Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Blackwood’s stories have been most famous for their style, and it is the use of suggestion rather than literal depiction or explanation that has contributed most to his style. This use of suggestion and ambiguity adds greatly to atmosphere and tension. Lovecraft labeled Blackwood as the supreme master of weird atmosphere, and this story is regarded as Blackwood’s best.

The nature of the forces that assault the travelers is never clarified, and the conception of these forces grows and changes as the story progresses. The relationship of the various things seen (the beings ascending to the sky, the dark, rolling shape) to one another is not explained, nor is it clear which of these entities is the controlling force from the other world. Even the view the author gives of these various visions is filled with ambiguity. The narrator sees an otter where the companion sees a manlike creature; the ascending beings are seen very hazily; the dark shape is seen by the narrator as “several animals grouped together, like horses, two or three, moving slowly,” and by the companion as “shaped and sized like a clump of willow bushes, rounded at the top, and moving all over upon its surface.”

A favorite technique of the author is to make his protagonist a visionary who is open to, and even invites, experience with another world or reality, while a second character is a man of science or at least of down-to-earth nature whose function it is to rescue the hero from the charms or dangers of the vision. Blackwood gives an interesting twist to this idea in “The Willows” when the down-to-earth character, the Swedish companion, is the first to acknowledge the presence of the supernatural and even reverses the situation when he admits to having long had a theory about another world. Aside from this, Blackwood utilizes the different viewpoints of his two characters to give alternate descriptions of the various phenomena they see, contributing to suggestion rather than literal depiction.