“…such delicate phantasies as Jimbo or The Centaur. Mr. Blackwood achieves in these novels a close and palpitant approach to the inmost substance of dream, and works enormous havoc with the conventional barriers between reality and imagination.” Supernatural Horror in Literature‘ 1926, H.P. Lovecraft.
Algernon Blackwood lived through the late Victorian era, the surge of modernism and literature, art and music, the great social changes that brought industrialization and consumerism to society, but he remained largely unaffected by it all. For many he is regarded as a stalwart of the modern ghost story, alongside M. R. James, but he wrote fiction with a heavy undertow of horror and the supernatural, later in life falling into the gentle rhythm of magical children’s tales.
Blackwood was born, in 1869, in Shooters Hill, on the outskirts of London, England. His parents, wealthy and well connected, ensured their son was provided for, privately educated and they tried to inculcate him into their strict religious views. As is common amongst the well-to-do of the era Blackwood’s upbringing prepared him for precisely the opposite of his parents intentions; he gained the confidence and security of his background but rebelled against its strictures by exploring eastern philosophies and travelling extensively, trying half-heartedly to make his way in the world of work, without the motivations forced by the need for survival.
Toronto and New York.
He left Edinburgh University after only a year and he moved, at his parent’s bidding, to Canada to set up a dairy farm, and tried several other ventures before retiring, disillusioned, from everyday life and escaping periodically to revel in the interior landscapes of the vast Ontario forests. The morning mists, preternatural light, the comforting and terrifying sounds of nature forged a powerful effect on Blackwood, amplifying the insubordination of his schooling. Lonely fears of primeval darkness often form the backdrop of his stories, lending them a powerful, supernatural undercurrent.
Searching for work, and a purpose, he moved to New York in the early 1990s, eventually acquired a minor job as reporter on The Evening Sun where he found a primal terror of a very different kind: the corruption of humanity crushed within the tiny spaces of a modern city. A visceral lover of nature he hated the man-made degradation and, once again, found himself depressed and isolated.
He returned to England, apparently homesick, carrying with him a collection of haunting, supernatural stories that expressed his inner terrors. His friend Angus Hamilton sent some of these short tales, without Blackwood’s knowledge, to the London Publisher, Eveleigh Nash (who then had Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson in his stable). The result was the publication in 1906 of The Empty House and Other Ghosts Stories, establishing Blackwood as a writer of dark and subtle horror, with undertones of the mysticism that had sustained him in the dark, lonely woods of Ontario.
Blackwood had been writing steadily during his years away from England, traverlling North America, but much of Europe too, and it seems he was able to turn the experiences into a series of effective fictions, finally becoming a full time writer in the first years of the new century.
The haunted house collection of The Listener, 1907, contained one of his most celebrated tales, The Willows, was swiftly followed by a slight change in emphasis, as he tapped into the contemporary obsession with detectives and crime solving cases. This was the era of readers who devoured Conan Doyles’ Sherlock Holmes and, only to slightly lesser extent, Hope Hodgson‘s Carnacki stories which teased at the great social changes wrought by industrialization and explored mystical and supernatural themes. Blackwood, as a believer in the world’s beyond and a lifelong explorer of Eastern mysticism, wrote his own answer, John Silence: Physican Extraordinaire. It was a critical and popular success that would increase his confidence, and his ability to make a living from his writing.
The Silence stories marked his move away from the haunted house tradition as he began to explore physic adventures. The books that followed were full of possession, souls in torment, reincarnation and visionary mystics: The Lost Valley and Other Stories (1910, including the celebrated Wendigo), Jimbo: a Fantasy (1909), The Education of Uncle Paul (1909), The Human Chord (1910), The Centaur (1911), Pan’s Garden (1912) and A Prisoner in Fairyland (1913). This latter book, was adapted first as a play (called Starlight Express), then a musical, with a score by Edward Elgar, the greatest English composer and cultural darling of the pre-War period.
His writing was rudely interrupted by the First World War where he served in intelligence, in Switzerland. These harrowing years of intrigue and near-death provided more fuel for his narratives and he continued to write successful novels into the 1920s, just as the wave of modern horror and and science fiction began to flower in the era of the pulp magazines. 1921 saw publication both of The Bright Messenger, The Wolves of God and other Fey Stories.
In the twilight years of the pulps Blackwood’s earlier short stories were often republished in Weird Tales, and illustrated by Virgil Finlay and Matt Fox but as his evocations of the natural world began to fall from public grace (overtaken by the fascination with other worlds and robots in early science fiction) his later work drifted into gentle children’s stories. His last decades brought him great popularity in the new medium of radio, then television. He was a graceful and charming storyteller with a heartening tone, perfect for broadcast: he was honoured with a CBE in 1949 for his public service.
Legacy and Connections
Blackwood lived an independent life. He didn’t marry, and he travelled extensively in his early to middle years, but it is the travel of his mind that seems to have been the most potent force of his storytelling. He explored many forms of mysticism, and his interest in eastern philosophies went far beyond the fashionable dalliances of his contemporaries. He was a true believer in the power and mystery of nature, of the cycle of life and the universe, and his fiction, rooted in the dark corners of the world, the forests and streams, the lonely houses and the shadows of the twilight, highlights the ancient terrors that lurk around every corner. His work influenced Arthur Machen, H. P. Lovecraft and Ramsey Campbell, as well as filmmakers with their own supernatural intimations, such as Guillermo del Toro, Alfred Hitchcock and Terry Gilliam.
He died peaceful, in 1951, one of the great storytellers of the 20th Century.
- Virgil Finlay: Master of Dark Fantasy Illustration
- Henry Fuseli: Dark Gothic Fantasy
- Clark Ashton Smith: Master of Gothic, Pulp and SF Classics
- Robert Bloch: Master of Psychological Terror
- H. P. Lovecraft: From Weird to Modern Gothic
- William Hope Hodgson: Master of Weird Fiction
- Arthur Machen: Master of Supernatural Horror
- Charles Brockden Brown: First American Gothic
- William Blake: Artist and Revolutionary
- Myths and Legends: Origins and Traditions
- Frankenstein by Jeffrey Catherine Jones
- The Only Connect series of posts starts here.