Weirdly Forgotten: The Eventful Life Of Algernon Blackwood

Christopher Fowler
Algernon Blackwood, London, 1951; photograph by Norman Parkinson In the league table of lately obscure British writers, the name of Algernon Blackwood ranks pretty highly. When you try to remember him, images from a handful of strange short stories might come to mind, and such memories may only have stayed with you at a subconscious level because his tales were collected in the kind of tattered books that lay around British houses fifty years ago. Equalled only by Arthur Machen, Blackwood was one of the greatest writers of supernatural fiction in the twentieth century. At a time when the genre enjoyed huge popularity he was its indefatigable king, producing thirteen collections totalling around two hundred tales that survived as reprints in hundreds of collections across the years. (His thirteen novels and his children's books have proven less impervious to the passing of time.) More than this, his spiritual and often mystical tales were based on personal experiences and beliefs. The supernatural elements were meshed into plots that twisted the ordinary and familiar into something mysterious and confounding. Haunted mansions, the souls of the dead, the spirits of nature and a fascination with time and space recur as themes. Many of his tales take place in natural, sensual settings, from frontier Canada and the Black Forest to the marshes of the Danube. Blackwood's life spanned two centuries, from the mid nineteenth to the mid-twentieth, and his work inspired Elgar, Henry Miller, and H.P.Lovecraft. He counted H.G.Wells, Hilaire Belloc and W.B.Yeats as his friends, and joined the magical order of the Golden Dawn. He was an undercover agent in Switzerland. 5fcb6f9b518e40a4b7570c2cfca23455 Rather more surprisingly, he originated the play 'The Starlight Express' and appeared on the first-ever television programme. He was high-born (most of his relatives appear to have been barons and marquesses, or at the very least, colonial governors) and yet he largely forsook his privileged heritage to become an adventurer and traveller. Through it all he remained a natural storyteller to the end of his life. He was eventually awarded a CBE in 1949, and still we knew virtually nothing about him, probably because he hailed from a period when the concept of the peculiar Britishman was hardly a novelty. Blackwood came from a now-vanished world. His mother was the Duchess of Manchester, his evangelist father was a clerk in the Treasury and a knight. Algernon rebelled against a cosy but stifling high-Victorian life by studying the Bhagavad Gita and theosophy. As a sensitive, dreamy youth, he refused to believe that he was damned by an ultra-orthodox religious system, and learned spiritual exercises that divorced him from wordly problems. His inner calm was tested in Canada, where his dairy farm failed, and in New York where he was penniless and often ill. Conned out of his cash and framed for arson, he finally became a reporter for the New York Times in 1895 and later a private secretary to a millionaire banker. His interest in the paranormal led him to join the Golden Dawn as a new century broke. He became an undercover agent for British military intelligence during the first World War. Blackwood wrote little until his mid-thirties, when his first collection The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories was published. Soon after, his psychic detective John Silence found favour with readers, and his popularity soared. Ashley never lets an unusual friendship or experience slip by, so that beyond the straight history of this unmarried and spiritually troubled man, a wealth of background circumstance conjures up the sheer strangeness of Blackwood's world, and marries his inspirations with his writing, so that even if you are not familiar with his work, its relevence to the creative process is made clear. Blackwood was nicknamed the Ghost Man, although his stories were richer than the sobriquet implies, and though he never made much money from his stories, they paid just enough to free his life. Because Blackwood chose to work largely in short-form fiction, his writing has been sidelined from the mainstream of literature even though - or perhaps because - there really was no-one quite like him. The short story is still regarded as an ephemeral format, and perhaps not worthy of canonisation. This is a shame, because many of Blackwood's stories, especially the ones in which a spiritual world presses against our reality, are true classics of the genre, and have entered a collective British memory. Blackwood found strangeness in ordinary things.  


Jo W (not verified) Tue, 21/11/2017 - 14:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm straining the furthest depths of my memory bank here,but I've a thought that Valentine Dyall used to either read or introduce Algernon Blackwood stories on either the wireless or the old steam driven black and white television. This would be way,way back in the fifties? My Dad was a big fan of those stories and I found a lot of Blackwoods books in the book exchange shop in the Old Kent Road,near to East Street. (Anyone out there remember it? It was a dark and grim sort of place,but you could get the Pan Horror and Supernatural books there. You couldn't find them on the shelves of Bermondsey library.)
Just thinking of how the stories sent a shiver up the spine is doing the same now. Ooooerrr

Martin Tolley (not verified) Tue, 21/11/2017 - 15:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Are you thinking of "Appointment with fear"? Valentine Dyall announced the series as "The Man in Black". I think there were several series and he did most of them apart from one where his dad Frank(?) Dyall did it.

Martin Taylor (not verified) Tue, 21/11/2017 - 16:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"The Listener" is still one of the scariest and most atmospheric short stories to read in an empty house on your own at midnight!

Jo W (not verified) Tue, 21/11/2017 - 18:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you. Yes,that was it,Appointment with Fear. I can feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck even now. ;-)

Ian Luck (not verified) Tue, 21/11/2017 - 19:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have a copy of the green cover Blackwood book. His stories are simply superb. They evoke feelings of creeping dread, which don't vanish once you have finished the story, but lurk, unwanted, in the back of your mind. I once foolishly read 'The Willows', whilst in a tent with some willows nearby. The story is so intensely creepy, I had to look outside to convince myself that the trees hadn't actually got closer, and, finishing the story, didn't sleep much. My favourite stories of his are 'Ancient Sorceries', which I'm glad nobody has filmed, and made a complete hash of, although it would make a superb BBC 'Ghost Story For Christmas', if given to someone like Mark Gatiss. My absolute favourite, though, is 'The Nemesis Of Fire', which I first read when I was about nine, and, to be frank, it scared the shit out of me, because of all the creepy descriptions of the lights in the wood, and the frightening chase of something invisible that burns the grass as it passes over it. I read it again recently, and it still brought me out in goosebumps. He should be better known - his stories are slow burners, but always effective in their chills.

Roger (not verified) Tue, 21/11/2017 - 22:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Is Blackwood forgotten? It's not long since Mike Ashley wrote a biography and there are quite a few editions of his short stories in print.
Personally, I'd put Robert Aickman alongside Blackwood as a supernatural writer.

Christopher Fowler Wed, 22/11/2017 - 06:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think he is. Mike is brilliant at unearthing such writers, but he has the kind of encyclopaedic mind few readers possess. He knew most of the authors in my Forgotten Authors book - but not all of them.

Helen Martin (not verified) Tue, 28/11/2017 - 01:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Our library has 4 titles by Blackwood. I wonder where his failing Canadian dairy farm was and the hotel he ran for 6 months. There's always a Canadian connection. The concept of the Wendigo is an eastern North American one.