July 17, 2010

Followers for Algernon: Hypnotic Stories of Mystery and Awe

A candlelit reading of Algernon Blackwood Stories at Treadwells Book shop 15th July

Writers become forgotten when their work is misunderstood or misread or when tastes shift towards more obvious styles. But times also change, and we reassess the value of an author's unique contribution. There is a compelling case for rediscovering the work of Algernon Blackwood (1869- 1951) author of supernatural tales and undisputed master of the spectral atmosphere.

Blackwood’s appeal is not easy to pin down. His work is uneven; he didn’t write obvious schlock horror; there no things that go bump in the night, no head swirling demon possessions, not a droplet of  blood and gore; his work is a million miles away from Nightmare on Elm Street; yet it is intriguing and infinitely  more suggestive of other worldliness than other writers. His style is closer to the mystical, elemental and transcendental.  It is not plain horror then, or fantasy, but somewhere between, in the domain of mystery and imagination. Perhaps it is exactly because modern audiences have become so weary of having fears cynically manipulated by horror writers and filmmakers that Blackwood now seems so fresh and untainted by formulaic shocks in eerie darkened corners. All the same elements are there, but his style is thankfully too subtle and multi-dimensional to ever be given the ‘shudder mongering’ Hollywood treatment, though shudders there are a plenty.

So this reading of excerpts from Blackwood stories by Mike Daviot at Treadwell’s (15/7/10) was a timely reminder to me of a talent for delivering word by word a hypnotic reading trance that allows us to feel spine-tingling awe and sense of mystery. Christine Oakley-Harrington who runs the shop has done a fine job of bringing these half-forgotten authors to a new public. The location was the haunted basement below the shop. Christine said if anyone present could determine that the ghosts had gone, she’d love to know. Nothing visible showed up during the reading, alas, at least nothing that was able to swallow the candle smoke or make any noises. Daviot luckily had artificial light to help him read, and there was noise enough from the street, but I fancy any spirits present were listening to Blackwood's tales just as we were.

Daviot read well, I thought, much better than some of the Libri Vox  public recordings online which often sound dry and wooden.He gave each phrase's nuance its due, achieving a clear tone. He added snippets of Blackwood's biography to well chosen excerpts. He is not writing a book on Blackwood, but I suggested later that he might. He read passages from The Centaur (1911) about O'Malley who was an alter ego of  Blackwood himself, following the call of the wild in his nature, seeing through the veil of nature on a trip to the Caucasus Mountains. Take this passage for example....

For the moods of Nature flamed 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 Centaur,1911).

Daviot also read from The Psychical Invasion (1908) which was the spookiest tale about  Dr.John Silence, psychic detective.  The detective sits in a haunted room with Smoke his cat, and Flame, his dog. Both pets can see a creeping malevolent presence, and begin to go frantic, but the psychic physician cannot see anything initially.Then he is challenged to the very essence of his soul, but finds a way to overcome it. Silence was based on characters Blackwood met while he was in the Golden Dawn, yet the occult theme is tastefully drawn.

So where do you start the process of rediscovering this writer? There are dozens of stories. Most begin by reading stories such as The Willows (1907) and The Wendigo (1910) but there are many other stories that deserve attention. Luckily much is available online that might otherwise have gone out of print. While Blackwood sometimes blunders with remarks typical of the age, and even piles on details, he has continued to be included in major Horror and Supernatural anthologies, and is even regarded as a core influence on H.P. Lovecraft, it is fascinating to spot how prescient Blackwood was about subtle layers of consciousness a hundred years ago and how consistently he refers to this in his work.

It is worth noting the eco-mystical strain that also  suffuses stories such as The Man Whom the Trees Loved (1912). Trees become so actively alive that they threaten to take over an old couple's life. From the 21st century, we can understand how odd these views must have seemed to the Victorian era. We can see how much more vital this has become to be sensitively attuned to wind and woods, grass, trees, to the interconnecting consciousness that is a living organism. Gaia- that the earth is a self-correcting intelligent 'whole' organism is a theory now mostly accepted by world’s leading scientists. In novels such as The Human Chord (1910) The Bright Messenger (1921) he explored these and other notions, often peering way ahead of his time. 

When Mike Ashley decided to write a biography  Algernon Blackwood: An Extraordinary Life (2001) he found that Mr. Blackwood, an initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, where his motto was Umbra Fugat Veritas - truth flees from the shadows- could blend into the background like a whiff of pale smoke. In fact, that’s exactly what he did on one of the first TV shows in 1949. His  last John Silence story A Victim of Higher Space (1917)  alludes to this ability. While Blackwood had friends such as W.B.Yeats, H.G.Wells, Hillaire Belloc, Edward Elgar, and many others, he was hardly ever mentioned by any of them. Most, if not all, records of him had vanished. Even in photographs or reports made for the government, he seemed to have stepped mysteriously into the background. He was a mystery man. His style reflects that perfectly, and who better than H.P. Lovecraft to divine the secret of Blackwood’s methodical style:

no one even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision. Without notable command of the poetic witchery of mere words, he is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere…(H.P. Lovecraft, Favourite Weird Tales,1930)

Followers for Algernon are sure to be on the increase: just pick up any  story – Mike Daviot recommended us The Doll (1946 ) on which many other ‘doll’ stories are founded, for starters, and just read on…and slowly allow the atmosphere to creep upon you unawares. He really does ‘glamour’ the reader, the way True Blood vampires can ‘glamour’ mere mortals and we go along for the ride as the effect is alluring, tapping into elemental energies which are ultimately magical.

Kieron Devlin


Naj said...

interesting read Kieron. your selection is insightful as usual.

KJD said...

Thanks. Glad you appreciate it. I just felt it was important to see Blackwood in a fresh way,to check what he has to say to modern audiences. The more I read, the more I realise he reminds us to expand consciousness to other levels and include nature, to understand how we ARE the environment, and this chimes in with a lot of new paradigm thinking. S.T Joshi, expert on weird tales, said he 'absorbed a Buddhism that was free of dogma' e.g. he said of death 'the human cage is empty. Someone has opened the door'.

So it all rings very true, very 21st century which is strange because his style is so 19th century and was unaffected by Modernism. Blackwood's are not ordinary stories of the macabre, but psycho-spiritual messages. I'm reading everything I can get my hands on and have become a true fan.. and all this sparked because of Daviot's public reading at Treadwell's.

KJD said...

The worthwhile Art Heals Wounds blog has done an excellent snapshot on Algernon Blackwood's weird works. It also gives a mini-review of a public reading of his stories done in the UK earlier this July. This post doesn't just summarize Blackwood's fiction, but succinctly and accurately presents the themes this bygone weird master hoped to convey. His appropriation of Nature as a mystical and sometimes terrible force, as well as his keen sense of human consciousness, are discussed. All in all, the article is more evidence in a mass file strongly indicating Blackwood's potential to enjoy an expanded readership.

-Grim Blogger
Posted by Grim Blogger at 11:00 AM