wo friends are midway on a canoe trip down the River Danube. Throughout the story, Blackwood personifies the surrounding environment—river, sun, wind—with powerful and ultimately threatening characteristics. Most ominous are the masses of dense, desultory, menacing willows, which "moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible."
Shortly after landing their canoe for the evening on a sandy island near Bratislava in the Dunajské luhy Protected Landscape Area of Austria-Hungary, the narrator reflects on the river's potency, human qualities, and his own will:
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.
Blackwood also specifically characterizes the silvery, windblown willows as sinister:
And, apart quite from the elements, the willows connected themselves subtly with my malaise, attacking the mind insidiously somehow by reason of their vast numbers, and contriving in some way or other to represent to the imagination a new and mighty power, a power, moreover, not altogether friendly to us.
At one point, the two men see a traveler in his "flat-bottomed boat". However, the man appears to be warning them and ultimately crosses himself before hurtling forward on the river, out of sight. During the night, mysterious forces emerge from within the forest, including dark shapes which seem to trace the narrator's consciousness, tapping sounds outside their tent, shifting gong-like noises, bizarre shadows, and the appearance that the willows have changed location. In the morning, the two realize that one of their paddles is missing, a slit in the canoe needs repair, and some of their food has disappeared. A hint of distrust arises between them. The howling wind dies down on the second day, and a humming calm ensues. During the second night, the second man, the Swede, attempts to hurl himself into the river as a "sacrifice". However, he is saved by the narrator. The next morning, the Swede claims that the mysterious forces have found another sacrifice which may save them. They discover the corpse of a peasant lodged in roots near the shore. When they touch the body, a flurry of living presence seems to rise from it and disappear into the sky. Later, they see the body is pockmarked with funnel shapes similar to the ones viewed across the island's coastline during their experience. These are "Their awful mark!" the Swede says. The body is swept away, resembling an "otter" they thought they had seen the previous day, and the story ends.
The precise nature of the mysterious entities in "The Willows" is unclear, and they appear at times malevolent or treacherous, while at times simply mystical and almost divine: "a new order of experience, and in the true sense of the word unearthly," and a world "where great things go on unceasingly...vast purposes...that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with mere expressions of the soul." These forces are often contrasted with the natural beauty of the area, itself a vigorous dynamic. Overall, the story suggests that the landscape is actually an intersection, a point of contact with a "fourth dimension" — "on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows."
Reception and influence
- Grace Isabel Colbron, in her 1915 essay, "Algernon Blackwood: An Appreciation", stated: "For sheer naked concentrated horror, unexplained and unexplainable, such tales as..."The Willows" may be said to lead among the stories of the supernatural".
- "The Willows" was the personal favorite story of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote in his 1927 treatise "Supernatural Horror in Literature", "Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note".
- The horror historian Robert S. Hadji included "The Willows" on his 1983 list of the most frightening horror stories.
- The plot of Caitlin R. Kiernan's novel Threshold (2001) drew upon "The Willows," which was quoted several times in the book.
- The Willows, a now-defunct American magazine founded in 2007 that specialized in steampunk horror, Neo-Victorian short stories and poetry, was named after Blackwood's tale.
- In Richard Stanley’s adaptation of "The Color Out Of Space", the character of Ward Philips is seen reading a copy of ‘’The Willows.’’
- T. Kingfisher's 2020 novel, The Hollow Places, is a contemporary interpretation of the evil presence depicted in The Willows.
- H. P. Lovecraft's Favorite Weird Tales, ed. Douglas Anderson, Gold Spring Press, pg. 8–9; the book cites two lists made by Lovecraft of his favorite weird tales, both of which put "The Willows" at the top.
- Blackwood, Algernon (2014). Kellermeyer, M. Grant (ed.). The Willows, The Wendigo, Other Horrors. Oldstyle Tales Press. pp. 129–175. ISBN 9781507564011.
- Grace Isabel Colbron, "Algernon Blackwood: An Appreciation", The Bookman, February 1915. Reprinted in Jason Colavito, ed. A Hideous Bit of Morbidity: An Anthology of Horror Criticism from the Enlightenment to World War I. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7864-3968-3 (pp. 303–307).
- "Supernatural Horror in Literature by Howard Phillips Lovecraft". www.yankeeclassic.com.
- R. S. Hadji, "The 13 Most Terrifying Horror Stories", Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, July–August 1983, p. 63.
- "Arts Entertainment News - The Virginian-Pilot". pilotonline.com.