Widely known for his weird fiction, Algernon Blackwood was also a masterful writer of ghost stories – indeed, one of the best practitioners of the genre in the Edwardian Era. His tales are rich in emotion, psychological atmospheres, and spiritual energy, and rival the best entries of M. R. James, Oliver Onions, and Walter de la Mare with their keen approach to the mentality of fear and their luscious prose. While Blackwood’s weird tales are almost exclusively in and inspired by the great outdoors, his ghost stories are typically urban: inspired by his desperate days living as a pauper in New York City (indeed he almost died from malnutrition, and was on another occasion nearly framed for arson). Most of his ghost stories indeed have a relationship to this point in his life – observing and participating in urban decay – while most of his weird fiction derives from his experiences in the wildernesses of Canada, the Danube, and the Alps. They largely focus on the dehumanizing, demoralizing anonymity of urban society’s emphasis on individualism: just as their weird tale counterparts warn of wandering away from society into the hostile wilderness, these warn of hiding away from society in its very heart. Disturbed by New York’s callous crowds, Blackwood infuses his tales with brilliant psychological portraits of depression, misery, loneliness, paranoia, and vulnerability. Today we focus on these stories set in gritty lodging houses, rundown apartments, dilapidated townhouses, and shabby dormitories. These are the seven best ghost stories of Algernon Blackwood by my reckoning, but there are dozens more that merit reading on a steamy, restless night in the faceless city of your choice.
7. A CASE OF EAVESDROPPING
Blackwood certainly has it out for Germans (see: “Accessory Before the Fact”), even before the War. This appears to be a result of his experiences in New York while he was shifting from job to job and living in the poor parts of town. This particular tale certainly smacks of real-life experience: a poor writer takes quarters in a squalid lodging where he is forced to suffer paper thin walls and mold-infested accommodations. Through the walls he can hear his neighbors quarrelling in German – sometimes violently. They appear to be father and son, but the arguments are bitter and accusatorial. One night they go too far, and the fragile wall actually crashes from the impact of a body. When our narrator gets up to inspect the damage, a dark, sticky fluid has begun to trickle into his room. Imagine his increased horror when the room proves empty. A classic ghost story with an unusually physical, visceral quality that is distinctly Blackwoodian.
6. THE WOMAN’S GHOST STORY
This one is tremendously unique and shows off Blackwood’s keen ability to transition between masculine and feminine perspectives, since his aptly titled “Woman’s Ghost Story” has all of the wrenching pathos, vulnerability, and conviction of Britain’s best female supernaturalists: Mrs Oliphant (“The Open Door”), Rhoda Broughton (“Nothing But the Truth”), and Edith Nesbit (“Man-Size in Marble”). A woman is listening to a group of men describe their encounters with the supernatural and decides to tell her own. As a psychic investigator she accepts an assignment to stake out a haunted house which shares 50 Berkeley Street’s reputation for frightening grown men to death. The groundskeeper escorts her to the haunted room when suddenly she realizes upon reaching the chamber that he is not the man she spoke with earlier, and that she has been lead to the fatal room by the ghost himself. After much terror she calls on him to explain himself, and learns that he died of fear while a mortal, and now communicates the same death to others – albeit unwillingly. The vulnerable (and increasingly intimate) exchange is genuinely tragic, emotionally touching, and – dare I say – quite romantic. A brilliant mixture of pathos and terror that truly evokes a woman’s multilayered, complex perspective of life (as opposed to a simple evil/good, scary/kindly, lovely/ugly dichotomy). One of the most beautiful ghost stories ever written.
5. THE EMPTY HOUSE
Certainly one of the most famous haunted house stories of all time, “The Empty House” demonstrates Blackwood’s precise knack for showing only just enough and allowing atmosphere to do the rest. Even moreso than M. R. James, Blackwood excels at discipline, and only hints at the violent specters in this wonderful tale based on an real-life experience as a member of the SPR. A seasoned ghost hunter joins forces with his elderly but tenacious aunt (Blackwood’s women are almost always strong, hearty, and driven) when she asks him to spend the night in a haunted house with a murderous past. The story is less about plot and more about atmospheric artistry, as Blackwood’s prose illustrates a spiritual journey as the two characters are symbolically reborn through the terrifying experience (at one point, blood-freezing terror causes the aunt to physically appear young again – something which Blackwood witnessed during a night at an infamous derelict). Wandering from the top to the bottom of the musty edifice, the pair suffer from waves of intense fear, paranoia, and confusion, encountering ghostly faces, phantom footsteps, and numbing horror. The story focuses on psychological responses rather than paranormal happenings, and as a result it hits the heart of terror in an uncommon and inspired manner.
