Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Little (or a Lot) on Algernon Blackwood

About once a month, I meet with a weird fiction book club to discuss some short works by a given author. In our past two meetings, we have talked about the works of Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). For our first meeting on Blackwood, we read "The Willows" and "The Wendigo." In our second, we talked about the short stories "Smith: An Episode in a Lodging-House," "May Day Eve," and "The Listener." A theme runs through all of these stories, namely, an encounter with the invisible or previously unseen, usually by way of a kind of crossing over into or contact with worlds beyond on our own.

Algernon Blackwood was a mystic and an occultist. Again and again in his stories, he wrote of encounters with the non-material. I hesitate to use the word supernatural, as the weird forces and entities he described in his stories seem less supernatural than simply not of our world: they may obey laws of nature, but those laws are not necessarily the same laws that govern us in our earthly realm. Supernatural also suggests a hierarchy of some kind, with some things in nature and others above it. In Blackwood's stories, there seems to be a unity among all things. He was interested in Buddhism. His stories seem to reach towards an Oriental oneness, of body and spirit, of the material, physical, or earthly realm with the non-material or spiritual realms that actually lie all about us and perhaps also within us.

H.P. Lovecraft was or claimed to be a hard materialist. Here is a quote, admittedly from an unknown source:
I am, indeed, an absolute materialist so far as actual belief goes; with not a shred of credence in any form of supernaturalism--religion, spiritualism, transcendentalism, metempsychosis, or immortality.
Algernon Blackwood was obviously not a materialist. He seems to have believed wholeheartedly in the spiritual or non-material. In reading his stories, I am reminded of the title of a wholly unrelated book, Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather, for Blackwood seems to have been an explorer of the invisible worlds that adjoin our own or that are, to use a Lovecraftian word, coterminous with it. If only we could expand our consciousness or awareness, we might commune with these worlds. That reaching towards greater consciousness or awareness seems to have been Blackwood's purpose in his stories.

Lovecraft admired Blackwood. In a letter to Vincent Starrett, from 1927, he wrote: "Aside from Poe, I think Algernon Blackwood touches me most closely . . . ." He considered "The Willows" "the finest weird story" he had ever read. This admiration came "in spite of the oceans of unrelieved puerility which he [Blackwood] so frequently pours forth." (1) I can't say what exactly was Lovecraft's objection to Blackwood's writing. (2, 3) I assume his accusation of "puerility" to have been directed at Blackwood's mysticism or non-materialism, perhaps more specifically at Blackwood's occultism.

Blackwood is supposed to have had a less kindly opinion of Lovecraft's work. In a search of the Internet, I found only a reference to Blackwood's claim that he found "spiritual terror" lacking in stories by his younger admirer. And that brings up another difference between Blackwood and Lovecraft, namely, that Lovecraft was more direct and the threats about which he wrote are more physical than in Blackwood's work. Cthulhu is a monster with height, breadth, and depth. He is a certain color, has a certain anatomical structure, and so on. Yes, he has come to earth from deep space. He has lived countless eons and will go on living for countless more. And he affects the dreams of sensitive people. But he is still a physical being. His body can be cloven by the prow of a fast-moving ship, thus sending him back to slumber in his submarine city. Blackwood's monsters, on the other hand, can't be seen clearly or directly. For example, the entities haunting the willows in the story of the same name are indistinct; they are not clearly defined or delineated. (4) They may leave footprints (or hoof prints) in the sand, they may leave their mark on the poor Hungarian peasant, but they are nonetheless non-material, or at most only partly material. Peter Penzoldt said it best when, in The Supernatural in Fiction (1965), he described Algernon Blackwood's entities as "apparitions." In any case, Blackwood, being a non-materialist, was not bound by the mere physical. The terrors he described extend into the spiritual realm. Lovecraft, more or less his opposite, may have been bound by his materialism, thus his terrors are, on their face at least, only physical. That might be a narrow reading of Lovecraft, though. He may have believed more than he let on.

