Writing this column is occasionally daunting. I often grapple with the unfortunate reality that not only is it impossible for me to completely cover every important horror/spec fic writer, it’s also hard to read everything written by the writers I highlight. In some cases — writers with modest outputs, or contemporary writers I’ve been reading right along — that’s not such a difficulty.
However, with other writers, such as the focus of today’s column — Algernon Blackwood — I simply have to be content with believing I’ve read enough of their work to offer an informed opinion and recommendation. Even so, there’s still that little irrational insecurity (anyone who knows me knows I’m nothing more than a bundle of irrational insecurities) someone will pipe up in the comments, “Oh, but have you read THIS story by INSERT AUTHOR NAME HERE? You haven’t? Oh.”
I suppose that’s not likely (it’s also me assigning undue importance to this column), but in case someone is thinking that, I can say this: though I haven’t read every story Algernon Blackwood wrote, I’ve read enough for his work to have had a large impact on my own writing. I believe that if you’re a reader or a writer of quiet, atmospheric horror and weird fiction, investigating Blackwood’s work could have an impact on you, also.
Perhaps Blackwood’s greatest skill was weaving tales which take place on the hazy line between a mundane reality and a surreal borderland where unknown wonder and horror await in equal measure. Much like the work of Robert Aikman, Blackwood’s work finds its roots in a tangible, grounded realism. The verisimilitude he invokes in his stories makes the strange and unbelievable all the more plausible. His characters are often normal people going about very average lives, until they unwittingly cross over some invisible line into a strange world in which the forces of strange elements rear their heads and make themselves known.
He’s also a vivid Naturalist, often depicting his characters as encountering the unexplained in the midst of nature (the mountains, the woods, river valleys), a nature which they, through one way or another, have been granted a greater, supernatural access to. In some ways, Blackwood’s work evokes shades of Lovecraft’s in that his characters very often touch something Other in remote, natural places, and are often left dumbfounded and quaking in its presence. Unlike Lovecraft’s tales of cosmic horror, however, Blackwood’s stories don’t always end in characters succumbing to a mind-shattering horror which leaves them broken and gibbering in madness. Very often they experience a transcendence which leaves them shaken but in some ways in awe of what they’ve encountered.
That’s not to say that there’s no horror in Blackwood’s nature-bound stories. In “The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” a man named Sanderson harbors a deep love for nature. He paints trees, he loves trees, and spends hours wandering the forest around his estate, communing with the trees.
At first Sanderson’s wife tolerates his love for nature, even though she doesn’t understand it. However, her fear is sparked when a visiting environmentalist imparts the disconcerting notion to her husband that trees and Nature are not only alive in the biological sense, they also possess sentience. An essence. They are aware of us, know us…and though they live in peace with us, they are not allied with us.
From that moment on, Sanderson becomes increasingly obsessed with walking in the woods. He leaves early in the morning and doesn’t return until dusk. He rarely speaks to his wife anymore, withdrawing further into himself. He even considers canceling their annual trip abroad, simply because he can’t pull himself away from his beloved trees.
All the while, his wife senses something pressing in from the forest. She dares not go out among the trees herself because of this. Whenever she looks to the treeline, she fends off the notion they are encroaching upon their land, growing closer to the manor. She can find no solace, not even in her faith in God, because she fears something Other in that force which has claimed her husband, something outside man and God.
Throughout much of this story, we see nothing. Just trees and the treeline, but Blackwood instills an atmosphere of something more lingering just beyond our vision. Something we can’t quite see directly but can sense is there. This meticulously constructed atmosphere shows very little, but inspires unease all the same.
He achieves this to even greater effect in his most well-known story “The Willows.” In it, two men travel down the Danube River. They land on a sandy island in the middle of the river to camp for the night. Immediately, they are impressed by the aura of the place. The wind, the water itself, and especially the groves of willows. During their stay, the two men are besieged by sounds around them at night. Tapping on the tent. Rustling in the willows. When they peer out of their tents to see what’s causing the sounds, shadows dart from the corners of their eyes.
When they wake in the morning, they’re haunted by the certainty the willows have moved closer to their tents. Strange sabotage to their boat detains them on the island. One of them, a Swede, becomes increasingly convinced they have “trespassed” somewhere “not meant for man.” He comes to believe whatever holds them there demands sacrifice before they’ll be released. He even tries to offer himself as such, attempting to dive into the river. The concept is repeatedly advanced by the Swede that the island is an intersection between dimensions. A place no human should abide.
Blackwood does a masterful job in this story showing the reader nearly nothing. He imbues an utterly prosaic setting with cosmic menace. There’s something there, yes…but it is beyond us and above us. It exists in realm outside human understanding.
