Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows by Nathan Carson
Floating World Comics (November 2019)
72 pages; $12.95 paperback
Reviewed by Chris Hallock
Algernon Blackwood’s name doesn’t permeate today’s pop culture landscape like his contemporary (and admirer) H.P. Lovecraft, but Britain’s great supernaturalist holds a significant place in the pantheon of weird literature. As one of horror fiction’s preeminent contributors, his chilling works have influenced many of the world’s best fantasy writers, and astounded readers with a sublime melding of paralyzing suspense, mysticism, and otherworldly terror. Despite their plentiful virtues, Blackwood’s tales have been somewhat overlooked as an avenue for adaptation, with infrequent dips into Blackwood’s formidable catalog, mostly as television and radio plays, some dating back far enough to be narrated by Blackwood himself (he died in 1951).
Multifaceted creator Nathan Carson’s graphic adaptation of The Willows, Blackwood’s most popular story (and Lovecraft’s personal favorite), is a wonderful opportunity to make Blackwood a household name, using an accessible comic format to invite modern readers who may have missed out on the author’s mastery over strange and unnerving subject matter. Carson teamed with extraordinary artist Sam Ford, whose mesmerizing illustrations have graced album covers for The Mountain Goats, Agalloch, and Carson’s own Witch Mountain. Their update augments Blackwood’s magnetic prose with exquisite imagery, robust characters, and a deep reverence for the source material.
The Willows introduces a pair of explorers—Opal, an aristocratic adventurer, and her seasoned companion, the pragmatic Hala “the Swede”—on a journey down the mighty Danube River. Despite warnings from the Hungarian locals, they shelter on one of the river’s many small islands, isolated in swamplands dominated by multitudinous willow-bushes. Rising waters and sharp winds threaten their camp, but the biggest menace comes from the willows themselves, mysterious plant life possessed of a malevolent nature. The presence of the two woman has provoked the old gods who preside over the region, and the willows protect the thin barrier separating our world from theirs.
Out of necessity, Carson has taken liberties with structure, streamlining the story for easier translation to a visual medium. Carson trimmed Blackwood’s descriptive detail to the essentials, and eliminated much of the repetitive nature of the novella, which simply wouldn’t work as a short form comic where pacing is paramount. Notably, Carson has changed the sexes of the protagonists, a bold move that shouldn’t matter, but may have purists ready to revolt. Those who’d protest can rest assured that the change does nothing more than provide a new point-of-view, shifting from Blackwood’s typically first person perspective, to the reader’s identification with two capable and rugged young women. It’s a cool change if you ask this reviewer, one that invites inclusivity without feeling forced.
As expected, this graphic novel is driven by the visuals, striking black and white depictions benefiting from Ford’s penchant for marrying beauty with the grotesque. His disturbing amalgamations of flora, fauna, and divine beings recalls the haunting visions of Bernie Wrightson and Junji Ito, while the painstaking ethereal details share spiritual kinship with the interplanetary magnificence of Colleen Doran’s transcendent sci-fi series A Distant Soil.
Carson has given future translators of Blackwood’s work a shining example of a proper treatment. His version of The Willows succeeds in capturing the isolation, dread, and hallucinatory power that are the hallmarks of the original text, while providing flourishes to personalize it. The book is steeped in the menace of its unforgiving natural world, yet pulsates as a glorious affirmation of life. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment that should open doors for Carson and Ford to collaborate again, hopefully with more thrilling adventures starring Opal and Hala.