THE COMPLETE JOHN SILENCE STORIES by Algernon Blackwood (Dover Publications, Inc., 1997)
— from “A Psychical Invasion”
Even when Algernon Blackwood wrote there were precedents for the investigators of the supernatural, like Martin Hesselius from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (“Green Tea”; “Carmilla”; etc.) , and Abraham Van Helsing (from Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Still Silence, who first appeared in the very early 1900s, was one of the first paranormal detectives, a forerunner of Anita and Buffy and much of current urban fantasy, his creation indebted to the enormous popularity of Sherlock Holmes.
At the time the short story was still the dominant form for the ghost/horror story, and so the collection of Silence stories, Blackwood’s first major best-seller, shows the series form as it originated. Blackwood, tied at times to occult groups like The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, had his own views on the supernatural and the power of Nature, which provides underpinning for his fiction, including some of these stories. The six stories in this collection deal with ghosts, hauntings, movement between worlds, elementals, a mummy, and so forth, and for the most part are entertaining. Two in particular, “Secret Worship” and “Ancient Sorceries” have been anthologized with fair frequency and are probably the most effective stories in the collection, in no small part because Silence is more witness than participant.
In “Secret Worship,” Harris the silk merchant while on business in Germany visits a place from his youth, the school he credits with making him the man he has become. But this is not the school he remembered, and the monks who run it, though apparently some are the same monks, are not as they were when he knew them. His interactions with the monks become increasingly strange and threatening. But once in the school, how to escape?
In “Ancient Sorceries” shy, even timid Arthur Vezin takes it in mind to disembark from a train at an early stop in order to sight-see a charming French town. Before the train departs, another passenger, who only speaks French so that Arthur doesn’t quite understand him, warns the Englishman to beware of the place. But Arthur’s mind is set and he walks to a nearby inn. Taken in and slowly, if provisionally, accepted, Arthur finds the town charming. And then there’s the young woman who befriends him. But after dark, the town changes, and Arthur must make a choice, one he’d never have dreamed of making.
In both stories locale is a major character, the “bad place,” the sense of an area with a history of evil or in which some different reality is in effect that the protagonist walks into unaware and learns about to his dismay. Blackwood lays down hints and clues as to the nature of the place, and in each the protagonist is too doubtful of his own senses to believe what he is learning until he has to act quickly. Beyond that, the two stories offer a contrast. Where “Secret Worship” is clearly a horror story, “Ancient Sorceries” leans more toward weird fantasy, a threat of sorts toward Vezin implied, but not as clearly a threat since he has the right to choose.
Blackwood’s prose is direct and sometimes nearly journalistic – he had experience in journalism – and Silence is certainly the sort of sleuth you would want at your side if caught between a mummy and a hard place, as in one of the stories. That said, in some of these stories there seems to be a straining for effect, the attempt to create atmosphere, except in the above stories, ham-handed. Entering the stories with the expectation of a fairly leisurely telling helps, and I was entertained by all of them. Still, if you haven’t experienced Blackwood’s fiction before, and because the best stories in this collection are in Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood, I’d suggest starting there.
Carnaki, the Ghost-Finder by William Hope Hodgson
Next: MIDNIGHT RIOT by Ben Aaronovitch (a.k.a. The Rivers of London)