Three weeks ago, I suggested some authors that anyone new to weird fiction may want to check out. Somehow I neglected to include Algernon Blackwood in that listing, despite Blackwood’s being one of the luminaries of the genre. To make up for that oversight, I’d like to discuss what is perhaps Blackwood’s most famous work, “The Willows.”
“The Willows” tells the story of two men’s ill-fated canoe trip along the Danube River. The River takes the men past the cities of Vienna and Budapest to “a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes.”
The two set up camp in this isolated region, only to discover that they are not alone. Through a series of bizarre occurrences and sightings, the travelers come to realize that they’ve inadvertently “‘strayed’. . .into some region. . .where the frontiers of some unknown world lay close about.” In this place, “the dwellers in some outer space. . .spy upon the earth. . . .”
The threat these otherworldly beings pose is not merely physical, but metaphysical. As one character puts it, he and his companion face a “radical alteration, a complete change, a horrible loss of oneself by substitution — far worse than death, and not even annihilation.”
The men are saved when an unnamed third character enters the area and is seized by the alien entities. When the protagonists find the man, he’s already dead, having drowned in the river. His “sacrifice,” to use the story’s term, has apparently sated the entities’ hunger for victims.
What’s interesting about this story is the way it reflects Blackwood’s metaphysical outlook (just as Lovecraft’s and Machen’s works reflect theirs). Blackwood, as James Machin notes, was a pantheist (someone who believes everything is divine or part of God) whose worldview was informed by “clandestine investigations into Buddhism, the Baghavad [Gita—a Hindu Scripture] and Blavatsky’s theosophy.”
Blackwood’s pantheistic outlook is expressed in his descriptions of the natural world:
[T]he Danube. . .impressed us from the very beginning with its aliveness. . . it had seemed to us like following the grown [sic] 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.
More interestingly, Blackwood’s pantheism is also evident in his descriptions of the malevolent beings which beset the protagonists:
[T]he figures still rose from earth to heaven, silent, majestically, in a great spiral of grace and strength that overwhelmed me at length with a genuine deep emotion of worship. I felt that I must fall down and worship — absolutely worship.
Blackwood’s implication that the malevolent beings have a numinous quality carries some interesting suggestions about the nature of evil in his works.
As noted above, Blackwood was influenced by the philosophy expressed in the Bhagavad Gita. Among the notable aspects of the Gita’s philosophy is its contention that the divine ” is. . .the inherent essence of everything – including evil.” 
Thus, in hinting that the story’s unearthly antagonists are divine, Blackwood may be demonstrating this Hindu perspective of evil.
Alternately, Blackwood’s view on evil could be shaped by his theosophical influences. In theosophical thought, evil is an imperfection existing in the world of matter. As one theosophical source explains:
Evil is really “imperfection” because perfection belongs only to pure Spirit.
The manifested universe is pervaded by duality; the duality of spirit and matter, subjective and objective, etc. The universe cannot become manifest or remain manifest without the existence, interplay, and contrast of these two opposite poles. “Manifestation” itself implies and involves duality and naturally this gives rise to all the “dvandvas” or “pairs of opposites” such as those things which we call good and evil, love and hate, joy and sorrow, male and female, young and old, health and sickness, life and apparent death, and so on ad infinitum.
If this was Blackwood’s perspective, then it puts the entities in “The Willows” in a very different light. As one character states, the story’s antagonists inhabit “another region. . .where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes. . .that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with more expressions of the soul.”
From a theosophical perspective, it could be argued that these spiritual beings are not truly evil, but appear that way to the protagonists due to the latter’s own imperfect status as residents of the material world.
In any event, “The Willows” is another great example of a writer using “the weird” to challenge conventional perceptions—in this case by suggesting that evil may be radically different than what is generally thought.
Until next time. . . .
- Excerpt from Frank Edgerton’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita: http://www.pantheism.net/paul/history/gita.htm