Reading Group #24 ('The Wendigo')
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In his notes to “The Wendigo” in the Penguin collection Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Tales, S. T. Joshi explains that the sources for this story are two voyages to Canada that Algernon Blackwood undertook in the 1890s. Blackwood hunted for gold during his first trip in 1892, and for moose in 1898. The details of the Canadian backwoods are certainly detailed and convincing, as far as I’m able to judge (not all that far, as I’ve never been anywhere that remote in my life).
Blackwood is noted for setting many of his stories “outside” rather than “inside” - by which I mean in the open air, in untamed environments, his characters away from civilization and away from other people.
Usually, the gothic (if not horror in general) makes enclosed spaces dangerous: characters are incarcerated in a castle, or a crumbling mansion or a convent, trapped inside by, or with, the menace. However, as Glen Cavaliero puts it in his 1995 study The Supernatural & English Fiction, “Blackwood’s speciality was to render exposure as terrifying as earlier writers had enclosure”. At the same time, Blackwood focuses very much on the psychological states of his characters, so there is a sense in which his stories are set “inside”, too - inside their heads.
It’s just occurred to me that this emphasizes the characters‘ self-consciousness: an earlier writer (Dickens, say) may well have described the early scene around the campfire as “very like the conventional stage picture of Western melodrama” (if such scenes had indeed become conventional during Dickens‘ lifetime) but as the “Omniscient Narrator” he would have pointed it out to the reader directly. Blackwood reports Cathcart noting it to himself, so it doesn’t just paint the scene for the reader, it shows Cathcart stepping out of the moment and observing it as it’s happening. This is of course common in Modern prose, and might simply be Blackwood writing as a man of his time, but it might also be telling us about the character of Cathcart as a modern, civilized man. I expand on this idea below.
First though, “The Wendigo” is the story, briefly, is of a small party hunting for moose in the Canadian backwoods. The party is made even smaller when they break up into two groups, and the narrative follows one group (two men) as the Wilderness works on them, firstly in a realistic way, and then with the irruption into their world of the supernatural, in the shape of the Wendigo.
Although “shape” isn’t quite right, because the Wendigo is a sound, a smell, footprints. It’s possibly not a physical being but it’s more like a ghost or, better, a spirit - the spirit of the Wilderness, in fact.
When I was thinking about what happens next, the phrase “the Call of the Wild” came to mind, because it is precisely this that works on Défago and leads to his being taken away and subject to a sort of lycanthropic change (it’s what Défago changes into that matches the common image of the Wendigo, but as I suggested in the last paragraph this may not be accurate - insofar as Blackwood’s story is concerned, at least).
I gather that it has been strongly suggested, if not proven as a fact, that Blackwood was a student of the Occult or Esoteric tradition in his earlier years. I would tentatively suggest that this background has influenced “The Wendigo”, even though Blackwood moved from the Hermetic tradition to Nature or Pan worship.
This is what I mean:
the dangers of “meddling” with magic, the idea that you can get yourself noticed by “Powers”, and that this can be dangerous;
in Blackwood’s cosmology, these Powers are not “Supernatural” but “Natural”, i.e. Nature itself;
someone attuned to Nature is therefore vulnerable to it in a different way from someone who, for example, may be stranded in the forest with inadequate survival skills.
This is why, I think, at the start of the story Blackwood describes the characters in terms that read uncomfortably today. It is to set up Défage and Punk as the two characters who are most at risk from the Wendigo.
That, I know, was even more long-winded and disjointed than usual, Apologies for that.
I'll be back with thoughts later. This is one of my favorites. Real quick, though: as far as I know Blackwood WAS a member of Golden Dawn, at least for a time, and you can see the influence on more mystical yarns like 'The Man Whom the Trees Loved.' I think his Hermetic leanings also permeate the spookier tales, though: his terror is always a terror of the soul, even in something as entirely sinister as 'The Wendigo' or 'The Listener.' Along with Gustav Meyrink (for similar reasons) he's my favorite writer, and I think it's that more spiritual rendering of dread that most appeals to me. Lovecraft is too much an observer of his own fictions, and other 'Weird' authors share that same flaw; though I admire they're work greatly, I find Blackwood the most refined of them. I leave his stories with a sense of awe before Nature (and the things that exist beyond Nature); and though he nourishes a kind of cosmic malice in his work, it's never hollow or maudlin. I find that remarkable.
I finally got round to reading this, late at night, while I was away for a few days for Christmas and, thus, it's a bit vague in my memory. However, I do remember thinking vaguely along the lines of your second and third paragraphs and wondering if this could legitimately be categorised as 'Gothic'. I remember having the same confusion when I read 'The Willows' recently, but I never followed up on it; so I can't say I've given any real thought to the matter.
(Sorry if this post seems a bit scattered or the syntax a little tortured; I'm having trouble communicating exactly what I mean...that and I've been reading a bit too much Huysmans lately (talk about tortured syntax)!)
I was trying to make the story fit typical Gothic convention by imagining it as a Gothic tale 'writ large'. So: the wilderness would be the ancestral family home; the human species would be the family; the old, dark, family secret would be this tendency to succumb to Blackwood's version of 'the call of the wild' (I suppose there might be a racist edge there, with the more 'backward' family members being the most susceptible).
