So far this blog – dedicated to all that is slightly to majorly terrifying – has focused on contemporary T.V. shows and movies. But I have a broader objective. I want to explore all facets of horror in its myriad manifestations. I was browsing Barnes and Noble one idle Friday evening, seeking good horror between two covers. Michael, my significant other – who has an uncanny knack for sniffing out quality reads – found a decorative, hard-cover, 800 page Barnes and Noble collector’s edition entitled Classic Horror Stories, with a red ribbon bookmark and gold-trimmed pages, on the bargain shelf for $20. The book contains a lot of greats – Poe, unsurprisingly, Henry James, Bram Stoker, and Ambrose Bierce – but I thought I’d sample a lesser-known author, so I flipped to Algernon Blackwood’s telling of “The Wendigo.” Because Blackwood lived from 1869-1951, I estimate that it was written at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century. Though “The Wendigo” doesn’t float in the realm of “absolutely terrifying,” this relatively brief 40-page story is sufficiently creepy, with an undercurrent of dread pervading its well-established mood.
I’ll be vague in my review to avoid any major spoilers. Simpson, Dr. Cathcart, Hank, a “French Canadian” named Defago, and a Native American, Punk, are moose hunting in the forest near the Hudson River. When Hank suggests searching one particular area of the forest, the men note Defago’s fear. Cathcart looks into Defago’s eyes and “in those eyes, for an instant, he caught a gleam of a man scared in his very soul.” It’s no major spoiler to reveal that some of the men encounter the Wendigo, and this scene serves as early, apt foreshadowing that establishes a tone of disquiet and uncertainty. Appropriately, the story takes place in the end of October, which in the text is the onset of winter. Wintry imagery – the cold air, the intermittent snow – supports a mood of dark isolation.
Depictions of the forest are especially intriguing in this story. On the one hand, the forest is a vast, expansive realm, a conduit between civilization and the lurking presence of the unknown and untraversed. Defago and Simpson venture out on their own, and when Simpson notes that the woods are “a bit too big to feel quite at home in,” Defago quickly responds with: “You’ve hit it right, Simpson, boss…and that’s the truth, sure. There’s no end to ‘em—no end at all. There’s lots found out that and gone plumb to pieces.” Defago’s input, along with his consistent discontent and elusiveness about his unrest, contribute to the story’s sense of danger. The reader never feels like the characters are safe. But while the forest is unconquerable and expansive, it’s also suffocating, leaving the reader unnerved. When Simpson and Defago go to sleep, “the outside world of crowding trees pressed close to them, marshalling their million shadows, and smothering the little tent that stood there like a whee white shell acing the ocean of tremendous forest.”
Antiquated sociological and anthropological perspectives are present to almost a laughable degree: indeed, the more “primitive,” men, those from tribes and closer to nature, are depicted as more at risk for being conquered by the Wendigo. The alleged possession of civilization is conversely depicted as a bulwark against danger. And the story makes a ton of funny statements about how all Scots act, how all French Canadians act, and so forth. Also, there is some delicious imagery in this story – easy to imagine, and I’m not always the most visual reader.
The storytelling style deviates from contemporary horror in that the presence of fear and terror are frequently and repeatedly stated outright, instead of implied. When Simpson is in the forest alone: “The atmosphere and feeling of true nightmare lay horribly about him, making movement and speech both difficult.” And while the story does depict, to an extent, the presence of an odious creature, it follows in the footsteps of Edgar Allen Poe in its exploration of insanity and its description of how seemingly strong people unravel in the face of unimaginable horror.
What is simultaneously frustrating and appealing about the story is how much it leaves unanswered. We know the fate of the characters by the end of the book, but a lot of questions are raised that are never answered. What exactly happened to the person(s) who encountered the Wendigo? What was seen and experienced? Where did the Wendigo come from, and why does it have the effect it has on people? Vague or non-existent answers to these questions can either enhance the story, or leave the reader feeling cheated, depending on the question and the reader’s perspective. Still, the fact that not every detail about the Wendigo is revealed contributes to the element of mystery in the story and amplifies the morose mood. As far as horror stories go, this is a quick, engaging read that allows the imagination to play.