Algernon Blackwood: Nature as God and Refuge
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
Algernon Blackwood lived his work as few authors have ever done. On the most superficial level, this means that he incorporated abundant autobiographical elements into his tales and novels, especially from his wide-ranging travels—from the wilds of the Canadian backwoods to the parched sands of Egypt; from the snowy crags of the Alps to the forbidding remoteness of the Caucasus Mountains. But there is far more to it than that. Virtually every one of the central figures in Blackwood’s fiction is a thinly disguised self-portrait, and of the most intimate sort—a self-portrait that probes the depths of his own complex and mystical temperament at the same time that it depicts the interaction of that temperament with the people and lands he encountered over a lifetime of unceasing wandering. What is more, Blackwood writes with so powerful a belief in what he is saying that he inexorably induces belief in the reader as well. However fantastic his imaginings, one gains the impression that Blackwood always means exactly what he says.
Algernon Blackwood was born on March 14, 1869, at Wood Lodge, Shooter’s Hill, Kent. He was the son of Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, who served in the Crimean War and subsequently became permanent secretary to the Post Office; he received a knighthood in 1887. Stevenson had become a fervent and evangelical Christian in 1856 and devoted much of his time to lay preaching; accordingly, young Algernon—whose family moved several times in his early childhood, finally settling at Shortlands House, Beckenham, Kent—grew up in a household of extreme religious strictness, with an emphasis on personal salvation and the heavy burden of sin. Matters were not helped by the year (1885—86) Blackwood spent in the overly strict discipline of the School of the Moravian Brotherhood in the Black Forest of Germany, a period he would later depict vividly in the John Silence story “Secret Worship.”
Blackwood escaped the oppressive religiosity of his family environment in a number of ways. Chief among them was his discovery, in 1886, of Buddhism, as embodied in Patanjali’s Yogi Aphorisms; shortly thereafter he was absorbing books on spiritualism and theosophy. But these rebellions were only preliminary to his discovery of Nature (always with a capital N in Blackwood), a discovery that ultimately formed the core of his entire outlook on life:
By far the strongest influence in my life … was Nature; it betrayed itself early, growing in intensity with every year. Bringing comfort, companionship, inspiration, joy, the spell of Nature has remained dominant, a truly magical spell. Always immense and potent, the years have strengthened it. The early feeling that everything was alive, a dim sense that some kind of consciousness struggled through every form, even that a sort of inarticulate communication with this “other life” was nossible, could I but discover the way—these moods coloured its opening wonder. (Episodes Before Thirty 36—37)
In a sense, Nature subsumed or incorporated all his other interests in occultism and spiritualism; for all these were merely vehicles toward the achieving of an “extended or expanded consciousness” (“Author’s Preface” to Selected Tales 8) that would lend to a kind of mystical bond with Nature. As Blackwood’s narrator describes Terence O’Malley in The Centaur (1911):
For the moods of Nature flowed through him—in him—like presences, potently evocative as the presences of persons, and with meanings equally various: the woods with love and tenderness; the sea with reverence and magic; plains and wide horizons with the melancholy peace and silence as of wise and old companions; and mountains with a splendid terror due to some want of comprehension in himself, caused probably by,a spiritual remoteness from their mood.
The Cosmos, in a word, for him was psychical, and Nature’s moods were transcendental cosmic activities that induced in him these singular states of exaltation and expansion. She pushed wide the gateways of his deeper life. She entered, took possession, dipped his smaller self into her own enormous and enveloping personality. (10)
The spell of Nature was not long in asserting itself: brief trips to Switzerland and Canada in 1887 and a walking tour in northern Italy in 1889 were only foretastes of what was to come.
