Weirdly Forgotten: The Eventful Life Of Algernon Blackwood
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.
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.