Presumably we all have nightmares (we cannot believe those who claim never to recall in waking what took place in sleep), but what those nightmares entail will depend much on the mind in their thrall. Attempts to find commonalities among the legions of the reposed should be dismissed as swiftly as the long day's platitudes. Nightmares may be universal, but riveting nightmares tend to be as exceptional as riveting biographies (with, it should be said, little coincidence of the two). One of my most recurrent midnight scenes involves a fairground. Perhaps the modern concept of an amusement park provides a better description. I am alone and with friends; the park is both full of customers and gleefully empty; what I can say for certain is that it is night or evening, which necessitates a definite amount of artificial light, and a large store of current to engineer the rides swooping and sliding behind me. What is occurring in my vicinity I never solve; but the motion and sounds of the machines indicate that on these grounds something baleful has taken root. Sometimes I have a rucksack on; sometimes a companion is also outfitted with this appurtenance. Most often I have awoken just as the tumult seems to be teetering on the brink of riot, and yet the source of this chaos is never revealed. A different landscape but similar conundrum besets the characters in this famous story.
Our place is the wilds of Canada, and our cast is an unlikely quartet: Cathcart, a Scotsman and materialist scientist; his nephew Simpson; Hank Davis, a guide; and Simpson's guide, the French Canadian Joseph Défago. A fifth man, the Native American Punk, has little function outside of his cooking, but he will steal more than one scene. The aim of this small hunting party is the moose that roam the northern wilderness as hegemons among the mighty trees; they are practically unstoppable, although they are not what one would normally deem apex predators. Like all good fictional prey, the moose never rear their comely antlers but are only rumored to be lurking a kilometer away or perhaps less, a relatively simple kill for a trained shot even if the animals can easily detect footsteps in their direction. It is then from Simpson's perspective that we gain an affective picture of the surroundings:
It was one thing, he realized, to hear about primeval forests, but quite another to see them. While to dwell in them and seek acquaintance with their wild life was, again, an initiation that no intelligent man could undergo without a certain shifting of personal values hitherto held for permanent and sacred .... The dusk rapidly deepened; the glades grew dark; the crackling of the fire and the wash of little waves along the rocky lake shore were the only sounds audible. The wind had dropped with the sun, and in all that vast world of branches nothing stirred. Any moment, it seemed, the woodland gods, who are to be worshipped in silence and loneliness, might stretch their mighty and terrific outlines among the trees. In front, through doorways pillared by huge straight stems, lay the stretch of Fifty Island Water, a crescent-shaped lake some fifteen miles from tip to tip, and perhaps five miles across where they were camped. A sky of rose and saffron, more clear than any atmosphere Simpson had ever known, still dropped its pale streaming fires across the waves, where the islands – a hundred, surely, rather than fifty – floated like the fairy barques of some enchanted fleet. Fringed with pines, whose crests fingered most delicately the sky, they almost seemed to move upwards as the light faded – about to weigh anchor and navigate the pathways of the heavens instead of the currents of their native and desolate lake.
If you have read much of Blackwood, you will understand that it is precisely in such detail that he excels. To paraphrase this author, Blackwood allows nature to speak for itself; he does not armor it in unwieldy description. For that very reason do his psychological tales tend to drift into diffuse abstraction, distant echoes of a greater image now long forlorn. But with one of the territories least explored by man as his backdrop, there seems little to encumber the magic labyrinths of his intellect.
What fate befalls our men? The hunters and their guides split in pairs, and our text chooses to follow Simpson and Défago, a wise move as Cathcart later proves himself to be an insufferable skeptic. The young men hike vigorously for a day or two and still come very shallow into the endless woods where their alleged bounty awaits. Since hunting holds about as much appeal to me as chewing glass shards, I cannot possibly evaluate their methods nor the terrain on which they dare to practice them. Suffice it to say that about a third of the story passes before the title is uttered, and it is given but casual mention. One fateful night, Simpson is assailed by something ineluctable and cannot sleep without torment:
As, sometimes, in a nightmare events crowd upon each other's heels with a conviction of dreadfulest reality, yet some inconsistent detail accuses the whole display of incompleteness and disguise, so the events that now followed, though they actually happened, persuaded the mind somehow that the detail which could explain them had been overlooked in the confusion, and that therefore they were but partly true, the rest delusion. At the back of the sleeper's mind something remains awake, ready to let slip the judgment. 'All this is not quite real; when you wake up you'll understand.'
I am loath to betray what the young Scot finds and does not find the next morning, because those details are perfectly presaged yet more than a bit surprising. The best moments still involve Punk, especially what he is rumored to have done at the end of the narrative, as well as his furtive glances and stealthy evenings spent listening to or smelling God knows what. And you may also discover how useful it is in a story like this to have a character by the name of Défago.