By the early 1890s Blackwood found himself in New York. It might be thought that the American megalopolis would be just about the last place for such a Nature worshiper as Blackwood, but he felt confident in his ability to secure work and even to find happiness of a sort. But the inevitable occurred: although, by the fall of 1892, he had become a reporter for the New York Sun, the cumulative effect of his stay in New York could only be called psychologically devastating:
I seemed covered with sore and tender places into which New York rubbed salt and acid every hour of the day. It wounded, not alone because I felt unhappy, but of itself. It hit me where it pleased. The awful city, with its torrential, headlong life, held for me something of the monstrous. Everything about it was exaggerated. Its racing speed, its roofs amid the clouds with the canyon gulfs below, its gaudy avenues dripping gold that ran almost arm in arm with streets little better than sewers of human decay and misery, its frantic noise, both of voices and mechanism, its lavishly organized charity and boastful splendour, and its deep corruption in the grip of a heartless and degraded Tammany—it was all this that painted the horror into my imagination as of something monstrous, non-human, almost unearthly. It became, for me, a scab on the skin of the planet, brilliant with the hues of fever, moving all over with its teeming microbes. I felt it, indeed, but half civilized. (Episodes Before Thirty 124—25)
One suspects that Blackwood would have had this reaction even if a number of other events had not conspired to render his early days in New York even more wretched: a painful illness that incapacitated him for weeks; extreme poverty that compelled him to subsist largely upon dried apples (when eaten with water they would expand in his stomach and thereby ease his pangs of hunger); and, most phantasmagoric of all, his tortuous relationship with a thief and scoundrel, Arthur Bigge (disguised as “Boyde” in Episodes Before Thirty), who robbed Blackwood of what little money he had and whom Blackwood ultimately hunted down like an animal and had arrested.
By early 1899 Blackwood felt a yearning to return to his homeland, and by March he had resettled in England. But the wanderlust that remained an essential part of his nature was not slow to exert itself: in 1900 and 1901 he spent much of the summer canoeing down the Danube—trips that would ultimately be transmogrified into his most memorable weird tale, “The Willows.” Blackwood’s travels for the period 1902—05 are not entirely clear; he appears to have gone to France, returned to the Black Forest and the school of the Moravians, and travelled throughout England, again absorbing impressions that would find their way into his later tales.
Blackwood’s first published volume, The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, appeared in late 1906 and was well received. The Listener and Other Stories—containing several of Blackwood’s most notable tales, including the title story, “The Willows,” “Max Hensig,” and “The Woman’s Ghost Story”—came out the following year.
But it was John Silence—Physician Extraordinary (1908) that definitively launched Blackwood on a literary career. Thanks to a clever advertising campaign, the volume became a bestseller and allowed Blackwood the freedom to devote the next six years to writing, without the need to worry about an income. He decided to settle in Switzerland, and in the next half-decade produced some of the most remarkable work in the history of weird fiction: the collections The Lost Valley and Other Stories (1910), Pan’s Garden (1912), and Incredible Adventures (1914); the novels The Human Chord (1910) and The Centaur (1911); and the children’s fantasies Jimbo (1909) and The Education of Uncle Paul (1909).
It is difficult to generalise about these very diverse works; suffice it to say that they all tread the nebulous borderland between fantasy, awe, wonder, and horror. Awe is perhaps the dominant motif; Blackwood is somehow able to invest the simplest events—or even his characters’ psychological reactions to those events—with a portentous grandeur, as if the very fabric of the universe is involved. That, indeed, is exactly what is involved in The Human Chord, a novel with one of the most distinctive premises in all weird fiction: the possibility that a “human chord” sung by four seemingly ordinary individuals could somehow reorganise all the matter in the cosmos. Or consider the several tales that Blackwood wrote after his 1912 visit to Egypt, among them “Sand” (in Pan’s Garden) and “A Descent into Egypt” (in Incredible Adventures). The latter’s climactic scene is nothing more than the tableau of three characters sitting around waiting for the dawn; and yet, few tales have ended more grippingly, as we see two hapless figures literally subsumed by the spell of Egypt:
I witnessed the disappearance of George Isley. There was a dreadful magic in the picture. The pair of them, small and distant below me in that little sandy hollow, stood out sharply defined as in a miniature. I saw their outlines neat and terrible like some ghastly inset against the enormous scenery. Though so close to me in actual space, they were centuries away in time. And a dim, vast shadow was about them that was not mere shadow of the ridges. It encompassed them; it moved, crawling over the sand, obliterating them. Within it, like insects lost in amber, they became visibly imprisoned, dwindled in size, home deep away, absorbed. (331)
And who can forget the imperishable climax of “Sand,” where we learn that “the desert stood on end” (329)?
John Silence is to some extent based on a schtick—the fusion of detective fiction and supernatural fiction, as John Silence becomes a “psychic detective” probing cases beyond the bounds of natural law—but a few of the segments represent Blackwood at his height. Whether he was much inspired by E. and H. Prichard’s Flaxman Low (for which see the next chapter) is unclear; probably he merely adapted the Sherlock Holmes formula to his own purposes, and in so doing laid the groundwork for a multitudinous progeny of psychic detectives, by William Hope Hodgson, Margery Lawrence, and many others. But such a tale as “Ancient Sorceries”—where a man stumbles into a small French town where all the inhabitants turn into cats at night—is a masterwork of subtlety and cumulative horror; the fact that John Silence remains offstage for most of the tale is a great benefit. Unfortunately, he acts as a simple deus ex machina in “Secret Worship,” rescuing the protagonist from the ghostly phenomena at the last moment.
