WFR’s 101 Weird Writers #19 — Algernon Blackwood

Strange Wilderness in "The Willows"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Algernon_BlackwoodAlgernon Blackwood (1869 — 1951) was a prolific English writer best known for his supernatural horror. In tales such as “The Willows” (1908) unease is generated by ambiguity that mixes the weird with a talent for writing about wild or rural places — a break with the past and the classic haunted house. Although Lovecraft thought Blackwood a master of the ghost story, Blackwood famously was not as impressed with Lovecraft. Noted critic S. T. Joshi has stated that Blackwood’s short story collection Incredible Adventures “may be the premier weird collection” of the twentieth century. Along with Alfred Kubin and F. Marion Crawford, among others, Blackwood helped usher in the modern era of weird fiction. 101 Weird Writers is delighted to present this appreciation of Blackwood and “The Willows,” written by our newest contributor, James Machin.

- Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”

***

Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood’s genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences’ –  H. P. Lovecraft[1]

Tennyson, you remember, says, “the cedars sigh for Lebanon,” and that is exquisite poetry, but Blackwood believes the cedars really do sigh for Lebanon and that […] is damned nonsense!’ — Arthur Machen[2]

 

Algernon Blackwood was born a high Victorian and died a television star. He is now usually remembered, if at all, as a writer of atmospheric Edwardian ghost stories, who, through his creation John Silence, provides a link between Le Fanu’s Van Hesselius and Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki in the literary history of the psychic detective.[3] However, this is a misleading and reductive approach to take to his bewilderingly prodigious output. It might be a fair presumption to make that he is the only one of the 101 Weird Writers whose work has directly inspired a successful West End musical. Over the course of his long life he acquired a mere suitcase-full of possessions, and most of his accumulated paperwork was destroyed in a direct hit on his nephew’s house during the blitz, a disaster from which Blackwood himself was extremely fortunate to escape with life and limb intact. His bildungsroman was the flight from the repressive doctrine of his father’s evangelical Christianity by means of clandestine investigations into Buddhism, the Baghavad and Blavatsky’s theosophy; from the stern discipline and claustrophobia of his schooling at the hands of the Moravian Brotherhood at the edge of the Black Forest, into the solemn immensity of the wildwood itself: ‘he saw the narrow slit windows with the vistas of enticing field and forest beyond’.[4] His escape route would eventually lead him to the sublime elevations of the Alps and the desolate, snowy expanses of the American north. These tensions between domesticity and wilderness, between society and nature, between God and Nature, established so early, created resonances that exerted an enduring fascination over his life and dominated his work. In both he seems constantly tossed back and forth between their unresolved opposition.

His youth was an itinerant one of false starts and frustration, interspersed with immersions in the wilderness whenever an opportunity presented itself. He crossed the Atlantic to credulously pursue failed business interests; dairy farmer and hotelier; a short, miserable spell as a journalist in a New York still under the squalid shadow of Tamany Hall; the publication of occasional magazine pieces; successfully playing at being a Pinkerton man and tracking down and presenting to the police a sleazy business partner who had brazenly defrauded him over a course of months. When desperate, he would occasionally pick up work as an artist’s model, once being painted by Robert W. Chambers, whose fictional, nebulously baleful play ‘The King in Yellow’ inspired Lovecraft’s infamous Necronomicon.[5] Over a winter Blackwood experimented with morphine, but by spring the call of the wild proved the more powerful drug and he left the city once again to hunt, fish and canoe in the forests of upstate New York. By his late thirties he had acquired the deeply tanned and lived-in skin of the trapper, a sun-lightened and piercing gaze, and a skill at expertly holding the listeners’ attention with a hunting anecdote or an allegedly authentic ghost story, or the combination thereof upon which his reputation as an acknowledged master was eventually built. He returned to England lured by the offer of a near sinecure with a dried milk company, but the chance discovery by a friend of a drawer full of Blackwood’s manuscripts led to their publication. His third anthology, John Silence – Physician Extraordinaire­, was promoted by an innovative advertising campaign which saw the beatific gaze of that most pleasant of occult detectives emanating from vast advertising hoardings across London, and led to immediate commercial success and a generous advance on future royalties. Almost by chance, Blackwood found himself, by then nearing forty, a professional writer.

