The Willows was a story that kept popping up in my Goodreads recommendations, and a few weeks ago, I finally downloaded it as a free e-book. I had initially planned on getting a hard copy, but it was hard to argue with free. As I was doing more research into the author, though, I noticed a couple of reviews that mentioned another short novel, The Man Whom the Trees Loved, which was supposed to be even more effective than The Willows, so I checked its availability, too. It was also free! So I downloaded them both, and finally got around to reading them today.
I read The Man Whom the Trees Loved first, for whatever reason. It's an interesting story, which at first glance appears to be about the strange relationship that develops between a man and the forest that borders his house. He feels a connection with the forest, enough so to have an artist come out and paint a portrait of a lone cedar tree that appears to stand guard between the house and the forest. But as he spends more and more time in the forest, he grows more and more distant from his wife, speaking to her in polite generalities more than anything else, until he eventually more or less succumbs to the call of the forest. It's a little creepy, and appropriately atmospheric, and on the surface, that's how Blackwood tells the story.
The thing is, as I was nearing the end of the story, I started to wonder if the story was really about David Bittacy at all. The story is told from the point of view of his wife, Sophia, who is described as mousy, insecure, and simply. Given that it was also published in 1912, she's subservient to her husband (almost insultingly so in some parts), but her key characteristics are those which make her feel like a victim. David definitely begins to separate himself from his wife to spend time in the forest, enough so that he cancels their annual six-week autumnal trip to France because he feels like the forest needs him. He's portrayed as being a little unhinged, but since we're seeing him from Sophia's perspective, we're not entirely sure how accurately she's relaying those events to us.
Much of the eeriness of the story comes from the way that Sophia relates to the forest. She resists going into the forest with her husband until past the halfway point in the story, and once she does, she feels surrounded and trapped. She anthropomorphizes the forest and begins to feel convinced that she knows how the forest feels about her. This isn't much different from David's affliction, but where David feels accepted, Sophia feels shunned. She talks about how she understands why the forest wants her husband -- David does love the forest, and they're not keeping him out of selfishness, but because he truly wants to be there -- and why it doesn't want her. At one point, she describes the path disappearing from behind her as she enters the forest, but as her fear and insecurity grow, she finds it again because the forest has allowed her to see it again. She's being shut out from the forest because it recognizes that she doesn't belong. It was at that moment that I wondered if Sophia was seeing things that weren't there and projecting her feelings about her marriage onto the forest itself.
From that point on, the story took on a different perspective with me. Gone was the weirdness of the story, to be replaced by an unsettling psychological portrayal of a woman who was slowly losing her grip on reality as she felt her marriage failing. I don't know if that was the point Blackwood was trying to make with the story, but once I made that turn in my mind, the story got a lot more interesting. Like Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House, Sophia is a character whose version of events she sees is unreliable, but hers is the only perspective we get. Whether or not what we read can be taken at face value is up to how we interpret the main character.
I think I read this story before The Willows because I assumed that this would be the lesser of the two stories, based on how much I had heard about both. As much as this short novel impressed me, though, I now expect The Willows to raise the bar even more. I was pretty impressed with the emotional impact of this story.