By Ryan C. Bradley
A gorgeous graphic adaptation of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, one of the most exceptional contributions to dark, atmospheric literature. This immortal novella of extra-dimensional weirdness on the Danube comes to vivid life in graphic comic form thanks to the incredibly detailed black-and-white linework of talented newcomer, Sam Ford. Writer Nathan Carson’s thoughtful retelling reverently preserves the plot while breathing character-driven depth into this all-time classic. Two adventurous women, one British, one Swedish, encounter strange horrors in the Hungarian wilderness of 1907. What they discover on that crumbling sandbar makes them question their sanity, fear for their lives, and revel in otherworldly strangeness. Readers familiar with the story will delight in seeing it depicted in such painstaking, quality illustrations, and newcomers will want to leave a light on for many nights after.
Algernon Blackwood earned a spot in the pantheon of weird writers with his eerie riffs on cosmic horror. Like many pulp writers from the 1920s, his writings have fallen out of popularity, struggling to stay in print. His novella, The Willows, is among the easiest to find (you can read the full text at Project Gutenberg for free) and one of his best. As good as the original is, Nathan Carson and Sam Ford reinvigorate it with their graphic novel adaptation, Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows.
The first lines of the original novella and the adapted text are near identical: “After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation.” The original sentence keeps going, but writer Nathan Carson smartly cuts it off in the graphic novel. He excises the word “singular,” too. From there, he massages the text so he manages to keep Blackwood’s tone and peppers in the best lines like, “The standard of reality had changed,” while updating the style. Carson’s writing is more concise, more modern.
The other significant change in the story Carson and artist Sam Ford make is flipping the genders of the characters. Blackwood’s original had two men getting lost in the Willows. Carson and Ford have two women and they do their best to empower and characterize them. Hala left Sweden because of a referendum on women’s suffrage while Opal left England because the speed limits were too low. These details make the characters more lifelike than Blackwood’s two-dimensional victims. The change calls to mind recent attempts to reclaim H.P. Lovecraft’s racist stories like the excellent The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle.
The original The Willows is better than the adaptation in one fundamental way: it leaves the monsters to the imagination. Ford does amazing work filling in the blanks Blackwood left. His monsters are fun to look at, but not nearly as creepy as what the reader would conjure with their mind if left to their imaginations.
Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows is a brilliant take on classic cosmic horror. (★★★★☆)
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