March 14, 2019, marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Algernon Blackwood. If his is hardly a household name today, Blackwood’s memory is nonetheless kept alive by devotees of supernatural and weird horror fiction. Across a writing career spanning almost the entire first half of the twentieth century, Blackwood penned over a dozen novels and several plays. But it is his tales and novellas for which he is best known, including such revered works as “Ancient Sorceries,” “The Wendigo,” and above all “The Willows” (which H. P. Lovecraft seems to have regarded as the all-time best supernatural horror story).
The son of a solemnly religious post office employee, Blackwood’s upbringing in south-east London belies the varied and at times exotic turn his life and writings would take. Apparently unpersuaded by his father’s dogmatic approach to life, Blackwood dabbled early in eastern religions and later joined the notorious fin-de-siècle occult group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Though not an atheist in any formal sense, he eschewed doctrinal approaches to spirituality. His own philosophy seems to have been in part reverse-engineered from the great love of his life: traveling through and immersing himself in the natural world.
For Blackwood, the natural world is not just natural: it is animated, enchanted, redolent with presences most often detectable only apart from our five senses. Nothing interested him more—in life or in fiction—than meditating on human insignificance in the midst of an overwhelmingly vast environment. For writers like his admirer H. P. Lovecraft, such meditations can lead only to cosmic horror; and indeed, many of Blackwood’s tales do evoke such horror. On the other hand, as S. T. Joshi has observed, in his other writings the emotional range slides almost imperceptibly into a sublime awe that only looks like horror to those observing from the outside. So subtle is the difference between the two that readers might not even be certain what kind of story they have in their hands.
Such an ambiguity is part of Blackwood’s charm much more than it is any kind of detriment. In reading his fiction, we encounter our world from a singularly oblique angle. Whether harsh stark nihilist or glossy pop pantheist or pious rosy-tinted Christian, Blackwood’s readers could learn from him a thing or two about the humbling mystery of their universe.
Like many writers of the weird tale golden age, Algernon Blackwood had a paranormal detective appear in some of his Edwardian-era stories. The character of John Silence is part of a proud tradition that includes J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Martin Hesselius, Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing, William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, and Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin. Silence appears in some of Blackwood’s best-known horror tales, most notably “Ancient Sorceries,” with its coven of cat people in rural France. The jury is still out among genre critics as to whether the character of Silence, with his intuitive methods of detection, is intriguing or ludicrous. But whichever way one swings, his name can tip readers off to one of Blackwood’s most significant effects.
His stories are often pervaded by silence, or at least an absence of noises with which humans have experience. In his travels, Blackwood preferred destinations far removed from civilization, places that are increasingly scarce in our technological age of light and sound pollution but which could still be visited at the turn of the century. The germ for many of his most effective stories began with a real excursion he had taken, and while plenty of writers have gotten along just fine violating the maxim “Write about what you know,” Blackwood’s fiction often derives its power from natural details of particular places that would be wholly unavailable to any who had not seen them. Such description occurs throughout his masterpiece “The Willows,” as in this early personification of the Danube River upon which the narrator is boating:
We had made many similar journeys together, but the Danube, more than any other river I knew, impressed us from the very beginning with its aliveness. From its tiny bubbling entry into the world among the pinewood gardens of Donaueschingen, until this moment when it began to play the great river-game of losing itself among the deserted swamps, unobserved, unrestrained, it had seemed to us like following the grown of some living creature. Sleepy at first, but later developing violent desires as it became conscious of its deep soul, it rolled, like some huge fluid being, through all the countries we had passed, holding our little craft on its mighty shoulders, playing roughly with us sometimes, yet always friendly and well-meaning, till at length we had come inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage.
How, indeed, could it be otherwise, since it told us so much of its secret life? At night we heard it singing to the moon as we lay in our tent, uttering that odd sibilant note peculiar to itself and said to be caused by the rapid tearing of the pebbles along its bed, so great is its hurrying speed. We knew, too, the voice of its gurgling whirlpools, suddenly bubbling up on a surface previously quite calm; the roar of its shallows and swift rapids; its constant steady thundering below all mere surface sounds; and that ceaseless tearing of its icy waters at the banks. How it stood up and shouted when the rains fell flat upon its face! And how its laughter roared out when the wind blew up-stream and tried to stop its growing speed! We knew all its sounds and voices, its tumblings and foamings, its unnecessary splashing against the bridges; that self-conscious chatter when there were hills to look on; the affected dignity of its speech when it passed through the little towns, far too important to laugh; and all these faint, sweet whisperings when the sun caught it fairly in some slow curve and poured down upon it till the steam rose.
The depiction here of the Danube “as a Great Personage” is typical of Blackwood. Quite frequently his stories feature, if not a personified description of the landscape, then at least an embodiment of it (as in, say, “The Wendigo”), or perhaps a character who becomes absorbed into the landscape (like “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”); indeed, it is often both.
I myself am hesitant to go out into the kind of wilds though which Blackwood rambled, precisely because, like him, I can see that if those wilds woke up for a moment, they could crush me with nary a care.In “The Willows” itself, however, the overall menace is slightly different, not, as the title may suggest, the willows themselves. The narrator and his companion, known only as the Swede, are making a return excursion along their favorite haunts of the Danube, but as they move farther east and the river grows wilder, they find themselves trapped in a region populated by the eponymous willow trees. Here they encounter signs (but only brief sights) of mysterious extradimensional beings that appear connected to the willows and that may demand some form of sacrifice if they become fully aware of the human presences.
