be dismissed as swiftly as the long day's platitudes.  Nightmares may be universal, but riveting nightmares tend to be as exceptional as riveting biographies (with, it should be said, little coincidence of the two).  One of my most recurrent midnight scenes involves a fairground.  Perhaps the modern concept of an amusement park provides a better description.  I am alone and with friends; the park is both full of customers and gleefully empty; what I can say for certain is that it is night or evening, which necessitates a definite amount of artificial light, and a large store of current to engineer the rides swooping and sliding behind me.  What is occurring in my vicinity I never solve; but the motion and sounds of the machines indicate that on these grounds something baleful has taken root.  Sometimes I have a rucksack on; sometimes a companion is also outfitted with this appurtenance.  Most often I have awoken just as the tumult seems to be teetering on the brink of riot, and yet the source of this chaos is never revealed.  A different landscape but similar conundrum besets the characters in this famous story.

Our place is the wilds of Canada, and our cast is an unlikely quartet: Cathcart, a Scotsman and materialist scientist; his nephew Simpson; Hank Davis, a guide; and Simpson's guide, the French Canadian Joseph Défago.  A fifth man, the Native American Punk, has little function outside of his cooking, but he will steal more than one scene.  The aim of this small hunting party is the moose that roam the northern wilderness as hegemons among the mighty trees; they are practically unstoppable, although they are not what one would normally deem apex predators.  Like all good fictional prey, the moose never rear their comely antlers but are only rumored to be lurking a kilometer away or perhaps less, a relatively simple kill for a trained shot even if the animals can easily detect footsteps in their direction.   It is then from Simpson's perspective that we gain an affective picture of the surroundings:

It was one thing, he realized, to hear about primeval forests, but quite another to see them. While to dwell in them and seek acquaintance with their wild life was, again, an initiation that no intelligent man could undergo without a certain shifting of personal values hitherto held for permanent and sacred .... The dusk rapidly deepened; the glades grew dark; the crackling of the fire and the wash of little waves along the rocky lake shore were the only sounds audible.  The wind had dropped with the sun, and in all that vast world of branches nothing stirred.  Any moment, it seemed, the woodland gods, who are to be worshipped in silence and loneliness, might stretch their mighty and terrific outlines among the trees.  In front, through doorways pillared by huge straight stems, lay the stretch of Fifty Island Water, a crescent-shaped lake some fifteen miles from tip to tip, and perhaps five miles across where they were camped.  A sky of rose and saffron, more clear than any atmosphere Simpson had ever known, still dropped its pale streaming fires across the waves, where the islands – a hundred, surely, rather than fifty – floated like the fairy barques of some enchanted fleet.  Fringed with pines, whose crests fingered most delicately the sky, they almost seemed to move upwards as the light faded – about to weigh anchor and navigate the pathways of the heavens instead of the currents of their native and desolate lake.

If you have read much of Blackwood, you will understand that it is precisely in such detail that he excels.  To paraphrase this author, Blackwood allows nature to speak for itself; he does not armor it in unwieldy description.  For that very reason do his psychological tales tend to drift into diffuse abstraction, distant echoes of a greater image now long forlorn.  But with one of the territories least explored by man as his backdrop, there seems little to encumber the magic labyrinths of his intellect.

What fate befalls our men?  The hunters and their guides split in pairs, and our text chooses to follow Simpson and Défago, a wise move as Cathcart later proves himself to be an insufferable skeptic.  The young men hike vigorously for a day or two and still come very shallow into the endless woods where their alleged bounty awaits.  Since hunting holds about as much appeal to me as chewing glass shards, I cannot possibly evaluate their methods nor the terrain on which they dare to practice them.  Suffice it to say that about a third of the story passes before the title is uttered, and it is given but casual mention.  One fateful night, Simpson is assailed by something ineluctable and cannot sleep without torment:

As, sometimes, in a nightmare events crowd upon each other's heels with a conviction of dreadfulest reality, yet some inconsistent detail accuses the whole display of incompleteness and disguise, so the events that now followed, though they actually happened, persuaded the mind somehow that the detail which could explain them had been overlooked in the confusion, and that therefore they were but partly true, the rest delusion.  At the back of the sleeper's mind something remains awake, ready to let slip the judgment.  'All this is not quite real; when you wake up you'll understand.'

