Discover The Willows
I asked the WeirdLit subreddit about their recommendations for ecological weird fiction and received a great number of suggestions. Many of the recs were more like short stories or novellas, rather than novels; to wit, one of them, The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood, was the first I finished. The Willows is a novella, and its author highly inspired H.P. Lovecraft, who considered this story the finest supernatural tale in literature.
I cuddled up one night in bed, the British Columbia wind and rain howling outside–the perfect setting–with my small bedside lamp and brown fuzzy blanket, and read the book in one setting. In The Willows, two men are on a canoe trip down the Danube, and at one of the islands in what is now the Dunajské luhy Protected Landscape Area, in Slovakia, they stop to camp. What follows is a preternatural sequence of events that defies logic and hastens through with little explanation.
One might wonder, “What is ecological weird fiction?” I don’t think I made this up, but Googling the term, I have only found myself asking for recommendations in the genre–yet, most certainly, I have gotten the gist of this type of work when talking with Jeff VanderMeer when we discussed ecology and weird fiction. To start, weird fiction is a traditional genre espousing horror and other elements. According to Wikipedia:
Weird fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction originating in the late 19th and early 20th century. It can be said to encompass the ghost story and other tales of the macabre. Weird fiction is distinguished from horror and fantasy in its blending of supernatural, mythical, and even scientific tropes.
Tap eco- in front of that, and it then becomes a living, crawling genre wherein the physical world around the story becomes a major part of the tale. This happens in The Willows, to be sure, as the men setting up camp on island become frighteningly aware of the natural elements around them–the sun, the river, the wind, the willows–taking on preternatural qualities that make them seem not of this world–and these elements take on qualities in the story that present as either the soul of the primordial world, or even perhaps as the forgotten psyche of humanity.
While the events happening around the two men exist on the border of the explainable and the non-explainable (whispers, strange light figures escaping into the heavens at night, and so on), there is a palpable fear that the two seasoned river canoers had not felt before when camping, and, being rational people, they wonder if they are hallucinating or so scared that their imaginations are running wild. The main character tells himself that if he states out loud his fears to his companion, simply described as the Swede, that the fears will then become manifest and real.
The two find the corpse of a peasant, and they wonder if it is a sacrifice to the island, and further fright sets in. It is of their utmost concern that they get off this island and back to the river, but they are also trapped because of flooding. As the nature around them takes on its own will, as if it has a conscience, their unrest deepens.
This was not my first eco-weird-fiction novel, and definitely not my last, as I find this genre ripe for the tapping–it is followed with modern authors such as Jeff Vandermeer. I also have plenty more books that came from out-of-print publishers. You can look forward to more from Discover!