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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.

Blackwood uses bourgeois trinkets – traffic, policemen, office supplies, rifles, pipe tobacco, soup pots – to serve as both a distraction and a defense against his Outer Powers. In his more benign tales, these preoccupations prove to be a pathetic barrier to transcendence, revelation, and spiritual evolution (“May Day Eve,” “The Valley of the Beasts,” “The Woman's Ghost Story”) while in his most powerful stories, the transformation stands to be so sudden and horrifying that these petty preoccupations serve as a rickety but effective anchor, grounding embattled human minds in sanity.

Most famously and artfully accomplished in “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” Blackwood's hallmark cosmic vision supposes a punishing universe hateful towards mankind, and beyond humanity's intellectual comprehension. These Outer Beings – analogous to Lovecraft's Outer Gods – are hinted at in human culture by folklore and mythology, and while primitive cultures are more sensitive to their existence and nature (being less distracted and spiritually deadened by “civilization”), there is no clear understanding of what they are.

Unlike Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth, whose beings, histories, and physical descriptions are explicated by The Necronomicon, the Willow Beings and the Wendigo are vaguely hinted at by the mythology of the Ancient Romans and the Algonkian Indians, respectively, they remain nameless, mysterious forces of the universal cosmic soul. As Simpson describes them in “The Wendigo,” “he envisaged it rather as a glimpse into prehistoric ages, when superstitions, gigantic and uncouth, still oppressed the hearts of men; when the forces of nature were still untamed, the Powers that may have haunted a primeval universe not yet withdrawn... 'savage and formidable Potencies lurking behind the souls of men, not evil perhaps in themselves, yet instinctively hostile to humanity as it exists.'”

Their mystique and awe hint at Blackwood's pantheistic philosophy of the collective sentience of all things – a worldview that envisions Nature as dangerous, powerful, and plastic, sentient, conspiratorial, and predatory. Individuality is an illusion, all living things are cohabitants of the collective soul of the universe – what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Over-Soul – and those creatures which break rank and attempt to assert their independence are threatened with utter demolition.

Weird fiction in the Blackwoodian tradition – unlike his urban ghost stories – are almost exclusively set in the wilds of Nature. Informed by his time spent hunting, canoeing, and camping in the wilderness of Canada and Central Europe, his weird tales celebrate the majesty, awe, and terror of the infinite and lonely expanses of those wastes. It was there, removed from the silly concerns of civilized life, that Blackwood thought men were brought into closest proximity with the true nature of the vast, unruly cosmic soul.

In “The Wendigo” and “Valley of the Beasts,” bourgeois hunters stray into the Canadian forests haunted by the Outer Beings which thrive there, only to find their individuality, free will, and logic being leeched by a predatory, eldritch influence. “May Day Eve” and “The Sea Fit” both take place in coastal England where a grizzled mystic exposes stubborn skeptics to the awful terror of the Outer Powers – in which they play an intimate role. “The Glamour of the Snow” follows a man's intoxicating, deadly relationship with the Alpine wastelands, and “Ancient Lights” shows that when a man trespasses on a tract of woodland claimed by supernatural forces, that he will be treated like an interloper – roughly.

Many of Blackwood's strange tales are set in a similar environment: “A Haunted Island” and “Skeleton Lake” are in the bleak Canadian frontier, while “Accessory Before the Fact” follows a man hiking through the English moors, and – while not given a rural setting – “The Dance of Death” investigates the life of a London peon who dreams of the lonely, desolate places of the earth – the rivers and deserts and steppes.

While Blackwood's weird fiction was groundbreaking – rivaled in its scope and originality during his heyday only by Hodgson, Machen, and Robert W. Chambers – his ghost stories were truly groundbreaking. Whereas the Victorians adored the rural ghost story set in a remote, uncouth village (preferably in Southwest or Northern England) or a decrepit manor house, Blackwood's ghosts were nearly universally the products of urban alienation, providing him with an outlet for the misanthropic disgust he developed while living in New York's crime-plagued boroughs.

Traditionally, the ghost story has been used as a vehicle for examining the sins of society in an acceptable space. Long before the Progressive Era (1890 - 1920) that shadowed the Edwardians, ghost stories provided a safe space for discussing sexism, racism, classism, elitism, plutocracy, and the contradictions, hypocrisy, and impotence of organized religion. For Blackwood, whose experiences in the city left him deeply impressed by the isolationism and anonymity of postindustrial urban life, there was no social sin in more need of exposition than urban dehumanization. His ghost stories followed the lives of marginalized intellectuals with petty jobs leading lonely lives, bunkered in cheap lodgings run by unprincipled landladies. The ghosts who haunt them all died as a result of the isolation, marginalization, and abuse of commercialized, urban materialism, and those they haunt are unwitting victims of the same forces, sometimes just as imperiled as their deceased predecessors.

