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.