I am loath to betray what the young Scot finds and does not find the next morning, because those details are perfectly presaged yet more than a bit surprising.  The best moments still involve Punk, especially what he is rumored to have done at the end of the narrative, as well as his furtive glances and stealthy evenings spent listening to or smelling God knows what.  And you may also discover how useful it is in a story like this to have a character by the name of Défago.  

Presumably we all have nightmares (we cannot believe those who claim never to recall in waking what took place in sleep), but what those nightmares entail will depend much on the mind in their thrall.  Attempts to find commonalities among the legions of the reposed should be dismissed as swiftly as the long day's platitudes.  Nightmares may be universal, but riveting nightmares tend to be as exceptional as riveting biographies (with, it should be said, little coincidence of the two).  One of my most recurrent midnight scenes involves a fair.  Perhaps the modern concept of an amusement park provides a better description.  I am alone and with friends; the park is both full of customers and gladfully empty; what I can say for certain is that it is night or evening, which necessitates a definite amount of artificial light, and a large store of current to engineer the rides swooping and sliding behind me.  What is occurring in my vicinity I never solve; but the motion and sounds of the machines indicate that on these grounds something baleful has taken root.   Sometimes  I have a rucksack on; sometimes a companion is also outfitted with this appurtenance.  Most often  I have awoken just as the tumult seems to be teetering on the brink of riot, and yet the source of this chaos is never revealed.  A different landscape but similar conundrum besets the characters in this famous story.

Our place is the wilds of Canada, and our cast is an unlikely quartet: Cathcart, a Scotsman and materialist scientist; his nephew Simpson; Hank Davis, a guide; and Simpson's guide, the French Canadian Joseph Défago.  A fifth man, the native American Punk, has little function outside of his cooking, but he will steal more than one scene.  The aim of this small hunting party is the moose that roam the northern wildnerness as hegemons among the mighty trees; they are practically unstoppable, although they are not what one would normally deem apex predators.  Like all good fictional prey, the moose never rear their antlers but are only rumored to be lurking a kilometer away or perhaps less, a relatively simple kill for a trained shot even if the animals can easily detect footsteps in their direction.   It is then from Simpson's perspective that we gain an affective picture of the surroundings:

It was one thing, he realized, to hear about primeval forests, but quite another to see them. While to dwell in them and seek acquaintance with their wild life was, again, an initiation that no intelligent man could undergo without a certain shifting of personal values hitherto held for permanent and sacred .... The dusk rapidly deepened; the glades grew dark; the crackling of the fire and the wash of little waves along the rocky lake shore were the only sounds audible.  The wind had dropped with the sun, and in all that vast world of branches nothing stirred.  Any moment, it seemed, the woodland gods, who are to be worshipped in silence and loneliness, might stretch their mighty and terrific outlines among the trees. In front, through doorways pillared by huge straight stems, lay the stretch of Fifty Island Water, a crescent-shaped lake some fifteen miles from tip to tip, and perhaps five miles across where they were camped.  A sky of rose and saffron, more clear than any atmosphere Simpson had ever known, still dropped its pale streaming fires across the waves, where the islands—a hundred, surely, rather than fifty—floated like the fairy barques of some enchanted fleet.  Fringed with pines, whose crests fingered most delicately the sky, they almost seemed to move upwards as the light faded—about to weigh anchor and navigate the pathways of the heavens instead of the currents of their native and desolate lake.

If you have read much of Blackwood, you will understand that it is precisely in such detail that he excels.  To paraphrase this author, Blackwood allows nature to speak for itself; he does not armor it in unwieldy description.  For that very reason do his psychological tales tend to drift into diffuse abstraction, distant echoes of a greater image now long forlorn.  But with one of the territories least explored by man as his backdrop, there seems little to  
Monday
Apr122010

The Willows

Probably the phrase most commonly associated with this famous story is "primordial terror" – and you will not have to wait long to discover why.  Despite this near-consensus, the story lacks clarity as to the origin of the powers that exist along the uninhabited stretches of this fabled river.  Are we dealing with superstition or the crevices of psychological horrors that so often beset those long without substantial human contact?  What precisely are the intentions of the forces involved?  Why does the narrator's Swedish companion leer at him as if contemplating a decision?  And there are many decisions to be made when mankind's nearest enclave lies two days away.