* * *

I began writing today with a few notes in mind on the stories of Algernon Blackwood. The first has to do with materialism vs. non-materialism. It's clear from reading Blackwood where he stood. But rather than come from the direction of the non-materialist in his attempts to sway the materialist, Blackwood tried the opposite strategy. His narrators in "Smith: An Episode in a Lodging-House" and "May Day Eve" are materialists. More specifically, they are medical doctors. And, boy, do they get their comeuppance. In fact, the narrator in "May Day Eve" has a conversion like that of Saul on the road to Damascus. Whole new worlds open up to him because of his experiences on the night of May 1 in some long-ago year. I would like to quote from "Smith: An Episode in a Lodging-House," though, because it gets at something I have written about before, i.e., the arrogance and sense of superiority of the medical doctor, feelings that often border on or cross over into the country of the murderer and psychopath:
"I was at the time, moreover, in the heavy, unquestioning state of materialism which is common to medical students when they begin to understand something of the human anatomy and nervous system, and jump at once to the conclusion that they control the universe and hold in their forceps the last word of life and death. I 'knew it all,' and regarded a belief in anything beyond matter as the wanderings of weak, or at best, untrained minds."
Rest assured that the narrator is relieved pretty quickly of those feelings in his encounters with things from beyond.

My second note concerns a passage from near the end of "May Day Eve." The narrator has undergone an extraordinary experience on the path to the country house of his friend, a folklorist to whom he had planned to present what he considered powerful evidence in favor of materialism. First the folklorist speaks. He is then questioned by the narrator:
"I meant [. . .] that you were a very brave man to walk to-night over the enchanted hills, because this is May Day eve, and on May Day eve, you know, They have power over the minds of men, and can put glamour upon the imagination--"
"Who--'they'? What do you mean?"
 [. . .]
"The elemental beings you have always scoffed at, of course; they who operate ceaselessly behind the screen of appearances, and who fashion and mould the moods of the mind. And an extremist like you--for extremes are always dangerously weak--is their legitimate prey."
I would like to emphasize those words: Extremes are always dangerously weak. Extremists themselves recognize that fact and always seek to recruit into their ranks their fellow extremists, knowing the weakness and vulnerability of the person who has extremist views and is driven by them. Eric Hoffer recognized it, too, in his book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951). From Section 61:
The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging suddenly and wildly from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted.
And from Section 62:
Though they seem at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet. The fanatics of various hues eye each other with suspicion and are ready to fly at each other's throats. But they are neighbors and almost of one family. They hate each other with the hatred of brothers. They are as far apart and as close together as Saul and Paul. And it is easier for a fanatic Communist to be converted to fascism, chauvinism or Catholicism than to become a sober liberal. (5)
The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist [. . . .] The atheist is a religious person. He believes in atheism as though it were a new religion. He is an atheist with devoutness and unction.
I have that sense, too, that an atheist is a person who very desperately wants to believe in something yet can't bring himself to believe simply in God. In getting back to "May Day Eve," a believer in God would not be so disturbed by his experiences as is the narrator--the believer is already aware of and is in touch with the invisible world. On the other hand, a materialist like the narrator of "May Day Eve" has his whole worldview shaken in any encounter with the spiritual, invisible, or non-material.

My third note is in the story type used in "Smith: An Episode in a Lodging-House." It is, in its opening paragraphs, clearly a club story, that is, one told in a club setting, usually by a narrator in repose. Tales from the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke is an example of a series of club stories. I like the club-story type and have written one myself, set in the far future and on another planet. "Smith: An Episode in a Lodging-House" is another type of story, too, though, one I have never heard described before. So maybe I will be first, at least in my own mind, for inside Blackwood's club story is a rooming-house story. The rooming-house story is one in which someone who lives in a rooming house (or apartment house) encounters another, stranger denizen of the same place. In Blackwood's story, it is the narrator who meets Smith, a strange man up to something behind closed doors. Other examples include:
  • "The Music of Erich Zann" by H.P. Lovecraft (1922)
  • "The Dreams of Albert Moreland" by Fritz Leiber, Jr. (1945)
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
  • Rear Window (1954)
Even stories like Dangling Man by Saul Bellow (1944) and "Mr. Tripp and Skobol" by Jack Matthews (Chicago Review, Autumn 1959) can be considered rooming-house stories. I am also reminded of Tom Waits' spoken-word recording "What's He Building?" from 1999. I welcome other additions to this list.