4. KEEPING HIS PROMISE
A ghost story patterned after classic folk tales (compare with the “phantom hitchhiker” tradition and others that feature lengthy encounters with silent figures who disappear at a critical moment), Blackwood infuses it with his characteristic emotion and humanity that turns a cliché into a unique narrative of loss and suffering. A busy medical student finds an old school chum at his doorstep. Silent, pale, and emaciated, the man is admitted inside and allowed to sleep and eat while his host continues to pour over his studies. He returns to check on his clearly traumatized guest only to find an indentation in the bedding and the sound of heavy breathing floating over it (shades of “What Was It?” and The Invisible Man). Eventually the wheezing and impression disappear. He writes to his family about the event and learns that his friend had starved to death out of grief, and that his spirit was keeping a promise they had made as children for the first to die to visit the survivor. A simple, sad, and touching story, it carries Blackwood’s classic use of sympathy and once more includes the theme of once-prosperous men suffering in miserable urban poverty.
3. THE OCCUPANT OF THE ROOM
Truly chilling, this ghost story mirrors a similar narrative by the inestimable E. F. Benson: “The Other Bed.” Both stories feature the murderous spirits of suicides which haunt Alpine hotel rooms. Where Benson goes for a grisly climax of gore, Blackwood pores over psychological impressions that conclude with a macabre discovery, all the while preserving the integrity of his chief focus: vividly describing the feelings of irrational depression and the urge to commit suicide. A carefree scholar arrives at a hostel in the Alps late at night. There are no rooms free, but one of the occupants has gone missing on the slopes. While a search party is hunting for her, the manager intimates that there is little hope for her survival, and lets the young man bed in her vacant room. In spite of his high spirits, something about the room – its ponderous wardrobe in particular – causes him to suffer black thoughts. He struggles with an inexplicable depression and a shocking pull towards self-destruction as he begins to question his life choices. The wardrobe pulls him towards it like a magnet, as if it hides his fate. Ultimately, he resists the urges, but is horrified to find the missing woman – not injured in the snow – but hanging from a hook in the wardrobe. It is a rich and genuinely unsettling tale that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt irrationally depressed. A prime example of Blackwood’s psychological prowess.
2. THE LISTENER
Often anthologized with “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” “The Listener” is widely considered his best ghost story. It combines all the best elements of a typical Blackwoodian spook tale: an urban setting; an impoverished intellectual protagonist; a deceptive, penny-pinching landlady; a creeping, predatory evil; a deeply psychological atmosphere of paranoia and vulnerability; and a bizarre, malignant specter. A young writer takes rooms in a rundown house where he is haunted by hordes of vicious cats, strange odors, and a sense that he is being watched. The narrative is long – almost a novelette – and follows him through a diary that records his increasing sense that he is being watched and drained by a hostile presence. This culminates in a night when he awakens to find a strange figure with a face that he can only describe as lion-like – misshapen, yellow, and grotesque – peering into his bedside mirror. The next morning he learns about the fate of the previous tenant: he died from complications of leprosy, and it is his miserable spirit that haunts the decrepit rooms – the voyeuristic listener of the title. Certainly the quintessential Blackwood ghost story, “The Listener” highlights the isolation and introversion of the big city – something which Blackwood loathed. Like all of his best ghost tales, it criticizes the anonymity and callousness of urban settings (and modern society in general), viewing the individualism of modernity as a dangerous, parasitic toxin just as disfiguring and dehumanizing as leprosy.
1. THE KIT-BAG
While many rank “The Listener” as Blackwood’s ghostly masterpiece, I am biased in the direction of “The Kit-Bag”: it was the first of his tales that I ever read, and even though it may be slightly less effective, for me it is a standout favorite, and may be Blackwood’s very effective response to M. R. James’ “Oh, Wistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” Combining elements of “The Occupant of the Room,” “The Listener,” “A Case of Eavesdropping,” and the bioterrorism thriller “Max Hensig – Bateriorologist and Murderer,” “The Kit-Bag” follows a young law clerk who has just aided in the unsuccessful defense of an insane serial killer who chopped up a woman and stuffed her in a tote. The trial concluded, he borrows a kit-bag from his boss and goes back to his apartment to pack for a ski trip in the Alps. The protagonist is characterized as girlish and effete, and there is a strong homoerotic element between him and the spirit of the dominating murderer who – unknown to him – has just committed suicide. Of course, he has been mistakenly given the bag that held women’s body parts (hence its curious dark stains), and he keeps feeling a lurking presence outside in the dark stairwell. He sees a face in the shadow, and eventually the face manifests in the kit-bag’s lumps and wrinkles – the face of the defendant. Feeling watched, preyed on, and stalked, the clerk hurries his packing, but when the lights go out, he finds himself alone with the lusty butcher. A truly unsettling and nerve-wracking story, Blackwood uses it to showcase both his knack for psychological atmospherics and to explore his own insecurities as a single man attempting to prove his masculinity through athletics and outdoorsmanship.