The beings remain elusive and ill-defined, but they are all the more terrifying for their obscurity. Their nature and motives are learned almost entirely through intuitions, intuitions which the narrator desperately tries to rationalize away but which the Swede immediately recognizes as accurate. (You know you’re in trouble in a genre story when your imperturbable Scandinavian starts getting nervous.) “The best thing you can do,” the Swede warns the narrator, “is to keep quiet and try to hold your mind as firm as possible.”
Many of Blackwood’s narratives are punctuated by the juxtaposition of eerie silences with ominous premonitions. That is because for Blackwood, we best apprehend the world in which we are embedded when we stop trying to classify it. To affix scientific terms to the environment, to name and codify life, is a human attempt to control it. But nature will not be so easily controlled. His horrors often derive from characters who would attempt such mastery; his mystic fantasies more often feature protagonists who hold their tongues in mystery and reverence.
This intuitive, non-dogmatic approach to nature offers up a discomfiting challenge to the totalizing interpretations of most worldviews. Needless to say, the orthodox Christian cannot fully accept all the ambiguities Blackwood readily admits into the cosmos; we worship a God who created and transcends all nature and who, to a certain degree anyway, did grant humanity dominion. But Blackwood’s perspective is likewise inimical to a hard materialistic philosophy, since he rejects scientific categorization as a significant means of truly understanding a universe that extends to extra-sensory dimensions. Nor is his love of nature entirely compatible with the shibboleths of New Age pantheism or popular neo-paganism, because it is a love tinged with dread (or a dread tinged with love)—being “at one” with the world in Blackwood’s fiction might mean being consumed in a painful and terrifying fashion.
I highly suspect that the great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton was familiar with Blackwood’s work. Blackwood, for instance, is known to have been a member of the Square Club, which was co-founded by Chesterton, and his collection The Listener and Other Stories (which includes “The Willows”) was published in 1907, a year prior to two of Chesterton’s own signature works, his theological text Orthodoxy and his novel The Man Who Was Thursday.
The latter text may indeed be interacting with Blackwood’s thought. A comical, twisty spy adventure, The Man Who Was Thursday in many ways hinges on our interpretation of its mysterious central figure, Sunday. Near the end, we realize that each major character’s understanding of Sunday mirrors his philosophical perspective of the universe itself. One of these characters, Inspector Ratcliffe, articulates his fear of Sunday in this way:
[H]e’s absent-minded. . . . [H]ow will you bear an absent-minded man who, if he happens to see you, will kill you? That is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty. Men have felt it sometimes when they went through wild forests, and felt that the animals there were at once innocent and pitiless. They might ignore or slay. How would you like to pass ten mortal hours in a parlour with an absent-minded tiger?
This innocence and pitilessness suggests the universe according to Blackwood, especially as his thought manifested in The Listener (which, with a couple exceptions, skews closer to the side of horror than awe). The beings in “The Willows” are far more frightening than any tiger but just as “absent-minded” in their initial semi-awareness of the narrator and the Swede.
In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton doesn’t facilely dismiss Ratcliffe’s interpretation, but he does find it inadequate. The book concludes by acknowledging that nature is indeed, from the human angle, brutal and terrifying, if also at times joyous and lovely. Nature, Chesterton contends, is not God but a mask behind which we might find God’s true face—a mask that reveals his power but conceals his love. The true face of God is, of course, found in Christ, the basis for an “impossible good news” which the novel’s protagonist realizes at the end.
As Chesterton suggests, then, the Christian conception of God is that he stands apart from his creation yet loves it and governs it providentially. The creation narrative in Genesis 1 emphasizes above all things God’s role as a maker, as one who has taken great care in his construction of the cosmos. It’s counterpoint in John 1 adds that the Son, God’s creative Word, entered creation by becoming flesh.
That orthodoxy, that dogma, doesn’t mean that Blackwood is entirely wrong, however. In their rush to affirm God’s goodness in creation, far too many Christians rush to create a cozy nature that is more a product of their wishes and fantasies than their experience or reality. Blackwood’s fictional natural world, drawn from his lived encounters in remote regions, is far closer to the vast, raw, terrifying reality of the universe than the glossy selfies and Instagram Nature images that evangelicals so quickly want to post as evidence of the beauty of their Creator. The Christian who looks around at the natural world and tritely sighs, “I don’t know how anyone could not believe in God” is looking at nature just as selectively as the atheist is. I myself am hesitant to go out into the kind of wilds though which Blackwood rambled, precisely because, like him, I can see that if those wilds woke up for a moment, they could crush me with nary a care.
It is the fallacy of the contented Christian to ignore too readily the vastness and awfulness of the cosmos. It is the fallacy of the atheist to dismiss all signs of any Presence in the cosmos because such signs cannot be quantified. Algernon Blackwood’s fiction takes both sides of the coin and never stops flipping it. That is his warning and his promise: to unsettle the believer and unbeliever alike, if we would just pause in the silence. And listen.