Patches of nature which exist in some in-between realm abound in Blackwood’s work. The story “Initiation” tells the tale of a man who, at the behest of a younger relative who bears a startling resemblance to an ancestor schooled in the occult, stumbles into a strange and wondrous place deep in the woods. In his customary lyrical prose — rich, flowing, but never quite verging on turgid or purple — Blackwood crafts an atmosphere of something magical, transcendent, Other, but also, in its own way, horrifying. Our unnamed first person narrator is at once awe-struck and rapturous, but also overwhelmed and terrified at touching something which he cannot fully comprehend.
However, not all of Blackwood’s stories traffic in vague “Natural Cosmic Horror.” In some of his tales, very specific beings haunt the woods and pose an existential threat to any mortals daring to trespass. There is, of course, his classic tale “The Wendigo.” And, in “The Trod,” Blackwood crafts an entrancing tale of faerie troops and the dangers of walking along their path, lest they be swept up into a soulless, rapturous eternity with them. In “The Touch of Pan,” two lovers come across a Dionysian reveling of unnatural, unearthly creatures in the middle of the forest, in which they very nearly lose themselves, forever.
Many of Blackwood’s stories also feature characters who, by force of will alone, invoke unnatural and supernatural forces. In “The Wings of Horus,” a man consumed with Egyptian myth – a man who feels as if he doesn’t fit in anywhere, and has no place in the modern world – transforms himself into an avatar of the Egyptian god Horus, through his consuming desire to fly like the gods. In “The Sacrifice,” a man facing financial and professional ruin believes he encounters some magical Other high in the snowy reaches in the mountains behind the inn he stays at, and returns from this experience changed, empowered, ready to face the future, regardless of what awaits him.
Blackwood also wrote powerful, human-centered ghost stories. His novelette The Damned offers an interesting take on stained ground haunted by a lingering presence. Bill and Francis, a writer and his artist sister, are invited to spend time with their old friend Mabel Franklyn on her and her deceased husband’s estate out in the country. They are, at first, eager to do so, because they’d fallen out of touch with Mabel after her marriage to Samuel Franklyn, a stern, unforgiving religious fundamentalist.
However, it’s not long before the siblings sense something wrong with their surroundings. They feel a looming presence everywhere. In the towers of Mabel’s stately manor. In the rooms, out in the decorative gardens. Francis finds herself compelled to paint dark and brooding renditions of the manor and the gardens. Pictures she finds revolting, despite their technical perfection. Bill is unable to write, repressed by some overshadowing presence. Mabel wanders the manor, seemingly bereft of life and will.
Bill and Francis’ first thought is that the spirit of Samuel Franklyn has stained Mabel’s estate. The overbearing shadow seems consistent with the man he was in life. Judgmental and condemning of everyone who didn’t agree with his narrow theological views. However, they come to believe something even worse.
For whatever reason, the entire valley the manor resides in has become populated with spirits of religious repression over the years. Rather than a haunting of one spirit, they are suffering from the haunting of layers of spirits, all of which are striving for dominance over the other, just as they sought dominance over others and other ideologies in life.
Place is tied to memory. Blackwood understands this well, and his ghost stories hum with this understanding.
Two other Blackwood ghost stories of note are “The Other Wing” and “The Attic.” Both offer hauntings which pose mysteries for protagonists to puzzle out, instead of spirits seeking vengeance for past crimes. “The Other Wing” is the story of young boy who believes his great grandfather haunts an abandoned wing of his large home. All he wants is an old cane of his, a former prized possession, now hanging on the wall of the boy’s father’s office. The boy delivers the cane to his ghostly grandfather, and years later, when the boy is grown and married and owns the home, the same ghost warns him of a fire in the night, saving his life. “The Attic” is about a nursery haunted by the ghost of an infant, and when the main character’s child dies in that same room, that ghost leads the other ghost away, allowing it to “cross over.”
If I had the time and space, I could discuss a dozen more of Blackwood’s stories, but even then, I wouldn’t be able to cover everything he wrote. Suffice to say, Blackwood’s work has had a powerful impact on my own. Like Aickman’s “strange stories,” Blackwood’s tales inhabit a shadowy region between reality and fantasy, life and death, light and shadow. While occasionally dated in its depiction of females and masculinity, his tales of the supernatural and strange are both haunting and transcendent at the same time. Also, as I’ve said, his prose strikes a perfect balance. It’s rhythmic, flowing, vivid, without ever becoming too dense or unwieldy. If quiet horror and weird fiction is something you love to read or wish to write, you could do much worse than to sit at Blackwood’s feet and learn your lessons.
Kevin Lucia’s short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, most recently with Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Bentley Little, Peter Straub and Robert McCammon. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014, Through A Mirror, Darkly, June 2015, and and his second short story collection, Things You Need, September 2018. His novella Mystery Road was published by Cemetery Dance Publications in May 2020. For three free ebooks, sign up for his monthly newsletter at www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com.