Exploring the Cold, Desolate Cosmos: Algernon Blackwood
It’s impossible to talk to about Weird fiction without mentioning Algernon Blackwood. Considered one of the giants of the genre, Blackwood’s tales define weird fiction, as well as provide textbook examples of weird fiction’s slightly younger, meaner sister, cosmic horror. A contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, Blackwood actually published his most famous work, ‘The Willows’, fifteen years before any of Lovecraft’s published work. It was perhaps Lovecraft who made Blackwood even more well-known by his inclusion in Lovecraft’s long essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, saying of Blackwood: “…amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age.” Along with Arthur Machen, Blackwood is one of the few early weird fiction writers who recorded audio readings of their stories. With a career spanning through the 1940s, Blackwood’s love affair with the weird even crept into his children’s stories, reinforcing his belief that though weird fiction can evoke fear and dread, it can also provoke a sense of awe as well.
With various careers in farming, teaching, and journalism, Blackwood’s true love was the great outdoors. A skilled hiker and mountaineer, Blackwood used his own experiences with nature as the backdrop of his tales of the supernatural and although England was his home, he traveled extensively, often returning to the Swiss Alps many times throughout his life. His interest in many religions, including Buddhism, also led Blackwood to become a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, while an interest in psychology led him to spawn one of his recurring characters, the ‘psychic doctor’ John Silence—somewhat of an early ghost hunter who frequently crossed paths with the supernatural. Nearly every writer in the world has heard the old adage: Write what you know. In Blackwood’s case, he took that part of writing very seriously, making it his motto while maintaining a fine tuned sensitivity to the natural and supernatural world around us.
‘Ancient Sorceries’ is just one of the John Silence stories that bears mentioning when discussing Blackwood’s work. First collected in 1908, this was the second of the Silence tales, and maybe one of the strongest. Here we find the good doctor recounting one of the many adventures he heard about through his career. Told as a story within a story, this format allows Blackwood to both write in a very straight-forward, objective manner, as well as a more flowing, subjective and personal style. Relating the tale of one Arthur Vezin, who was crossing France by train on the way home when he becomes stuck in a strange town, it becomes known, quite quickly, that this town, and its inhabitants, is not natural at all. Blackwood starts building feeling of dread almost immediately here, and he continuously increases that feeling with each paragraph. It is interesting to note as well that Blackwood’s keen sense of description utilizes all of the senses, especially sound, and how one’s interpretation of music can heighten our perception of reality.
“There was a certain queer sense of bewitchment in it all. The music seemed to him oddly unartificial. It made him think of trees swept by the wind, of night breezes singing among wires and chimney-stacks, or in the rigging of invisible ships; or—and the simile leaped up in his thoughts with a sudden sharpness of suggestion—a chorus of animals, of wild creatures, somewhere in desolate places of the world, crying and singing as animals will, to the moon. He could fancy he heard the wailing, half-human cries of cats upon the tiles at night, rising and falling with weird intervals of sound, and this music, muffled by distance and the trees, made him think of a queer company of these creatures on some roof far away in the sky, uttering their solemn music to one another and the moon in chorus.”
Blackwood’s style here is very modern for its time, with very little ‘purple prose’ while focusing on his strengths as teller of tales. The John Silence frame story provides just the objective narrative to allow Vezin’s tale to turn stranger and creepier by the second. Many writers, including Lovecraft, used that kind of frame story to spring the real story to life, but none have done it to the degree of Blackwood. Instead of the concept failing and becoming more a crutch, here it becomes just enough of the main story to flow naturally without compromising the intent, producing a nightmarish style full of fright and paranoia.
Of all of Blackwood’s stories, it is the aforementioned ‘The Willows’ that is his most famous and noted works though. Sometime during the earlier 1900s, it is known that Blackwood undertook several canoeing trips along the Danube in Central Europe. Quite the adventurer and outdoorsman, Blackwood compacted all of the memories of his trips into one amazing story that is both as dreadful and as awe inspiring as a weird fiction tale can be. Two men, canoeing along the Danube, become stranded on a small island during a flood. Soon they are visited by a force they cannot see, hear, or even understand, but that fills them with terror. Blackwood begins building the tension immediately from the very first sentence:
“After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes.”
While it remains unclear exactly what the narrator, and his travel companion the Swede, encounter while stranded on the island, the effects of that encounter are met at first with confusion, then fear, as well as moments of intense paranoia and a loss of trust between the men. Written with the knowledge that can only come from one who has actually spent time in the area, Blackwood’s narrative takes the reader to the location, expertly describing the flora and fauna of the landscape, the ebb and flow of the river, and the atmospheric changes that occur, both natural and unnatural. When the story hits its strangest parts, his voice never wavers, delivering quite a chilling scene. Amazingly, this section is not only scary, but also very thrilling, giving the reader a first-hand experience with the uncanny power of nature in all its guises. Combine that with the Swede’s slow reveal of arcane knowledge, and the growing distrust between the two characters, and we have one of the finest examples of weird fiction ever written.
“It’s their sound,” he whispered gravely. “It’s the sound of their world, the humming in their region. The division here is so thin that it leaks through somehow. But, if you listen carefully, you’ll find it’s not above so much as around us. It’s in the willows. It’s the willows themselves humming, because here the willows have been made symbols of the forces that are against us.”
Blackwood’s style and approach to story rely on his strengths of telling tales, rather than writing with heavy back and forth dialogue and mundane action sequences. Serious introspection and personal evaluation add to the story rather than hold it back, a rare feat for any writer. Meticulous plotting and careful attention to detail are the very things that propel his stories to their feverish conclusions, which can only come from the mind of a writer who knows what scares people the most, and more importantly, how to capture that fear on the page. Considering that quite a bit of his work was written before Lovecraft’s, it seems that Blackwood was more of an early influence than some care to admit. Reading Blackwood’s stories will lead most to see that he was, in fact, the superior writer of the craft, and a true master of weird fiction.
With so many writers in the past and the present dabbling in the weird fiction and cosmic horror genre, there are styles and subgenres within that arc away, yet maintain the weird DNA through and through. Join us next month as we skip forward a few decades to the strange stories of Robert Aickman, another traveler who explored the cold, desolate cosmos.