What’s that smell?
As Algonquin legend would have it, the frozen forests of Canada are home to the Wendigo, a malignant Yeti-like spirit that heaps fear and misfortune upon all who encounter it. Stephen King touched on the Wendigo in Pet Sematary and Marvel Comics based a villain on it, but Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” remains one of the most interesting fictional treatments of Canada’s best-known monster next to Céline Dion.
Blackwood spent some time in Canada as a young man and drew on the experience in crafting this classic tale of supernatural terror. Deep in the Canadian wilds, while Dr. Cathcart and his nephew Simpson are engaged in an extended but fruitless moose hunt with their local guides, Hank and Défago, the party decides to split up in search of game. Défago, however, exhibits pronounced but unvoiced reservations about taking Simpson across the lake into Fifty Island Water, the area of a forest fire some years past. He eventually relents in a fit of bravado, but that night, when all lie sleeping, a horrible and unearthly smell rides on the wind from the direction of his destination. The parties set out the following morning and the fun begins.
Cryptozoologists cite that the legend of the Wendigo carries many details consistent with accounts of hairy hominids across the globe. The Wendigo of this tale is no Bigfoot. It is a force of malice that wields strange intelligence and an unknown peril more frightening than death.
Under Blackwood’s masterful hand, the vast isolation of the Canadian wilderness seems not so much a setting or backdrop as a threatening physical presence of which the Wendigo is only an extension. As Défago says of the woods when they first set camp, “There’s no end to ’em—no end at all,” and his words carry all the weight of a nightmare.
Now, a century later, Blackwood’s prose remains more compelling and readable than many modern authors’, despite the occasional overly long sentence, lost cultural reference or racial slur that was common in his day. “The Wendigo” is perhaps not the strongest representation of his work, but it is forever and undeniably ... set in Canada.