Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Willows

These willows never attain to the dignity of trees; they have no rigid trunks; they remain humble bushes, with rounded tops and soft outline, swaying on slender stems that answer to the least pressure of the wind; supple as grasses, and so continually shifting that they somehow give the impression that the entire plain is moving and alive. For the wind sends waves rising and falling over the whole surface, waves of leaves instead of waves of water, green swells like the sea, too, until the branches turn and lift, and then silvery white as their under-side turns to the sun.  -  Algernon Blackwood, The Willows

I must have read this story over 10-20 times all through my pre-adolescence. It was part of a moth-eaten, colossal book of horror stories that was in my household since forever. I dug it up every summer (once I have thoroughly exhausted the local library) and plunged into it, lost to reality until sleep or parental concern forced me to resurface. I slipped from the book’s tempting brink into a swirling, poignant abyss of exquisite horror, horror at its best!  

"Altogether it was an impressive scene, with its utter loneliness, its bizarre suggestion; and as I gazed, long and curiously, a singular emotion began stir somewhere in the depths of me. Midway in my delight of the wild beauty, there crept unbidden and unexplained, a curious feeling of disquietude, almost of alarm."

The Willows depicted a kind of fear that didn’t have a concrete source; it was a more primal, diffused fear that hung in the air suffusing the characters and the readers slowly with dread. More than horror, the story brought out a sense of a melancholy that is so tantalizing and terrifying - a sublime, contemplative anxiety – a subtle hinting, a mere wisp of a suggestion, a slow weaving, entrapping gold and green mesh of panic. 

"But my emotion, so far as I could understand it, seemed to attach itself more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting, listening. And, apart quite from the elements, the willows connected themselves subtly with my malaise, attacking the mind insidiously somehow by reason of their vast numbers, and contriving in some way or other to represent to the imagination a new and mighty power, a power, moreover, not altogether friendly to us."

The Willow is so lyrical, so eloquent, so profound that I sometimes forgot the undercurrent of fear until with a sudden jerk I notice the goose bumps on my forearms despite it being a humid, tropical summer noon. 

Strangely enough, I don’t recall any real horror stories (gory, slasher, on-the-face) in that book. All the tales were more or less lingered on the edge of surreal, fantastically blurring the boundaries between sci-fi, folklore and reality. There was a story of a man who had once seen a green door and spends all his life looking for it, another chasing after an elusive music, another who travels from body to body, a mysterious crystal orb that is a window into a different world… and many more, many more
I now rack my cobwebby memory to recall those stories, but all I can recollect is the rush of excitement as I turned the pages in pleasurable anticipation, safely inside that old house, safely inside my childhood, still blissfully unaware of the triteness and sadness of adulthood. Oh, let me remain! Forever in that little, mellow slice of memory, turning pages, eternally 11, eternally euphoric. It was a book I lost with many other things sometime later - borrowed, stolen, hidden away in some forgotten nook - I don’t know. But the stories come back to me in dreams, in leaf rustles, from the shivering moons, from the whimpers in the late afternoon air, peeping from tempting, unexplored woody paths beckoning me to run, run, run away. 

Why did I think of this story today? I can't remember! I re-read the Annotated Lolita (3rd time) to give shape to a vague point that was bubbling in my head for sometime now - something to do with a character reincarnating in each book or something like that conjured up by my bog-water logged brain. It is related to another work of Nabokov. Then I worked for a while, I am having a slight, annoying delirious fever for the last three days. While tossing in bed, the skimming landscape of Lolita, fragments of Wasteland and an eerie flute music from youtube mixed and succeeding in extracting this golden little memory from a corner of my mind. Ah!

Image Courtesy: http://myriammahiques.blogspot.in/2013_07_01_archive.html