S.T. Joshi argues for a ‘tripartite distinction of [Blackwood’s] stories by type: stories of awe, stories of horror, and stories of childhood’. Ignoring, for the purposes of this essay, the last category, it still remains difficult to bifurcate the remainder of Blackwood’s oeuvre precisely between the first two, and as Joshi certainly acknowledges, Blackwood at his most potent expertly comingles both awe and horror to profoundly unsettling effect. This is never more evident than in ‘The Willows’ (1907), possibly the most widely anthologised of Blackwood’s stories (followed closely by 1910’s ‘The Wendigo’), and if not exactly representative of his variegated output, it is perhaps the story in which Blackwood’s powers are most astutely and artistically deployed. Beginning as a genteel Mittel European travelogue chronicling the months-long canoe trip of two men along the Danube, Blackwood expertly strips away the quotidian from the engulfing landscape until, by its climax, it is perhaps a near perfect exposition of Lovecraft’s idealised ‘true Weird Tale’:

A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space.[6]

This describes almost exactly the cumulative power of ‘The Willows’, and the experience of its protagonists, who, with the shifting wetlands of the Danube delta slowly disintegrating beneath their feet, witness the fabric of reality being relentlessly tested by a vague and oppressively hostile outer force. However, Blackwood shuns what China Miéville describes as the ‘teratology’ of the ‘haute Weird’; the liminal antagonists in ‘The Willows’ are tenebrous and obscure, in the tradition of Fitz James O’Brien’s ‘What Was It’, Guy de Maupassant’s ‘Le Horla’ and Ambrose Bierce’s ‘The Damned Thing’. They are like Borges’s entity in his Lovecraft homage ‘There Are More Things’, which reveals its anatomy only ‘implicitly, like an animal’s or a god’s, by its shadow’. Even when directly witnessed by the narrator, we are given little more information than that they are vague ‘shapes’ or ‘presences’. For the most part they are detected by implication alone; in the unaccountable stirrings of the foliage with which they are in sinister allegiance, in the inexplicable rent in the canoe that otherwise might provide a means of escape, and in ‘deep hollows formed in the sand […] basin-shaped and of various depths and sizes, varying from that of a tea-cup to a large bowl’. Perhaps the tangible, tentacular monsters of the haute Weird are redundant when landscape itself undergoes such a disconcerting transmutation:

[The willows] kept up a sort of independent movement of their own, rustling among themselves when no wind stirred, and shaking oddly from the roots upwards. When common objects in this way become charged with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of unusual appearance.

This weird immanence is difficult to account for in hauntological terms; Blackwood’s wildernesses are ahistorical and the ‘weird entities have waited in their […] outer circles of space since aeons before humanity’.[7] Simon Hay subsequently struggles to plausibly account for ‘The Willows’ in his otherwise cogent hauntological reading of the Victorian and Edwardian ghost story, and in the end concedes that the ‘story is an unusual ghost story in that it has no interest in the question of the past and how we inherit it; no interest in history, understood as such.’[8] Following Miéville’s insistent advice to ‘stay sharp’ on ‘teratological specificity’, one would have to also acknowledge that ‘The Willows’ includes no mention of ghosts and therefore shouldn’t be considered a ghost story at all.[9] Similarly, despite being set geographically proximate to the homeland of the old-world revenants of Dracula, because of its ahistoricity, it seems absurd to parse ‘The Willows’ in this context either. Another approach, and one that is certainly commensurate with Blackwood’s life as well as his writing, is to situate his use of landscape within the frame of new world, colonial anxieties.