As it is, “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” (in The Lost Valley) will remain the pinnacles of Blackwood’s work in supernatural horror. Nature is, manifestly, the true hero of both these narratives—but it is a Nature that appears malevolent to humankind only from our limited perspective. The narrator of “The Wendigo” becomes aware of “that other aspect of the wilderness: the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man” (84). And consider the Swede’s comment in “The Willows”: “There are forces close here that could kill a herd of elephants in a second as easily as you or I could squash a fly. Our only chance is to keep perfectly still. Our insignificance perhaps may save us” (53). It would require a laborious analysis to specify the exact manner in which Blackwood builds cumulative suspense and terror in these long stories; but his capturing of the mingled horror and wonder of the Danube (“The Willows”) and of the Canadian backwoods (“The Wendigo”) is imperishable.
It is, indeed, interesting that pure horror is as prevalent as it is in these works. In “The Regeneration of Lord Ernie” (in Incredible Adventures), a character remarks of a sinister forest along a mountainside: “There’s evil thinking up there, but by heaven it’s alive; it’s positive, ambitious, constructive.” He immediately qualifies this by saying: “Evil? … How can any force be evil? That’s merely a matter of direction” (21, 23). Horror turns to awe in the four long tales in this volume, although the former is by no means absent. The horror of “The Damned” comes not from the damnation of the souls of the wicked—but precisely from the conventional religious belief in such damnation. The hideous multitude of ghosts that haunt a house in England—with “yearning yet hopeless eyes, lips scorched and dry, mouths that opened to implore but found no craved delivery in actual words, and a fury of misery and hate that made the life in me stop dead,m frozen by the horror of vain pity” (207)—are those damned by the bigoted religion of the house’s previous occupant.
Pan’s Garden, with its deceptively bland subtitle—“A Volume of Nature Stories”—also contains some powerful tales of awe, none greater than the short novel “The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” in which a man quite literally is subsumed into the forest of trees that surround his country house. This tale, along with the earlier “The Eccentricity of Simon Parnacute” (in The Lost Valley), reveal a delicacy of touch that brings Lord Dunsany to mind. Parnacute is a prototypical Blackwood character who burns with indignation at seeing birds locked in a cage: this perversion of Nature is deeply offensive to his spirit. His freeing of the birds becomes a deeply symbolic act, for when he himself dies, this is what we are told of him: “The human cage was empty. Someone had opened the door” (328).
The Centaur, whose poignant and delicate evocation of the vitality of Nature makes it the centrepiece of Blackwood’s work, is the key to the understanding of both his oeuvre and his philosophy. What does the mysterious Russian (never named), whom O’Malley encounters on a steamer heading from Marseilles to the Caucasus Mountains, symbolise? He is a “Cosmic Being” (209), one so close to Nature that his very presence in this civilised company of tourists seems anamalous and even vaguely frightening. He leads O’Malley into the Caucasus—exactly as Blackwood himself went on a trip there in the summer of 1910—to what appears to be a herd of centaurs; more, not only the Russian but O’Malley himself seem, momentarily, to become centaurs. For O’Malley it is a moment of spiritual transformation: “The Garden now enclosed him. He had found the heart of Earth, his mother. Self-realization in the perfect union with Nature was fulfilled. He knew the Great At-one-ment” (214—15).
Blackwood spent much of the first two years following the outbreak of World War I in adapting his children’s fantasy A Prisoner in Fairyland (1913) into a musical, The Starlight Express, with music by Edward Elgar. Although he wrote a number of works for or about children, only Jimbo, The Education of Uncle Paul, and the much later novel The Fruit Stoners (1934) are notably successful. It is clear that he himself was a genial “Uncle Paul” to a variety of nieces and nephews, as well as to the children of some of his friends. Children, like animals, had an instinctive psychological bond with Nature that rendered their world of imagination immediately comprehensible to Blackwood. Consider the nature metaphors used to describe the child Nixie in The Education of Uncle Paul:
… . the name fitted her like a skin, for she was the true figure of a sprite, and looked as if she had just stepped out of the water and her hair had stolen the yellow of the sand. Her eyes ran about the room like sunshine from the surface of a stream, and her movements instantly made Paul think of water gliding over pebbles or ribbed sand with easy and gentle undulations. Flashlike he saw her in a clearing of his lonely woods, a creature of the elements. (52—53)
Blackwood was rarely able to reach this level of unsentimental pathos in his later works for children.
