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2013 Countdown to Hallowe’en 13: Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood

best-ghost-stories-of-algernon-blackwoodAnother great horror story collection, reviewed by Randy on our countdown to Hallowe’en.

BEST GHOST STORIES OF ALGERNON BLACKWOOD by Algernon Blackwood (Dover Publications, Inc., 1997)

A considerable number of hunting parties were out that year without finding so much as a fresh trail; for the moose were uncommonly shy, and the various Nimrods returned to the bosoms of their respective families with the best excuses the facts or their imaginations could suggest. Dr. Cathcart, among others, came back without a trophy; but he brought instead the memory of an experience which he declares was worth all the bull-moose that had ever been shot. But then Cathcart, of Aberdeen, was interested in other things besides moose – amongst them the vagaries of the human mind. This particular story, however, found no mention in his book on Collective Hallucination for the simple reason (so he confided once to a fellow colleague) that he himself played too intimate a part in it to form a competent judgment of the affair as a whole …

—from “The Wendigo”

This is another collection of stories that are at the core of the development of the 20th century weird tale and horror story, works that still inform (directly or indirectly) fiction being written today. Two stories, “Ancient Sorceries” and “Secret Worship,” are also in the Dover edition of The Complete John Silence Stories, but otherwise these are the best of Blackwood’s non-Silence stories; I’ll discuss those two Silence stories in my next entry. Like Machen, Blackwood creates suspense through the tactical placement of clues to the nature of the danger to the protagonist(s), and this approach has never been on better display than in “The Willows.”

Two men canoe along the Danube, and camp in a marsh dotted with tiny islands covered with willows. Soon after establishing camp they begin to feel a presence, a presence that seems confirmed at those times when the willows shake but there is no wind. Blackwood creates menace through his descriptions of the vast track of marsh, emphasizing the isolation of the men as they become increasingly aware of being observed and assessed. Still, they remain, unsure they can leave, their belongings tampered with as they sleep, the island shrinking with the movement of the water. Each of them understands there is danger, that something they cannot see or touch is inimical to them.

“The Willows” has been included in comprehensive anthologies like The Century’s Best Horror Fiction 1901-1950 (ed. John Pelan) The Weird (ed. Ann & Jeffrey Vandermeer) and The Dark Descent (ed. David Hartwell), and praised by H.P. Lovecraft among many other writers and critics, it has been a staple of the literature since it was published. It is also available through Project Gutenberg. I’ve read this story at least three times and even knowing what happens has not diminished its ability to draw me in and make me uneasy.

“The Wendigo” is very nearly the equal of “The Willows”; though the problem of over-explanation and repetition that affects some of the stories I’ve read by Blackwood (including most of the John Silence stories) threatens this one, the story’s power is not diminished. A group of men and their guides camp while hunting in the wilds of Canada, an area Blackwood knew well from his travels. As in “The Willows” a presence intrudes and they look for explanations in the legends they have heard, the guides offering information that fills in what they don’t know. And then they watch what they thought were legends materialize and how they contend with what happens next is suspenseful and compelling, and those moments when they watch one of their guides in the grip of the Wendigo are both weird and unnerving.

These are, for me, the collection’s most outstanding stories, and the two John Silence stories only a little less compelling. The rest of the stories were entertaining, and I especially enjoyed “The Glamour of the Snow” and “The Transfer.”

In “The Glamour of the Snow” Hibbert’s working holiday in the Alps includes participating in winter sports. One dark night he sneaks into the ice rink for solitary skating, only to meet an alluring woman who joins him on the ice. They meet again and again over the next days, but never when anyone else is around. She is a mystery and following that mystery into the mountains proves dangerous.

“The Transfer” posits a plot of ground on which nothing grows, a plot so repugnant the family on whose estate it is located avoids contact with it. But the plot of ground cannot be avoided forever, and its influence comes to the fore when energetic Uncle Frank arrives.

Coincidently, as I was rereading this collection early this year, in a forum on supernatural fiction Richard Gavin (author of Charnel Wine, among other books; quoted here by permission) posted, “I favour Blackwood’s euphoric view of a spontaneous Nature to Machen’s often cranky moralistic tales that warn of the deadly forces beneath. Blackwood’s supernatural tales infer that Nature is teeming with ancient sentient forces that, under auspicious conditions or through simple quirks of fate, we human beings can experience. It may be frightening, but it is truly awesome.

“Machen says essentially the same thing, however he is often wagging his finger, warning readers of the dangers of such primal forces. There is a ‘meaning’ to Machen’s supernaturalism in that his primal forces often (though not always) have a vested interest in ‘corrupting’ the soul of civilized man. This has always felt forced to me; an imposition from a writer with a moral axe to grind. With Blackwood, the ineffable is just that: it is beyond our reasoning. His forces may be primal, but they are neither wholly malefic nor truly benign. They simply are. If there is any ‘reality’ behind supernatural fiction, I suspect it is much closer to what Blackwood suggests.”

Gavin’s point is valid, and his comment on Machen to some degree expands on what I quoted from Phillip Van Doren Stern regarding Machen in my last entry: For all the beauty of nature, for all of Machen’s pleasure and delight in the scenes he describes, there is something lurking beneath or behind those scenes and it is almost invariably inimical and evil. Still I could not say I prefer any supernatural story, even “The Willows” to “The Great God Pan” – every time I read the latter I find one of the most powerful evocations of supernatural evil I’ve encountered.

So, which writer would you prefer, one for whom nature is a veil over evil, or one for whom nature is neutral but sometimes acts in a way mankind subjectively judges as evil?

For the purposes of this series of entries, the differences in strengths and weaknesses of the two writers suggests that I should strongly recommend reading both: While their preoccupations overlap, they found different ways to express them and those expressions continue to resonate, their imaginations and writings anticipating and feeding later writers like Thomas Tessier, Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King (see, for instance, Pet Sematary) and, more recently, Adam Nevill and Caitlin Kiernan. You may, like Gavin, find you prefer one to the other, but if you’re at all curious about the sources of modern fantasy, in particular the weird tale and supernatural fantasy set in times contemporary to the writing of the story, you won’t regret reading both.

EXTENDED READING IN THE WEIRD:
The Ghost Pirates and Others: The Best of William Hope Hodgson
The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson[/u]

NEXT: THE COMPLETE JOHN SILENCE STORIES by Algernon Blackwood

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