As we close in on the end of the Great Month of October, it would be remiss of me not to pay further homage to my favorite author of the weird tale, Algernon Blackwood. He has made possible a good deal of my fiction, such as my Gothic horror story “The Shredded Tapestry.” That piece wouldn’t exist without two of his John Silence stories, “Ancient Sorceries” and “Secret Worship.”
Earlier this month, I looked at Blackwood’s fourth collection of stories, The Lost Valley. Today, I’m rolling back a few years. Blackwood’s second original collection of (mostly) supernatural tales, The Listener and Others, was published in 1907, following the success of The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories the previous year. The Listener is best known for the novella “The Willows,” often cited as Blackwood’s masterpiece. The collection also contains a first-rate non-supernatural suspense story and a running theme about characters suffering from the oppression of the everyday and longing to escape from it into Nature (always with a capital “N”)—a theme as close to Blackwood’s heart as anything in his life. The often nameless protagonists are trapped in a modern psychical emptiness that feels surprisingly like the early twenty-first century rather than the early twentieth.
The main characters in most of the stories are thinly veiled versions of Algernon Blackwood. “His dreams were of the open air, of mountains, forests, and great plains, of the sea, and of the lonely places of the world,” we hear of the protagonist of “The Dance of Death.” This is an exact description of Blackwood’s own dreams. Thankfully, unlike a number of his unlucky characters, Blackwood had the chance to realize his dreams of Nature through his extensive travels, many which furnished him with the fuel for stories like “The Willows.”
The title story gets the collection going with a traditional ghost tale. The first of our unnamed protagonists takes up rooms in a London house to write articles for periodicals and also work on poetry and a novel. The events are conveyed through diary entries, recording mundane events, the narrator’s own suspicions concerning his mental state, and possible supernatural occurrences. “The Listener” eventually reaches a conventional conclusion for a haunting tale, but the narrator’s inner conflict over his sanity, somnambulism, and an invasion of dark and violent thoughts are eerily effective.
The first Blackwood collection I read, The Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood (Dover, 1973), ended with the next story, “Max Hensig—Bacteriologist and Murderer.” Editor E. F. Bleiler apologized in his introduction for including a non-supernatural tale, but argued it was too good to allow to fade into obscurity. He was right: “Max Hensig” is a suspense thriller similar to the type Cornell Woolrich would write thirty years later, and it’s an exceptional work outside of Blackwood’s usual weird tales territory. Blackwood used his background as a New York Times reporter in the 1890s and his work on the murder case of Carlyle Harris, a doctor who poisoned his wife with morphine, to create this story of a reporter’s close encounter with a psychopathic bacteriologist who brags about his ability to kill anyone without leaving evidence. The suspenseful finale is wonderful, as are the details of turn-of-the-century New York City journalism. Most impressive is how the story plumbs the depths of the psychological state of fear, which Blackwood describes with the same power he used for his supernatural explorations of the human mind expanding into other realms. “Mex Hensig” may be a crime thriller, but it is one hundred percent Algernon Blackwood.
Ah, “The Willows.” The most famous and anthologized of the author’s work and one of the defining works of the weird. I prefer “The Wendigo” on my list of Blackwood favorites—the frozen forest backdrop sets off my terror senses—but “The Willows” is definitely a masterpiece. Blackwood based it on a canoe trip he took down the Danube in 1901. For the story, he translates the awe of the great river into an encounter with powers from the Outside. Two unnamed canoers, the Blackwood stand-in and “The Swede,” beach their canoe on a small island in the Danube among the unpopulated swamp regions south of Budapest. They come to the slow realization that antagonistic forces, of which the great willows are a “mask” or “symbol,” are trying to locate them:
It was a spot held by the dwellers in some outer space, a peep-hole whence they could spy upon the earth, themselves unseen, a point where the veil between had worn a little thin. As a final result of too long a sojourn here, we should be carried over the border and deprived of what we called “our lives,” yet by mental, not physical, processes. In that sense … we should be the victims of our adventure—sacrifice.
As in the best of Blackwood, “The Willows” is filled with utter conviction at what is happening. Blackwood may not have actually experienced a confrontation with outside entities on the Danube, but he believes he might have. There’s no pretense in the writing, and the turmoil of people facing an indescribable existential horror is shown as an absolute, annihilating reality.
Reincarnation is a recurring theme for Blackwood, and “The Insanity of Jones” is an early and violent visitation to the idea. Although numinous terror is the type most associated with Blackwood, he could channel extreme ugliness when he wished. The titular John Enderby Jones, a clerk in a London fire insurance company, knows he’s only one ordinary incarnation of many—and believes his current role is to balance accounts with those he met in previous lives. The main account he must balance, he discovers from an encounter with a spirit of a man he aided in an early life, is either the punishment or forgiveness of his awful boss. In a story from later in Blackwood’s career, Jones would’ve picked forgiveness. Here, he picks the other thing. It’s probably the most shocking work in the collection because of how harshly the finale goes against conventional ideas of spiritualism.
“The Dance of Death” is a short piece where the figure of the depressed wage worker in London returns. Browne has learned he has a weak heart, which shatters his dreams of escape into the wilderness. Despite his doctor’s warnings, Browne seeks release from his depression at a local dance—an unusual location for Blackwood—and find himself entranced with a mystery woman in a dark green dress. Readers will sense where this is going long before the conclusion. But it’s the performance that matters, and Blackwood’s combination of tragedy and release for the man trapped in drab urban life is moving.
The briefest story is more a sketch than story: “The Old Man of Visions.” The narrator, a seeker of wisdom, finds a strange old man who seems untethered from normal life, a man of great visions who becomes a mentor until the narrator mistakenly shuts the door on the supernatural passageway between them. It’s difficult to describe, since the story functions almost entirely as sensation descriptions of the old man and how the main character perceives him.
The narrator of “May Day Eve” is a pragmatist who takes a journey across the moors to see his friend, an old folklorist (that’s all he’s ever called). But early in the journey, the epiphany so common to Blackwood stories strikes: the narrator perceives Nature for the first time—and nothing can be the same afterwards. He goes through a strange encounter with the fay at a cottage along the road, and only when he finds the folklorist does he have an explanation for his experiences, the date of the title.
The final two stores switch to women for protagonists and return to traditional “haunted place” tales. The delightfully titled “Miss Slumbubble—And Claustrophobia” sends a little woman off on her annual vacation, which is the only tiny pleasure she gets in a lonely life. But she suffers a strange panic attack in the empty train carriage at the beginning of her trip. A ghostly explanation for the fit eventually arrives, but the story succeeds because of how well Blackwood draws Miss Slumbubble, a small person in a world that has become large and frightening. Her claustrophobia and fear of men are parts of a bigger picture of isolation Blackwood understood too well. And, of course, the one place she find happiness is in the Alps, one of Blackwood’s favorite places.
“The Woman’s Ghost Story” closes the collection with a narrator directly addressing a room of listeners about her experience when she agreed to spend a night in a supposedly haunted house to write an article. The story she tells isn’t a slow build—the ghost comes right out to confront her and beg for release through emotion. It’s interesting how little atmosphere the story has, but the narrator say she intends that because she won’t add any “unessentials” to her tale. The story works because of how it upends expectations of how ghosts act, and how physical rather than numinous the ghost appears. The ghost is another of Blackwood’s poor souls for whom daily fear was too much—ending the volume on the theme that carried so much of it.