Before reading The Willows I was completely unfamiliar with Algernon Blackwood and I’m betting there are plenty of others out there like me who at least appreciate Lovecraft but aren’t fanatics, and so in their casual enjoyment haven’t paid much attention to his contemporaries. With The Willows, writer Nathan Carson and artist Sam Ford have crafted a perfect introduction to the mind and work of Blackwood, as well as a visual tribute to the much-missed horror comics of the 1970s like Warren’s Creepy or just about anything Berni Wrightson touched.
In The Willows, two voyagers down the Danube ignore warnings about weather conditions and, as always happens, find themselves faced with the very thing they should have been concerned about. In this case, it’s high winds and flooding, and they take refuge on an island that is rapidly disappearing under the current.
But there’s something else going on and the two begin to bicker about it, and nearly get at each other’s throats. There are strange sightings that unnerve them and bizarre sounds, and each encounter leads to different conclusions between them.
This is a story of a horror so cosmic and so beyond our understanding of the universe that it can’t properly be expressed within the language used to tell the story. Like Lovecraft, Blackwood hints at things that exist that cannot possibly be comprehended, so much so that the idea that they may be gods is brushed aside by one traveler — after all, humans know what gods are.
It seems like the two travelers are descending into madness — one in perceiving the terror, the other in taking it at face value and unable to comprehend any survival from it — and the frantic ranting at each other often gives way to visual nightmares, some mysterious and obscured, while others are full-on cosmic monstrosities descending upon the world with a fury meant to instill horror. They are the types of formless, overwhelming monstrosities that lurk in the minds of people who are ready to accept the impossible as tangible.
It’s this imagery that Ford excels at, the moments when the nightmares that stalk people’s minds are brought into the real world as formless furies, oozing blobs and sweeping tentacles that threaten to make their way into every nook and cranny of the world around you. These monsters burst into the panels with a forcefulness that sends an old-fashioned shock down your spine. Ford’s scratchy black and white art captures the minutiae of these manifestations, as well as the impossibility of them, and renders the atmosphere of the island with a dark paranoia surrounded by the unleashed fury of nature.
This is the personification of what used be known as forbidden knowledge, the kind of thing that lived under your bed or in your closet or was conjured up in the forests on the edge of your town. This is fun horror that invites repulsion and fascination.
I should point out that there was a recent edition of The Willows put out by Beehive Books, a lovely one illustrated by Paul Pope. Not an adaptation, it featured the original text as well as four other stories, it’s a different sort of rendering than Carson and Ford’s version, but Blackwood seems like the sort of author who invites various interpretations and if the interpreters are up to the job — which Pope is as much as Carson and Ford — then there’s probably something to be gained from any version.