Marcus Clarke, in his 1879 introduction to a collection of Australian poetry, says of the hostile, depopulated wildernesses of Australia that in them ‘is to be found the Grotesque, the Weird, the strange scribblings of nature learning how to write’.[10] Gerry Turcotte has associated these geographical liminalities with ‘a fear of being negated, stripped of identity, or blanked out in a land “without history”’.[11] This terror of engulfment seems a consistent one in much of Blackwood’s writing, and potently imbricates two anxieties — colonial and religious – which resonate and amplify each other, each serving as the other’s metaphor. Although raised in an atmosphere of stern and repressive evangelical Christianity, from an early age Blackwood indulged in an illicit autodidactic education in eastern religion. He enthusiastically engaged with the fin de siècle occult scene and Buddhism before arriving at his own brand of theosophical pantheism. The shift of focus of the Christian obsession with the continuation of personality after death, of an everlasting, infinite ‘I’, finds its polar opposite in the Buddhist aspiration for the extinction or assimilation of the ego, its absorption into the whole. This concept can appall as much as appeal, and Blackwood’s weird stories can subsequently be read as expressions of a sublimated dread of the world view he ostensibly rejected Christianity to subscribe to. In ‘The Wendigo’, although the trapper Défago does eventually go mad and die, the focus of the horror of the story is almost entirely on his absorption by the illimitable wilderness, depicted to be, as it was for the early settlers, a threatening, predatory entity as much as a liberating, emancipating blank canvas upon which to paint a new life. The wilderness (the colonial frontier) ‘swallows up’ as much as it provides an opportunity for self-fulfilment. It is not only absorbent but conscious and grasping. When Défago, seduced by a maniacal wanderlust, returns from his grotesque frolic in the ‘fiery heights’, it is in body only. His personality seems to be entirely absent; and this, more than his hideously deformed, charred feet, inspires the horror of his companions:

You ain’t Défaygo! You ain’t Défaygo at all! I don’t give a — damn, but that ain’t you, my ole pal of twenty years!” He glared upon the huddled figure as though he would destroy him with his eyes. “An’ if it is I’ll swab the floor of hell with a wad of cotton wool on a toothpick, s’help me the good Gawd!” he added, with a violent fling of horror and disgust. It was impossible to silence him. He stood there shouting like one possessed, horrible to see, horrible to hear — because it was the truth.

The ultimate expression of this trope in Blackwood’s fiction is ‘The Man Who the Trees Loved’, where the inexorable ‘amalgamation’ of Mr Betticy by the collective consciousness of the forest is as awful as it is terrifying; and is one that is both set in opposition to his wife’s Christianity and explicitly linked to his seduction by the jungles of India, while working at the edge of the Empire. This anxiety about the ambiguity of man’s place in the natural world was one that must have been keenly felt by Blackwood, whose obsession with the wilderness was accompanied by a troubled acceptance that the significance of the individual must be in inverse proportion to the exaltedness of Nature. Here, his Buddhism and his love of the natural world comingled into a fearful awe, an emotional perspective expertly articulated in his stories. His Sensucht for the sublime landscape is ultimately unfulfilable, since it could only be sated by his extinction in nirvana.

This ambivalence provides a regular equipoise to the more visionary flights of mystical yearning of the protagonist O’Malley in The Centaur, a novel cited by Joshi as a key text through which to understand Blackwood’s world view. It is as much an exposition as a narrative, regularly quoting great swathes of Gustav Fechner and William James, and promulgating something approaching a Gaia hypothesis of sentient planethood through the experiences of O’Malley (clearly a proxy for Blackwood himself). O’Malley travels to the Caucuses in the company of an Urmensch; a ‘Cosmic Being’, both pre-modern and more highly developed than the ‘thick human crowds [who] stain the world with all their strife and clamour’. Again, the risk O’Malley exposes himself to is the loss of personality. The price of enlightenment and connection with the Earth’s ‘super-consciousness’ is engulfment: ‘Complete surrender would involve somehow a disintegration, a dissociation of his personality that carried with it the loss of personal identity.’ Throughout the novel, O’Malley oscillates between an unbearable yearning to achieve ‘genuine cosmic consciousness’ and an equally acute dread of the implications of its attainment; for ‘this, surely, was the inner catastrophe that he dreaded, the radical internal dislocation of his personality’. As so often in Blackwood’s writing, the threat to O’Malley is one of absorption and amalgamation within a greater, overwhelming whole, rather than death or madness. This is perhaps a key differentiation that can be made between his writing and that of his actual and approximate contemporaries. Lovecraft’s sanity-shattering ontological paradigm shifts and Machen’s drawing back of the veil on the adumbral numinous are not entirely absent, but the focus is on the annihilation of the ego; the loss of personality; engulfment.

