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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Algernon Blackwood's Cosmic, Terrifyingly Mystical Horror Stories

Most ardent readers of weird fiction will have at one point either read or desired to read “The Willows” or “The Wendigo.” Most ardent readers of ghost stories have stumbled upon “The Empty House” or “Keeping His Promise.” Nearly all students of fin de siècle mysticism will have inspected The Centaur, The Man Whom the Trees

Loved, or “Ancient Sorceries.” Even those who value natural adventure stories in the ilk of Stephen Crane, H. Rider Haggard, and Jack London will have room for Blackwood's Canadian, African, and Alpine literature on their shelves.

H. P. Lovecraft called him “closely wedded to the idea of an unreal world constantly pressing upon ours ... inspired and prolific,” ranking him alongside M. R. James, Dunsany, and Machen as one of the true masters of modern (post-Victorian) horror. His writing is extensive, widely flung, and appealing to a broad palate – utilizing the chromatics, tones, and flavors of multiple literary traditions, and compiling them into a truly symphonic harmony.

Blackwood's output could potentially be broken into three distinct genres -- genres used in our collection of his best supernatural fiction: weird fiction, ghost stories, and strange tales. Weird fiction is a loosely defined genre that can be roughly – and somewhat haphazardly – described as being an amalgamation of the tropes, themes, and aesthetics of fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, mystery, the Gothic, and science fiction.

In Blackwood's oeuvre, we are defining the Weird in a much more specialized manner: those stories which allude to the Outer Powers which Blackwood identifies with the collective soul of the universe; those stories which nurture an aesthetic of existential horror; those stories whose supernatural agents are not easily catalogued; those stories which pit man against elements beyond his understanding – in league with the cosmic soul of Nature. “The Willows,” “The Wendigo,” and “The Glamour of the Snow” are exemplars of this form of story.

Strange tales – a term borrowed from the eminent Robert Aickman – are those which pit mankind against mankind in a supernatural arena. They are stories which evoke ethics and morality, where the primary agents of evil or oppression are living human persons, where the source of fear – though it be supernatural in nature – centers on the relationships between members of society. These are the grimmest tales of Blackwood's canon, being pessimistic, cynical, and moralistic. “The Insanity of Jones,” “A Haunted Island,” and “Skeleton Lake” are supreme examples of this style.

Although ghost stories seem easy enough to define – they are stories which involve supernatural agents appearing to be spirits of the dead – it is important to note that they share more in common than the identity of their antagonists. Blackwood's ghost stories follow the interference – often predatory, vampiric, and malicious – of residual human spirits (not every case involves a visual manifestation – “If the Cap Fits,” though not included here, is a chilling ghost story wherein the “ghost” is very much alive) in the lives of the living. They insinuate themselves into the psychological, social, and emotional welfare of the persons they come upon. These persons are of a common sort, too: lonely, isolated, self-contained, solitary, often living in a squalid urban environment where human life is estimated in income, rent, and credit. Fine models of these tales are “The Listener,” “A Case of Eavesdropping,” and “The Occupant of the Room.”

Blackwood's writing concerns the relationship between reality and delusion, and while most authors who dabble in this dichotomy imply that the delusion is the haunting which encroaches on the realities of everyday life, or that – at worst – both the conventions of the living and the manifestations of the supernatural are equally real, Blackwood insists that it is the waking world which is false – the vain, neurotic, commercialism distracting us from the spiritual reality around us. In his own words, Blackwood describes his thematic concerns:

"My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty. So many of my stories, therefore, deal with extension of consciousness; speculative and imaginative treatment of possibilities outside our normal range of consciousness.

"... Also, all that happens in our universe is natural; under Law; but an extension of our so limited normal consciousness can reveal new, extra-ordinary powers etc., and the word "supernatural" seems the best word for treating these in fiction. I believe it possible for our consciousness to change and grow, and that with this change we may become aware of a new universe. A "change" in consciousness, in its type, I mean, is something more than a mere extension of what we already possess and know."

While the weird tale and horror fiction existed in Britain long before the Edwardian Era, this period was certainly the zenith of supernatural fiction in the English-speaking world. Although the Victorians boasted a handful of truly excellent supernaturalists (Le Fanu, Riddell, Oliphant, Edwards, Broughton, etc.), the production of high-octane speculative fiction reached a high watermark during the years between Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan and M. R. James' “A Warning to the Curious.” This period was profuse with talent and vision, best embodied by six tremendously skilled artists: Oliver Onions, M. R. James, William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen, E. F. Benson, and Algernon Blackwood.

All three forayed into the regions of fantasy, horror, ghost stories, and literary fiction, developing a level of psychologically penetrating weird fiction unrivaled since Hoffmann, Poe, and Le Fanu. While James' nearly forty ghost stories have been classed as among the best in the language, Blackwood stands out as the literary prince of this sextet, unrivaled in influence and scope. His impact on cosmic indifferentism alone would earn him immortal merit, but the range of his canon is felt throughout horror fiction, ranging from contemporaries such as Hodgson, Benson, H. P. Lovecraft, and H. Russell Wakefield, to the members of proceeding generations, including Ramsey Campbell, Ray Bradbury, August Derleth, Stephen King, Caitlin Kiernan, and Evangeline Walton.

What sets Blackwood apart from his fellows is his absorption in mysticism, a fascination that – while shared by some like Benson and Machen – is largely unique to his horror aesthetic. His philosophy can accommodate both a sublime universe of awe and wonder, brimming with spiritual potency and hope for the suffering human heart, and a malevolent, predatory cosmos which loathes humanity and actively seeks out its destruction on the rare occasions when the gargantuan Outer Beings cross paths with mankind.

While Lovecraft's universe is largely dead and scientific, his later monstrosities being explained away as the purely natural progeny of extraterrestrial physics, Blackwood infuses his fiction with mystical wonder which causes both worship and fear, and while Lovecraft casts mankind as the dust mites of more highly evolved entities, destined for crushing, Blackwood suggests that mankind is threatened not only by the far-advanced sublimity without, but also by the hibernating, vestiges of the cosmos that slumber within our souls.

His characters are often carried away by their own awoken wildness, doing to them in moments what natural evolution would take billions of years to accomplish, and while the achieved heights are astonishing, the process is invariably horrifying, resulting in mental obliteration (“The Wendigo”), molecular fission (“The Sea Fit”), and inter-dimensional limbo (“The Willows”).

Blackwood viewed human nature as base, barbaric, and unevolved, and while his response to these conclusions was not a hopeless vision of man's inescapable simplicity, he was overwhelmed with a nearly misanthropic loathing of human inadequacy, selfishness, and shallow vanity. The heroes of his tales are marginalized peons – often with minor clerical duties in dehumanizing, urban settings – who have ceased to search for fulfillment in the world of Men.

Drawn to Nature, intoxicated by the world of lonely wilds and desolation, they are mercifully consumed into the Outer Powers rather than suffer the idiotic pettiness of human preoccupations (“Sea Fit,” “Dance of Death”). “His nature had come home,” a phrase used in “The Valley of the Beasts” goes far in explicating one of Blackwood’s chief philosophical tenets – one used in “The Woman’s Ghost Story,” “The Dance of Death,” “May Day Eve,” “The Sea Fit,” and many others: we are not true to our nature, and therefore we are adrift and unhappy. Once we return our nature to its rightful place – a transformation which requires the shedding of humanity – our souls will be at peace. In the meantime, the profound scope of the spiritual world is obscured by the trinkets of society: class and wealth, comfort and privacy.