Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Subtle Horror – The Wendigo

H.P. Lovecraft is known for his unique brand of horror storytelling. His dark and nihilistic view of the universe inspired some chilling tales. But he had influences on his style and stories. Some of these were contemporaries like Robert E. Howard. Others were older like Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen. Lets take a look at Algernon Blackwood.

Blackwood’s influence on Lovecraft is more stylistic than anything else. For one thing Blackwood’s weird fiction does not concern alternate worlds and planes of existence, but deals with an internal spiritual horror. It’s a terror that is difficult to define, something that comes from within, like a creeping doubt that builds and builds until its too much.

In the stories I’ve read by Blackwood, this source of terror comes from the natural world or from within. The Wendigo is one of his most celebrated stories, and along with The Willows may be one of his most effective. In The Wendigo the story starts out as a hunting trip into the Canadian wilderness. Like a typical horror film, everything starts out peachy keen at first. But slowly little things begin to hint at a dark side to the survival story.

Blackwood infuses his stories with description – a lot of description. So you’ve got to be prepared to read some long passages about the wilderness. It’s not too bad, because Blackwood really builds a solid picture, but it does slow the pacing down to a crawl. However this is intentional too. It puts you into a certain mood, slowly moving through the story and allowing the descriptions to build upon each other twisting slightly each time.

When the horror unfolds in the final third of the novella, you’ve been slowly creeped out for so long that it becomes chilling. It takes some patience to read, but it also takes skill to write. Blackwood’s theme of nature as a force unto itself, and one that man cannot hope to tame is strong in his stories. The Wendigo does just that. Sure it skirts the supernatural (and delves right into it at the end), but there is a lot of psychological horror in there too. The corruptions or devolution of the characters spirit is what fascinates him, and creates a unique horror experience.

Lovecraft uses a similar style, but focuses instead on the human intellect. His characters often meander in a world that is beyond their ken, and often become corrupted and insane by the end. This build up usually happens faster then in a Blackwood story, but the same style is present. Its also interesting to note that in The Willows the danger is very present and real, but never identified clearly. It makes it more horrifying. This technique is another one that Lovecraft utilized well in many of his stories.

I highly recommend checking out The Wendigo if you have the opportunity and are in the mood for a horror story that takes its time but is very effective. If it works for you then seek out The Willows for a solid sampling of the unknown.

Have you ever read any of Blackwood’s stories? What did you think of them? Do you think heavy description can be as effective as a tight plot, or do you think a balance needs to be struck?

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