This short story by Algernon Blackwood (how amazing is that name???) was written in 1907 and is considered (apparently) to be one of, if not THE, finest examples of early modern horror.
What’s it about?
Two (nameless) friends are on holiday, canoeing down the Danube river. They make camp on a small island in the middle of the river, and things get weird. The wind howls, constantly. The low willows on the island move. Bizarre whirling funnels appear in the sky. A stranger paddles by, calling out to them, looking terrified. A body appears in the water, but might only be an otter.
Then their food disappears, a paddle is lost, and the canoe is damaged. They’re forced to stay another night on the island. More noises, more visions. The friend becomes scared and tries to sacrifice himself to the river / spirits / Others. The narrator saves him and they find another body / otter in the river. A replacement sacrifice?
So… that’s it? No nightmare monsters, no gory violence, no body-horror, no tentacles? Just camping? Yep.
(I mean, the ghost-funnels are sort of nightmare monsters, but they aren’t like wolfmen or godzillas or Howie Mandel.)
What’s the big deal?
This is a simple story that is all about mood and feelings. If you’ve ever been camping, if you’ve ever been alone out in nature, especially at night, then you can relate to the imagery and sensations in this story. The mood is entirely built on the noises that you can’t identify, and how your mind strains to make explanations for them. It’s all about the shadowy movements in the dark that you can’t quite see, and how your mind races to account for them. And fails. It’s about being a modern, rational, mature person confronting a situation you don’t and can’t understand, and slowly (or not so slowly) giving in to your primal fears, lizard-brain interpretations, and mythologizing the unknown.
The narrator keeps saying that his fears are ridiculous, and he doesn’t dare share them with his friend because he doesn’t want his calm sensible Swedish companion to think he’s a fanciful coward. Who ever does? But then the Swede admits that he’s freaking out too, and that’s even worse, having your fears confirmed by your rock, your stalwart friend. That’s when you know, down in your gut, down in the marrow… that you are not in control. You are not safe.
This story is all about the inexplicable slide from normal to abnormal, transitioning from a small world that you not only understand but a world that you are the master of, to a vast and incomprehensible universe of beings and powers that don’t even acknowledge your existence, let alone your humanity. It’s about how poorly our minds cope with the strange and the new, and how quickly our unstable emotions slosh in to replace firm reason.
It’s pretty great.
Definitely. It’s short and quick, and very evocative.
Obviously, if you want a big ugly monster, some ultra-violence, and witty banter, then look elsewhere.
Where is it?
Read / download free from Project Gutenburg: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11438
Listen on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QN_bbDrW7_M