I'll close by saying that a few years back I wrote a rooming-house story, before I even realized there was such a thing. I encourage everyone to try your hands at the club story and the rooming-house story, and failing that, to write stories of every kind.

(1) Quotes are from that same letter to Vincent Starrett.
(2) In another letter to Willis Conover, from 1937, Lovecraft called Blackwood's prose style "poor." This comes from a writer who too often alternated between self-conscious faux-archaism and the purplest and pulpiest of prose. I find problems with Blackwood's prose, too, but I think Lovecraft's objection was about something far more serious, to him, than style. See the following note.
(3) In a letter to Farnsworth Wright, from July 5, 1927, H.P. Lovecraft wrote: 
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form--and the local human passions and conditions and standards--are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown--the shadow-haunted Outside--we must remember to leave our humanity--and terrestrialism at the threshold. [Emphasis added.]
Note the use of the word puerility again. Did Lovecraft consider belief, faith, feeling, love, emotion--in short anything at all that is at once human and spiritual--to be unacceptably sentimental? Was that his complaint against Algernon Blackwood?
(4) Lovecraft may have admired "The Willows" so much because it is so close to his own conception of beings from beyond time and space that are attempting to break into our own world. The difference is in their nature and motivation, which aren't made entirely clear in "The Willows." Although Blackwood's story isn't quite science fiction, I think it is an early example of science fantasy, a sub-genre in which Lovecraft worked pretty easily. (I would consider "The Call of Cthulhu" science fantasy, although it can be described more easily--and with less precision--as weird fiction. Alternatively, "The Call of Cthulhu" can be considered a story that crosses genres or even defies categorization by genre.) "The Willows" has, without a doubt, an air of the mythological, folkloric, and supernatural. At first glance, it is a fantasy and about things of the past. But I think "The Willows" is more remarkable for its suggestion of contact between different physical dimensions, a scientific idea, an idea of the future, and one for science fiction writers to treat. I feel certain that Blackwood read and understood at some level Edwin A. Abbott's novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, first published in 1884. But did he also know of Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity, postulated in book form in 1905, only two years before "The Willows" was published? Or did he simply have an intuition that allowed him to envision the existence of other dimensions beyond our own? (We have seen the artist's intuition at work before in Eleanor Cameron's books about the Mushroom Planet.) Setting all of that aside, there have been, more recently, theorists of a so-called genre or sub-genre "dark fantasy." Academic Gary Hoppenstand believes that dark fantasy was invented by Francis Stevens. I have a different opinion. If there is such a thing as dark fantasy--a big if--then it seems more likely to me that H.P. Lovecraft was a pioneer in that genre or sub-genre. But I think "The Willows" may push the origins of dark fantasy back even farther, at least to 1907. More likely still, dark fantasy grew out of fantasy, folklore, mythology, and organized religion, all much older forms.
(5) Don't be confused by Hoffer's use of the word liberal. He meant liberal in the classical sense, i.e., a person who believes and understands that human beings are and by rights free. In current usage, liberal usually means the opposite, i.e., a progressive, leftist, socialist, or statist who wants to grind humanity and human freedom under his boot.

Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951)

Put a mustache on Blackwood and he could have passed for Commander McBragg, that animated raconteur who told club stories in a time-honored way. In actuality, Commander McBragg was based on C. Aubrey Smith (1863-1948), a countryman and near contemporary of Algernon Blackwood.

Original text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Other rooming house stories:

    Fitz James-O'Brien's "What Was It?" and "The Lost Room"

    You can sort of consider Fritz Leiber's novel The Big Time as a sort of drawing room story since it's like a play set in one room despite time travel and alternate time lines.

    Poe's "The Sphinx" strikes me as one of the grandfather's of the Clarke's White Hart and Asimov's Black Widower stories: a mystery is described and solved in dialogue in a room. However, in Poe's story, the mystery also takes place in the same room.

    1. Thanks for the additions, Marzaat. I haven't read any of those stories, so I wouldn't have come up with them on my own.