Among the books and stories I have read, the prize for “most terrifying” goes to… “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood!
Published in 1907, this novella was noted by H.P. Lovecraft in his treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature as a superior example of the terror tale. The story certainly terrified me when I first read it at age 12, and even now, decades later, certain passages from it can bring back a feeling of profound and irredeemable fear. Inducing such fear, of course, is the whole point of horror or weird fiction.
Let’s just have a look at the necessary qualities of this fiction genre. First of all, the author must achieve a feeling of fundamental wrongness in the environment of the main character, or in that character him- or herself. This wrongness must reach out and envelope the reader, who then shares the dislocation of reality and experiences vicariously the state of having no clue as to how to change the situation — a situation which ultimately threatens the well-being or the very existence of the character.
The wrongness or strangeness may be intriguing at first, beguiling even, but eventually it becomes threatening, dangerous, terrifying. We (the fictitious character and the reader) recognize a deadly danger, without knowing what it is or how to deal with it. The result is a fundamental dislocation and isolation.
“The Willows” meets all these criteria to perfection, which is why it is surely one of the most terrifying stories I have ever read. Two friends — young men of the type encountered in English fiction of the early 20th century — are on a canoeing and camping trip on the Danube River. Somewhere beyond Austria, where the river passes through what is now the borderland between Slovakia and Hungary, they enter a region of shifting sandbars and temporary islands overgrown with willows. They camp on one of the islands, and experience a series of minor mishaps and odd occurrences that keep them there an additional night.
At first the narrator feels a strange charm in their physical surroundings — the remoteness, the strong “personality” of the river whose every mood they have come to know, representing wild nature at its finest — and especially the overwhelming presence of the willows. With time, an inexplicable unease develops, but he keeps it to himself because he thinks his companion (known only as “the Swede”) is too unimaginative to appreciate subtle emotions. This has the effect of isolating the narrator with his fears and increasing the tension.
The individual events the campers experience while on the island are not particularly shocking — the sight of a man in a boat making warning signs and crossing himself before vanishing in the distance, a swimming otter that seems to look at them strangely, a missing canoe paddle and a tear in the bottom of their canoe that must be repaired before they can continue their journey, foodstuffs and supplies that seem oddly diminished — but as they add up, the feeling of wrongness becomes undeniable. It builds up gradually while the narrator keeps his fears to himself, but bursts out into terror on the second night, when the two men begin to share their perceptions. By that time, the narrator has seen something inexplicable during the previous night, and has also begun to hear an unaccountable ringing or humming sound that comes and goes.
During the conversation within the safe circle of light cast by the campfire, one of the characters utters sentences that still make me shiver: “All my life,” he said, “I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region — not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind — where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs … are all as dust in the balance — vast purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul…” Just typing this out, more than forty years since I first read it, brings back the acute fear I felt then.
And another sentence that has never left me: “To name is to reveal.”
So I won’t say how the story ends, but I must point out the characteristic that makes this tale so disturbing: at no time is the source of terror made explicit. From start to finish it remains amorphous and veiled. To me, this is crucial. The moment the horror is revealed, no matter how evil, grotesque or huge, it loses a great deal of its power. Once you see the tentacles, the thing-to-be-feared changes from an unknown, possibly unknowable it-could-be-anything to… a thing with tentacles. Which may be terrifying, but it’s a terrifying something.