In both “The Listener” and “A Case of Eavesdropping,” an impoverished writer renting a dodgy New York apartment slowly becomes privy to the supernatural impressions of a former renter who met his end as a result of negligence and avarice, respectively. In both “The Occupant of the Room” and “Keeping His Promise,” a petty scholar distracted by their junior-grade bourgeois concerns encounters the spiritual residue of a suicide – a person driven to self-destruction by depression and social alienation. In both “The Empty House” and “The Woman's Ghost Story,” a psychical investigation becomes all too real when the casual, insincere foray transforms into a moment of intimacy with the dead.

“The Kit Bag” is a story wherein a petty functionary living in a lonely lodging finds himself vulnerable to the predatory attentions of a dead murderer, whose rapacious behavior is made possible by the alienating nature of urban life. Though not ghost stories – per se – “Smith: An Episode in a Lodging House” (a retouching of Conan Doyle's “Lot No. 249”) and “The Insanity of Jones” each probe the grimness and dehumanization of modern life, wherein atrocities and blasphemies may be practiced in absolute privacy without attracting the slightest notice.

Blackwood was born in Kent to a family of strict evangelicals in 1869. He was inspired by his father's deep mysticism – a man “not devoid of genuine good-heartedness, [but with] appallingly narrow religious ideas” -- but rejected his puritanical fundamentalism. His early years were filled with influences that haunted him throughout his life. Early on he was fascinated by a teacher's theories of theraputic hypnotism, which lead to his being sent to Germany at sixteen to study psychiatry. It was here that he developed a distaste for German culture, with its strict militarism and discipline, and yet he also managed to find common ground with a fellow student, a boy from India who introduced him to Buddhism, yoga, and the Bhagavad Gita. Like two of his protagonists, he then spent some time studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh before quitting the profession to “discover himself.”

Declining to live under the shadow of his family's bourgeois complacency, he sailed for North America, where he went through a long string of occupations – a series of failures that colored his dislike of commercialism and bureaucracy – including working as a private secretary, dairy farmer, newspaper reporter, hotel manager, bartender, New York Times correspondent, violin instructor, and even a model. Many of his stories feature ne'er-do-well, impoverished, would-be adventurers working some of the same jobs – especially correspondents, reporters, and private secretaries.

His mystical fixation was both rhetorical and practical: like Machen but unlike Lovecraft, he explored the possibilities of the supernatural, joining the Ghost Club, ghost-hunting with the Psychical Research Society, and becoming a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – an organization dedicated to the examination and exercise of occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities. Jack Sullivan notes in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural that “Blackwood's life parallels his work more neatly than any other ghost story writer.

Like his lonely but fundamentally optimistic protagonists, he was a combination of mystic and outdoorsman; when he wasn't steeping himself in occultism, including Rosicrucianism and Buddhism, he was likely to be skiing or mountain climbing” (38). His mysticism centered around fascination with reincarnation, the possibility of the evolution of human consciousness, and the relativity of time, space, and dimensions. Between his Canadian backpacking trips and his disastrous stint in New York (where he almost died, was almost falsely convicted of arson, conned of money by several roommates, and languished psychologically, swarmed with depression and suicidal impulses), Blackwood had discovered much of his artistic philosophies, settings, and aesthetics in North America.

By 1899, at the age of thirty (hence his autobiography, Episodes Before Thirty), he had given up on America, claiming that he was “covered with sore and tender places into which New York rubbed salt and acid every hour of every day.” His protégé Lovecraft would have a remarkably similar impression during his miserable Manhattan residence.

By 1906, his experiences with the Hermetic Order had inspired him to write, and his The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories was a success, followed by a string of articles, anthologies, and novels. Publishing The Listener and Other Stories, The Centaur, and John Silence: Physician Extraordinary during the next five years, his reputation was made, and his passion realized. From 1908 to 1914 he lived in Switzerland, traveled to the Caucasus Mountains and Egypt, and canoed the length of the Danube (a trip where he and his regular travel companion, Wilfred Wilson, discovered the rotted corpse of a man tangled in willow roots).

These experiences were each transformed into stories and novels. During World War One he worked as an intelligence agent, after which – in 1931 – he was employed by the BBC, reading supernatural stories on the radio, earning him the dubious sobriquet “The Ghost Man,” appearing on television regularly in the same capacity by 1946. When he died in 1951, his legacy had been established and his desire to rise above the petty concerns of materialistic, middle-classed complacency had been well achieved. As Mike Ashley declared in the subtitle of his biography, Starlight Man, Blackwood had indeed lived an extraordinary life.

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