In which a group of travelers have what can only be described as the worst camping trip ever.
By Algernon Blackwood
First published in 1910
Available from Project Gutenberg
(Warning: At three points in “The Wendigo” racist epithets are used. Unfortunately, casual bigotry often obtrudes into older popular literature, as any long-time reader of H. P. Lovecraft can tell you. If this sort of language offends you, please be aware that it occurs in this story.)
Of all the stories covered on this site, “The Wendigo” is the most frightening. If that seems like a bold claim, bear with me.
Remember when, as a callow youth, you started drinking beer? (If you aren’t a beer fan, substitute your equivalent: wine, pot, peyote, staring at a Dreamachine, whatever.) At first, it was a special thrill — not only did you get buzzed, but a new aspect of life opened to you — adulthood perhaps, or just a greater receptivity to experience.
In time, that faded. You found that you still loved beer, however; in fact, your palate had become refined, and you started to think critically about what you were consuming. You were a connoisseur.
Obviously the same thing occurs with art and literature. The first Bergman or Godzilla film is a revelation. The later ones become exercises in analysis, whether we want them to be or not.
(NOTE: Yes, I do watch Godzilla films, and think about them in the context of the eras in which they were made. This is because I’m strange).
When you reach this point with beer, movies, or anything else, it takes a strong jolt to move you back toward that initial early thrill. And for me, when it comes to supernatural short stories, “The Wendigo” is that jolt.
It’s clear that I’m setting myself up for failure here. After all, scariness is subjective; what petrifies me might elicit a yawn from you. Still, I think I’m fairly safe, because this story is scary as hell.
Before we continue, I’ll prevent you from making an unnecessary Wikipedia lookup. A wendigo is a monster from the mythology of the Algonquian peoples, especially those in the northern Canadian tribes. A frostbitten revenant with a taste for human flash, a wendigo is like one of the speedy zombies from 28 Days Later, but with dangerous sentience added. I’d rather go up against a slow-moving Walking Dead-style walker than a wendigo any day, not that such scenarios keep me up worrying at night. Much.
(I should also mention that despite the strong linkage of cannibalism with this legend, there’s none of that in “The Wendigo.”)
As with so many later horror stories, “The Wendigo” opens with a group of friends vacationing in the woods. Among these is a Scottish divinity student named merely “Simpson,” because Scotsmen are too badass to have first names, and the party’s guide, Joseph Défago. Défago is a backwoods Québécois straight from central casting, but he’s not so much of a stereotype that it gets in the way.
It’s the last week in October during a “shy moose year,” which means that the largest members of the deer family aren’t presenting themselves for shooting quite as readily as they used to. Not only that, but there’s an ominous atmosphere in general. Défago, a long-time forest guide, seems ill-at-ease, although he’s trying to hide it behind bluster.
The party decides that the next day they’ll split into two groups in order to look for the missing moose. Simpson and Défago go east, heading for a lake called “Fifty Island Water.” It’s here that “The Wendigo” becomes idyllic, without losing it’s ominousness. For example, occasionally Défago vanishes into the woods, to Simpson’s discomfort:
“His small figure melted away like a shadow in the dusk, while Simpson noted with a kind of admiration how easily the forest absorbed him into herself. A few steps, it seemed, and he was no longer visible.
“Yet there was little underbrush hereabouts; the trees stood somewhat apart, well spaced; and in the clearings grew silver birch and maple, spearlike and slender, against the immense stems of spruce and hemlock. But for occasional prostrate monsters, and the boulders of grey rock that thrust uncouth shoulders here and there out of the ground, it might well have been a bit of park in the Old Country. Almost, one might have seen in it the hand of man. A little to the right, however, began the great burnt section, miles in extent, proclaiming its real character—brulé, as it is called, where the fires of the previous year had raged for weeks, and the blackened stumps now rose gaunt and ugly, bereft of branches, like gigantic match heads stuck into the ground, savage and desolate beyond words. The perfume of charcoal and rain-soaked ashes still hung faintly about it.”
This area proves to be as devoid of moose as the rest of the countryside. Défago is clearly disturbed by this, and again tries to put up a front. He also makes cryptic allusions to odd smells without saying what he really means.
Later that night, in their tent, Simpson is awakened multiple times by Défago’s strange movements, and his sobbing. Shortly after that, something horrifying takes place, and Simpson is forced to make his way through hostile terrain in hopes of finding his guide, who was taken under bizarre circumstances…
“The Wendigo” points ahead to two dark fantasy tropes:
- First is the hardcore ambiguity of Robert Aickman and Shirley Jackson, in which we’re at the mercy of an incomprehensible universe that wants to get at us for reasons we can only guess at.
- The second is that horror cinema meme which pits a small group of travelers against a deeply hostile forest — think of Equinox, The Evil Dead, The Blair Witch Project, The Last Broadcast, Cabin Fever, and The Cabin in the Woods. “The Wendigo” is their spiritual grandfather.
In any case, every few years I reread “The Wendigo.” And every time, it gets me. Perhaps it’ll have the same effect on you.
(As a final note, I’d like to share one of my favorite illustrations from the original Weird Tales. It’s a two-page spread by Matt Fox for a 1944 reprint of “The Wendigo.” While the wendigo is never described in Blackwood’s story, I do think that he’d look something like this.)
(Click image to enlarge.)