Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Short Story Review: The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood

Original Publication Date:  1910

Genre:  Horror

Topics: Hunting, First Nations myths, Canada, supernatural beings

Review: This was my second brush with Algernon Blackwood. The first occurred recently when I reviewed The Willows. Hearing that The Wendigo was a finer story than The Willows, I went in search of it on Project Gutenberg.

In The Wendigo, a Scotsman and his nephew take an expedition into the backwoods of Canada with two hunting guides and their cook. The pair enlisted the experienced men to help find them “shy moose” in the autumn of the year. Things are fine until one of the guides, Defago, starts to feel nervous. He has heard that they are entering into Wendigo territory. With some teasing and pricks to his pride, the man brushes off his fears and leads the nephew, Simpson, into the Bush. The two set up their camp but in the night they are disturbed by a sound, the sound of the guide’s name being called: “De-fa-go!”  And without warning, the guide disappears into the wilderness. Simpson, as unfamiliar with the Bush as he is, tries to find Defago, but all he finds are bizarre tracks and then…nothing.

Simpson returns to the original camp, shaken, but determined to have the other men form a search party. Will they Defago alive, dead, or worse?

The Wendigo is a mythological beast of the Algonquian speaking tribes, usually associated with cannibalism. The Wendigo has appeared periodically in written stories from The Wilderness Hunter (Teddy Roosevelt) to Pet Sematary (Stephen King), even Margaret Atwood did a lecture on the creature. For the purposes of Blackwood’s story, the Wendigo is “quick as lightning in its trakcs, an’ bigger’n anything else in the Bush, an’ ain’t supposed to be very good to look at.” Its appearance coincides with a peculiar odour, has the ability to run in the air, and take on a human form. It also causes madness in those unfortunate enough to have tangled with it.

I found parts of The Wendigo ridiculous. The characters are caricatures: the staid Scotsman, the hilly-billy guides, even Punk the cook. The Canadian guide speaks in a laughable vernacular, Punk the native cook is ignored almost entirely by everyone. Anyone not European is shown in an unfavourable light. They’re either silly or gutless. That’s fairly standard, I suppose, for the time. Putting that aside, there is a lot to enjoy about the story. There is a scene near the end of the story that is truly hair raising; it’s worth reading just for that. Blackwood paints an accurate picture of an empty wilderness, and an atmosphere of isolation.

Even though the material for The Wendigo is more interesting, I liked the writing in  The Willows more. At about 50 pages, it's a quick read. Give it a look, just maybe not while camping.