But then it all fell apart. Blackwood seems to be writing from the old 19th, early 20thC concept of humankind as something separate and distinct from nature; which makes a nonsense of my musings.
I suppose the best and most imaginative writers often can't be neatly bound by genre.
Totally off-topic, houseful, but I just realized that we share a $%#-load of the same books! Weird stuff, too, like Stefan Grabinski and The Jewel of Seven Stars. Interesting...
This one was the real surprise, though:
One of my favorite books! I probably spend an hour or two a week with that one...
I wanted to go into Botany before I settled on Lit. Ah, dreams...
New thread is up.
Found it! Worth reading all of this valuable input. I have not read Jack London, but coincidentally adopted a free copy of White Fang this week. We were raised on Farley Mowat & W.O. Mitchell. Similarly unacquainted with HPL (gasp) so the influence is lost on me.
It is remarkable that this dates back to 1910, as noted above. I had a more personal relationship with the story, since I know the exact geographic location. A dream of working at Minaki Lodge, not far from Ontario's border with Manitoba, went up in smoke when the deluxe log structure resort burned to the ground before I could visit. One of my greatest regrets, a stunning natural setting. This said, as I read, my mind strayed to something I did know intimately, Algonquin Park. I've been many times, including dog-sledding 30km into the park on two separate excursions. It is all that Blackwood writes, no matter the season. Wolf-howls answered by 12 teams of huskies? Eerier than any account can touch. Hollowed out sounds of the woods, within personal recall context, made my skin crawl as I progressed. Invigorating but imaginative, thus most at risk to Wendigo's radar, feeding off fear and lore from the most vulnerable in the group, whether they like it or not. Those who don't know, don't know. They observe, detached and indifferent, disconnected from the experience, until it's too late for all of them. Even then, they want to deny what they've seen. The author gets his final word.
The movie was okay, but I need to see a better version with better sound. Visuals fantastic. Upstate New York or Ontario's north western landscape, both offer that feeling of suffocation within such vast terrain. I did like how the director of Wendigo combined elements of beast/man/tree/wind.
Sorry if I'm being such a girl, and reacting emotionally, but I felt this story as I read it. I need to read it again to feel it again, since I cannot remember the words, the phrases, the Blackwood prose that you're hailing ... I was wrapped up inside the story until emerging from the tunnel with those closing images more vivid than I'd like. That's always been my problem, takes visuals months to fade, thus can't do horror (although I like a good werewolf). Prefer to be tethered to this type of terror!
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) I'm seeking you out! The Willows, The Empty House, A Prisoner in Fairyland are all in my 'cusp' file.
*FYI* Read 8 Giller Prize 2011 long list noms and one was Pauline Holdstock's Into the Heart of the Country boasting superb descriptions of the interior, pre-Hudson Bay Company era, the relationship and prejudices between indigenous and British, reciprocally. It was compelling and revealing, adding lots of froth (around the mouth) to this story. I ended up liking her novel better than the winner that year. Her sense of place emerged as a character supporting the frightening dependence of polar opposite peoples who mistrusted each other, but for the sake of survival, needed to find critical methods of cooperation. No, have not seen Leo in The Revenant (2015) so unsure if any parallels can be drawn between Alberta north wilderness and this. I felt less of that suffocation when I lived in Alberta (vast ranchlands, mountains and foothills, prairie sky) than in BC or Ontario. The forests are profoundly moving, if we can ever put a stop to those preventable fires. =(
ITHOTC was a pleasure tip to tail, even if my taste avoids historical fiction (no memory for dates/etc. so war themes are in/out). Her Beyond Measure was a tough first novel to get through, although excellent, it left me feeling disturbed. Hard to shake images and such. This second one featured a more familiar setting. A bit unsettling but in a different way.
Another book that year was Touch, set in the BC woods with a supernatural twist. Well plotted story, very captivating, but again, tough subject matter. The others were (in order of preference); The Sisters Brothers (California Gold Rush), Solitaria (BC&Italy), Half Blood Blues (USA/Poland), A World Elsewhere (Newfoundland and N.E.USA), The Antagonist (east coast) … an eclectic blend of fiction, all well chosen. Two from local library, one ebook, but Pauline/Alexi/Genni/Wayne's were paperback keepers. They covered west/central/east and Italy, handling serious issues in creative ways. That binge was worthwhile, but exhausting, and has never been repeated.
ETA: I wonder if Snowblind qualifies even remotely. Bought the paperback a few years ago, and read it quickly, no snags. Better than expected. Described as horror fiction with suspense/mystery, paranormal, ghosts. Will look for weird elements when I pour through it again. I was unfamiliar with the author when I ordered it. Story description and book cover merely caught my eye.
Now that I think back to 2011 when I first read Touch by Alexi (a Giller Prize long list nominee), perhaps he was trying to tap into that terror but set in B.C. rather than Ontario/Manitoba borderland. The Ojibwa legend likely had its equivalent with the western tribes. They boast even denser older forests.
These PBS digital shows are produced by John Green and his brother, but are hosted by Mike. Enjoy, or not.
Having finished my reading of The Wendigo and The Empty House, on now to The Willows and A Prisoner in Fairyland.