Three Supernatural Classics by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Henry Blackwood (1869-1951) was an English short story writer and novelist, one of the most prolific writers of ghost stories in the history of the genre. Though Blackwood wrote a number of horror stories, his most typical work seeks less to frighten than to induce a sense of awe. His two best known stories are probably “The Willows” and “The Wendigo”.

 H. P. Lovecraft considered “The Willows” (1907) to be the finest supernatural tale in English literature. In his treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft wrote “Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note.” “The Willows” is an example of early modern horror. Said by some, including H. P. Lovecraft, to be one of Blackwood’s best stories, and thus one of the best ghost stories in English. The precise nature of the mysterious entities in “The Willows” is unclear, and they appear at times malevolent and treacherous, and at times simply mystical, almost divine. These forces are also often contrasted with the fantastic natural beauty of the locale. In sum the story suggests that the landscape is an intersection, a point of contact with a “fourth dimension” — “on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows.”

 The Wendigo (1910) is set in the Canadian wilderness. A hunting party separates to track moose, and one member is abducted by the Wendigo. Robert Aickman, a supernatural fiction writer associated with August Derleth and H. P. Lovecraft, regarded this as “one of the (possibly) six great masterpieces in the field”.

 The wendigo is a creature appearing in the legends of the Algonquian people. It is thought of as a malevolent cannibalistic spirit that could possess humans or a monster that humans could physically transform into. Those who indulged in cannibalism were at particular risk, and the legend appears to have emphasized this practice to be a taboo.

 The Wendigo is a story of the unknown, not only the stories and rumors of something in the wilderness, but the apprehension in going into unexplored territory and living off the land and by one’s wits. This is a classic monster tale that asks the question, “Who or what is the monster here?” “The Wendigo” gives us a look at the unknown and brings with it both fear and wonder, which many times both go hand in hand.

 Like my personal favorite, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, classic horror stories build the suspense by simply not showing the monster and by contrasting the fantastic with the mundane. The Wendigo has character development, a vast setting, and an unsettling chill of something watching you at every turn.

 Blackwood’s novella is a masterful buildup of mood and atmosphere that provides a glimpse into prehistoric ages, when superstitions, gigantic and merciless, oppressed the hearts of men, when the forces of nature were still untamed, the old Powers that may haunted a still primeval universe.

 Interestingly, off topic, Theodore Roosevelt published  a brief tale titled “The Wendigo,” It appeared in The Wilderness Hunter, his ninth book, published in 1893, just eight years before he became president. It relates a “goblin story,” supposedly told to the narrator by a “grizzled, weather-beaten old mountain hunter, named Bauman.”

 The concept of wilderness as the shadow of civilization is certainly old as American literature, when the Europeans encountered  seemingly endless woods and unknown animals, spirits, and peoples, but forests have their own particular significance within Blackwood’s fiction, not least because Blackwood’s concept of a tree entailed an alarming degree of consciousness, or presumably unworldly wisdom. “The Willows” and “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” (1912) portray men at the mercy of trees.

 “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” is not in this collection. It is the eco-horror story to end all eco-horror stories. Again, the supernaturalism is indirect, but also because it’s a thoughtful meditation on changing notions of spirituality at the turn of the 20th century, on the threshold of the Victorian era’s final collapse in the trenches of World War I. It contrasts conventional Christianity against animistic mysticism, and provides an examination of fin-de-siècle spiritual ennui that in some ways is reminiscent of the work of Arthur Machen. Very highly recommended. It can be found in

– at Project Gutenberg
– at BlackMask/Munsey’s (multiple formats)
– at HorrorMasters (PDF, not printable)

 “The Listener” is a more traditional ghost story . It feels like a chilling fireside story whispered at midnight, but told in exceptional prose and told with a keen intensity that Blackwood injected into the best of his pure horror tales.

The story is told in the form of the diary of a nameless writer who rents a room in an old house in London. He reports strange nightly activities in his house, the sense of someone unseen listening outside his door, whispering strange phrases in his ear while he sleeps, bizarre thoughts recorded into his diary, a maid who refuses to talk about what once happened in the upstairs rooms, the vanishing figure on the staircase with indescribable features, and the slowly increasing sensation of some horrible illness creeping over him. The diary entries show a deterioration and paranoia about everything in the house. On the other hand, the author tells us he has a history of mental illness in his family, and he suffer from sleepwalking. Is the narrator reliable? We learn that a man occupied the upper floor had committed suicide; he was a leper and had lost his extremities. The question of the narrator’s perception constantly haunts it, making the inconclusive and abrupt ending appropriate.

These are three excellent examples of Algernon Blackwood’s works. I look forward to reading many more. For all things Algernon, this is a very thorough website: http://www.litgothic.com/Authors/blackwood.html

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