When Blackwood became a best-selling writer, he at last achieved a livelihood that no longer impinged on his wanderlust. In fact, it gave him the means to indulge in it freely. Seasons could be spent in the Alps, and trips to Egypt, the Caucuses and Eastern Europe were both facilitated by his work and fed directly back into it. The Great War saw him volunteering in the Red Cross and there were rumours of espionage under the auspices of John Buchan (whose own weird tales deserve to be far more widely read). In the 1920s, Blackwood studied at Fontainebleau with Gurdjieff, whose Meetings With Remarkable Men shares some of the vision of Blackwood’s The Centaur. As the century progressed, Blackwood’s weird output dropped off, and his later writing focussed more on children’s fiction and whimsy, including a theatrical collaboration with Elgar  (The Starlight Express – later regurgitated by Andrew Lloyd Weber as a popular 80s musical). Like many of his literary avatars, Blackwood made a point of avoiding the accumulation of possessions. This unfortunately seemed to include personal wealth, and after his initial success and comfort, financial troubles persisted into his dotage. His last bow was as a popular broadcaster; his twinkling avuncular eyes, striking features and whiff of the exotic combined with his prodigious gifts as a story teller made him a natural and instantly popular star of the new medium of television. Alas, recordings of the broadcasts with which he entranced a rapt nation seem lost to perpetuity. The stories themselves, thankfully, are not.

 


[1] H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (Dover Publications, 1973).

[2] Starrett, Born in a Bookshop (University Of Oklahoma Press, 1965), pp. 248 – 49.

[3] Julia Briggs, Night Visitors: Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 60.

[4] Algernon Blackwood, The Complete John Silence Stories, ed. by S. T. Joshi (Dover Publications Inc., 1998). p. 145.

[5] Michael Dirda, Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One Volume Literary Education, (W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), p. 221.

[6] Lovecraft, p. 8.

[7] China Miéville, ‘M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire’, COLLAPSE, 2008, 105 – 128, p. 113.

[8] Simon Hay, A History of the Modern British Ghost Story, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 119.

[9] Another example of teratological non-specificity in Hay’s otherwise excellent book is his description of Arthur Machen as a writer of ‘ghost stories’. While Blackwood certainly did write several ghost stories, Machen produced not a single piece of fiction in his decades-long career that could accurately be described as such. Hay’s repeated references to him as a key exponent of the form are symptomatic of the prevalent critical ‘taxonomic indeterminacy’ cautioned against by Miéville in the essay quoted above.

[10] Adam Lindsay  Gordon, Poems. [Edited by Marcus A. H. Clarke.] (Mullen: Melbourne, 1887), p. 18.

[11] Gerry Turcotte, Peripheral Fear: Transformations of the Gothic in Canadian and Australian Fiction, (European Interuniversity Press, 2009).

 

 

Bibliography

Adam Lindsay  Gordon, Poems. [Edited by Marcus A. H. Clarke.] (ppviii336SMullen: London: Melbourne printed, 1887)

Ashley, Mike, Algernon Blackwood: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood, 1987)

—, Starlight Man: The Extraordinary Life of Algernon Blackwood, First Edition (Constable, 2001)

Blackwood, Ancient Sorceries & Other Weird Stories (London: Penguin, 2002)

Blackwood, Algernon, TALES OF THE UNCANNY AND SUPERNATURAL (Spring Books, 1969)

—, The Complete John Silence Stories, ed. by S. T. Joshi (Dover Publications Inc., 1998)

Briggs, Julia, Night Visitors: Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (Faber and Faber, 1977)

China Miéville, ‘M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire’, COLLAPSE, 2008, 105 – 128

Clute, John, Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror (Payseur & Schmidt, 2006)

Dirda, Michael, Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One Volume Literary Education, 1st Norton Pbk. Ed (W. W. Norton & Co., 2007)

Hay, Simon, A History of the Modern British Ghost Story, 1st edn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Joshi, S.T., The Weird Tale (Wildside Press, 2003)

Lovecraft, H. P., Supernatural Horror in Literature (Dover Publications, 1973)

Starrett, Born in a Bookshop (UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS, 1965)

Turcotte, Gerry, Peripheral Fear: Transformations of the Gothic in Canadian and Australian Fiction, 1st edn (European Interuniversity Press, 2009)

2 replies to “WFR’s 101 Weird Writers #19 — Algernon Blackwood

  1. Thanks for this article on one of my favourite writers — I didn’t know much about his life so this was interesting. ‘The Willows’ knocked me sideways when I first read it, and continues to do so each time. The setting must be one of the most evocative and original in weird fiction.

  2. I’m fascinated by the presence of Nature as an exponent of the Weird in fiction. “The Willows” is such a fine example of this; thanks for a great article.

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