Our narrator and his Swedish friend embark on one of the more ambitious canoeing itineraries in Europe, only to find themselves somewhere between Vienna and Budapest in "a region of singular loneliness and desolation."  While the adventuresome among us would not hesitate to delight in such a trip, we should also recall the time and place: the turn-of-the-century Hapsburg Empire.  Only two decades later would a controversial tract, based predominantly on late nineteenth-century sources, be published, and theories as to pre-Christian cults would be bandied about by both scholars and dilettantes, providing endless fodder for fantastic fiction and speculative anthropology alike (the tract itself, a dull and subpar work, need not concern us).  I would aver, however, that all these details are quite irrelevant.  The tone of The Willows presupposes a terrestrial evil, ostensibly sylvan in nature, that will haunt every uncolonized patch of the earth until it is safely uprooted or razed – and even that much might not be enough to extinguish it.  We are not dealing so much with witchcraft and its spells as the bestowers of that magic, great beings who seem to lurk, at certain moments of dark and treacherous night, behind the titular plant life:

These willows never attain to the dignity of trees; they have no rigid trunks; they remain humble bushes, with rounded tops and soft outline, swaying on slender stems that answer to the least pressure of the wind; supple as grasses, and so continually shifting that they somehow give the impression that the entire plain is moving and alive.

The resemblance to a mass of grovelling worshippers is hardly coincidental, as is the notion of a lack of dignity among these myrmidons.  They are simply following orders, and those orders may or may not contain instructions for securing a sacrifice.  It is a bromide of the modern atheist to reject religion and its deities because they "demand worship," something for which, of course, no greater being would ever bother asking.  Yet this observation is less callous than insipid.  The greatest among us, and here I mean our fellow species, the lords of mammals and all other beasts, will oftentimes bask in the glory of their accomplishments; but just as often do we laud them without their knowledge.  We find gods among our own because we are born to gaze upon the heavens and wonder about their secrets.  Ultimately, only the basest of dictators wish their boots licked and their imprecations regurgitated as law and commandment.  Real gods will gain our following through the simple method of awe.

Which brings us back to our willows.  As our duo progresses they encounter a plethora of omens: an otter, initially thought dead because "it had looked exactly like the body of a drowned man," with gleaming yellow eyes; a man "standing upright in a sort of flat-bottomed boat, steering with a long oar ... at a tremendous pace," who will call out to the strangers then make them the sign of the Cross; and then the telltale traces at their very campsite.  The latter will include perforations in the sand that gain in width and depth as the story advances, as well as an eerie sound that cannot be readily explained.  Our narrator is clearly of the Romantic bent, and for that reason, among others, does he cherish his Nordic partner for his "stolid, practical nature," and for being "not imaginative."  Just consider his horror, then, as his once-impassive friend becomes increasingly brooding and perturbed, even going so far as to talk in conspiratorial whispers and warn the narrator "not to think" as "our thoughts make spirals in their minds."  There is also the matter of an unplaceable noise that is neither birdsong nor heathen paean – but of the two some wicked combination:

The curious sound that I have likened to the note of a gong became now almost incessant, and filled the stillness of the night with a faint, continuous ringing rather than a series of distinct notes.  At one time it was behind and at another time in front of us.  Sometimes I fancied it came from the bushes on our left, and then again from the clumps on our right.  More often it hovered directly overhead like the whirring of wings.  It was really everywhere at once, behind, in front, at our sides and over our heads, completely surrounding us.  The sound really defies description.  But nothing within my knowledge is like that ceaseless muffled humming rising off the deserted world of swamps and willows.

Another author once deemed The Willows "the greatest weird tale ever written," and for good reason.  The atmospheric resonance of the trees and their setting does more than suggest the pagan gods that may still masquerade as our own; the hollow woods, bars of black against black, the wind that seems to be reveling in its own abilities, the encroachment of countless pattering steps – all of this is the vital stuff of nightmares beyond immediate explanation.  We recall anew that most frightening proposition in deadest night: the horror of not knowing what is occurring yet knowing why.  That is the conscience of the guilty, of those who have committed unspeakable acts and sense that their comeuppance may be waiting behind their eyelids.  Which is not to say that our men have done anything wrong except, perhaps, one thing:

We allowed laughingly to one another that we ought by rights to have held some kind of special passport to admit us, and that we had, somewhat audaciously, come without asking leave into a separate little kingdom of wonder and magic – a kingdom that was reserved for the use of others who had a right to it, with everywhere unwritten warnings to trespassers for those who had the imagination to discover them.

We know that the Swede has "no imagination" – and then we come to know something utterly opposed to that presumption.  Perhaps then either one of the travellers could explain what happened to their second oar.  An oar, one notes, that could be very handy for a ferryman.