Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Willows, The River, the Woods.

Across the road from my house, there’s a tongue of wooded greenbelt – Chorlton Ees, Ivygreen, Hardy Farm, heading up the river into Didsbury then Northenden. In the summer, I run in the woods. Yesterday, I was pounding along my route as the sun dropped.
 I won’t be running out there again until the spring.
Ever since I read Algernon Blackwood’s ace supernatural tale The Willows, I’ve been spooked by woodland. In The Willows, a pair of intrepid canoeists are trapped by the whirling eddies of the Danube and forced to drag their boat ashore in a wild marshland of shifting islands which change size and shape in the flood. As dusk approaches, they see something unnameable pass them in the roaring water – an otter, they think, but effortlessly swimming against the tide. They set up camp for the night, surrounded by stunted willows all clattering in the wind. Strange things start happening. They spend a tortuous night on the island. In the morning, their boat has been punctured; a perfectly symmetrical hole, as if drilled, plum in its base. They spend a day repairing it, and a second night on the shifting island of willows. I won’t even revisit what happens that second night. Like Blair Witch – like any countless number of nightmare forests in fairytales and folktales – these woods become a dark, uncertain state of half shadow and psychological horror.
It’s partly about being lost, I think, and partly about that Freudian thing where the landscape becomes representative of the Id or something. Whatever you see in the woods you fear is really part of yourself. It’s something else too – the urbanite’s fear of the wild, the lunatic deregulation out there in the blackness where there aren’t any shops or streetlights. When a creative writing tutor asked us to write a horror story, I came up with ‘The River, the Woods’, in which an army of foxes emerge from the wilderness surrounding a hospital, and eat a guy in the car-park. I’ve just re-read it now. Christ, it’s a stinker! But I stand by its representation of nocturnal woodland.
This Saturday in The Times Sean Locke, the comedian, was asked about ‘the secret of comedy’, and he admitted that he often dreams of finding a suitcase full of brilliant jokes abandoned in the woods. And he tells these jokes, and wins scores of comedy awards for his fabulous new material. But he feels hollow and is forced to eventually admit the source of his success. So even when you find something good out there in the woods, it turns out bad. (Ever seen ‘A Simple Plan’, the Sam Raimi thriller? Same thing.)
In conclusion then – I’ll be jogging under streetlight for the winter. I may not find the next great 21st century novel in a suitcase, but at least I won’t be eaten alive by rabid foxes...

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