The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

The afterword of T Kingfisher’s terrific The Hollow Places (which I’ll shortly be reviewing over at mentions that it’s based on the classic horror short story The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, which has been cited by H. P. Lovecraft as being one of the most terrifying stories ever written. Being a voraciously curious reader, I immediately went to look it up and read it. I’m a bit sorry I did, but only in relation to THP, which lost just a little bit of its luster when I realized that so much of it wasn’t original to Ms Kingfisher (THP is still a great book, tbc.)

The Willows itself is the tale of a canoeing expedition undertaken by Mr Blackwood’s unnamed narrator and his friend, The Swede, upon the Danube. They have an easy companionship, enjoying the various delights and enduring the various travails of their adventure, till they arrive in a Hungarian stretch of water where the river runs rapid and high. They decide to make camp in an archipelago of small islands inhabited primarily by willows. A passing boatman appears to warn them off, but they laugh off his pantomimed warnings as being peasant superstitions. But then night falls, and the duo find themselves victims of sabotage as something is lurking in the willows, seeking a victim on which to feed…

My immediate reaction to finishing this story was “holy shit, that was so incredibly gay!” As I do not use “gay” as a derogatory term, please know that I mean literally homosexual, as that was undoubtedly one of the most “I desperately need an outlet to discuss my sexual attraction to the same gender” stories I’ve ever read in my entire life. It’s as if Mr Blackwood sat down and thought, “Hmm, I want to talk about the sex I had on my last nature trip but society will literally try to imprison or otherwise crush me, so how do?” Substitute “imagination” for “homosexual longings” and the monster in the trees as “society’s homophobia” — I mean, the entire scene where the narrator and The Swede stumble around in a physical embrace, where the only way they can shut out thought of the monster is to surrender to pain or a swoon is so overwhelmingly “I just had anal for the the first time.” For fuck’s sake, there’s a scene with a column of nude bodies ascending to the sky in an awe-inspiring pillar! This is Brokeback Mountain by way of an Edwardian horror story, and frankly I am here for it.

But ofc, I had to see if anyone else had the same opinion, and was honestly shocked at how the internet failed me. Given how the sexual subtext of Victorian and post-Victorian fiction is fuel for hundreds of graduate theses, I do not understand how there is no serious mention of The Willows’ obvious metaphors to be found, barring one intrepid Reddit poster. Anyway, don’t take my word for it: you can read the whole story at Project Gutenberg as I did. Let me know what you think if you do!

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