In a sense, the war marked the definite end of one stage—and, perhaps, the most vital and significant stage—of Blackwood’s career. The hostility to science and material civilization that Blackwood revealed through O’Malley (“And I loathe, loathe the spirit of to-day with its cheap-jack inventions, and smother of sham universal culture, its murderous superfluities and sordid vulgarity, without enough real sense of beauty left to see that a daisy is nearer heaven than an airship” ) was only augmented by the war, a product of the destructive forces that were taking all humanity farther and farther away from Nature. Julius LeVallon (1916), a novel of reincarnation, is confused and unfocused, and its sequel, The Bright Messenger (1921), is still more so, made interesting only by an increasing strain of pessimism: “The recent upheaval has been more than an intertribal war. It was a planetary event. It has shaken our nature fundamentally, radically. The human mind has been shocked, broken, dislocated” (166).
In Blackwood’s short story writing, inspiration appears to have been drying up. The tales in Day and Night Stories (1917) are, on the whole, slight; The Wolves of God and Other Fey Stories (1921) consists of stories whose plots were in large part derived from Blackwood’s shared experiences with his old friend Wilfrid Wilson, who is listed as a coauthor; Tongues of Fire and Other Sketches (1924) is also disappointing. This was his last original collection of stories until Shocks (1935).
In the latter half of the 1920s, Blackwood returned to writing for children. A multifarious array of works were produced during this period, but none are particularly distinguished aside from Dudley and Gilderoy: A Nonsense (1929), a delightful fable about the adventures of a parrot and a cat as they stray out of their home, board a train, and perform other surprising antics. Several stories in Shocks, inspired by his absorption of the mystical philosophy of Georgi Gurdjieff and his disciple Pyotr Ouspenskii, show that Blackwood had not entirely finished having his say in the realm of supernatural horror, while other tales in that volume, notably “Elsewhere and Otherwise” and “The Man Who Lived Backwards,” both inspired by J. W, Dunne’s theories of serial time, could be almost classified as science fiction.
In The Centaur O’Malley, after his transcendent experience in the Caucasus, yearns to tell the world of what he has felt and learned—he thinks it will save humanity from sinking into an imaginationless morass of materialism and cynicism. His sympathetic but sceptical friend, Stahl, warns him: “You will reach no men of action; and few of intellect. You will merely stuff the dreamers who are already stuffed enough. What is the use, I ask you? What is the use?” (267—68). But O’Malley is determined to persevere.
And so was Blackwood. Perhaps in his later years he felt that the cause was lost; that science and material comforts had advanced so far that the awe and wonder of Nature were things of the past. In the essay “Dreams and Fairies” (1929) he nevertheless held out a faint hope that technology might not entirely crush our perception of the mysteries of the cosmos:
Ariel as a personified wave-length we listen to in our drawing-rooms, the “sightless couriers of the air” as waves of ether bringing us sound or pictures through a machine costing so many pounds—these, though wonderful, hold no wonder of the spirit. The wonder of the spirit is not the wonder of the well-read mind. The purchaser questions, but he does not tremble with delicious and unearthly awe.
To-day our winds seem thin of voices, our woods and forests emptying, our glens feed streams where dance no flashing feet. The haunting music of that older world is stilled and no wings dart across the moonlight that once was populated with haunting glory. It may be, however, that the glamour is but changing and that the poet’s creative heart will extract a more stimulating Wonder from the newer “facts” of life. Mystery, of course, there must always be. The change is worth underlining: it will be a Wonder that instructs; a Wonder that teaches before it beautifies. (175)
It is not entirely clear what is meant by that last remark; it could almost be seen as a justification for science fiction, a literary mode Blackwood never approached save in a few late works. Nevertheless, it is evident that he himself retained his sense of wonder to the end, and sought to convey it to others in as earnest and powerful a fashion as he could. Even if his best works were written in a relatively short period encompassed by the first two decades of the twentieth century, every one of his novels, tales, plays, and even essays and reviews seeks to uncover those layers of mystery that lurk behind the façade of the known—the mystery of forests, of deserts, of snow-capped peaks, and, most significant of all, of the human psyche.