Algernon Blackwood's "The Listener": A Two-Minute Summary and a Literary Analysis
Among Blackwood’s most effective ghost stories are several tales of rooms inhabited by the prowling presence of their former occupants. “The Listener” is an epistolary account told through the diary of its protagonist. Much like Guy De Maupassant’s similarly-themed “The Horla, or Modern Ghosts,” Blackwood’s tale depicts the gradual encroachment of a parasitic spirit into the life of an arguably mentally-compromised man. “The Listener” is an excellent exploration of approaching and voracious threat, much like Blackwood’s later masterworks “The Willows” and “The Wendigo.” The protagonist is a stubborn and caustic man who holds the entreaties of his friends and family at bay, isolating himself in a world of self-imposed exile. Tormented by hereditary mental health issues, illness due to malnutrition (and a sedentary, reclusive lifestyle), and mounting paranoia, the narrator finds that his efforts to exclude others from his personal affairs have left him defenseless from the destructive forces that loneliness invites.
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.
Like many of Blackwood’s protagonists, the narrator of “The Listener” is dragged to the very threshold of annihilation as a result of his self-imposed exile from thriving society (“Wendigo,” “Glamour of Snow,” “Sea-Fit”). Disgusted with the pettiness of human relationships, he urges away the well-intended offerings of his sister (whom he remembers as an affectionate childhood companion) and his chum, Chapter (whose extended job would profoundly assist his declining mental and physical health), leaving his mind and body vulnerable to the encroachments of peripheral spirits bent on absorbing the energy of exposed outliers – not unlike a lion stalking gazelles which have strayed from the herd into the thick and shadowy grass. Blackwood was, himself, something of a loner, and his difficult relationship with his family genuinely left him on the brink of death on several occasions. “The Listener” may not be entirely autobiographic, but it is not far-fetched to imagine that he may have been reminding himself of a lesson he had learned more than once: misanthropy and social reclusion may grant one a break from the triviality of society, but it is not an exclusive hermitage – the environs of human company are prowled by very real monster – neurosis and paranoia, insanity and suicide – and they wait, hungrily, to strike.
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