Past Masters: Algernon Blackwood

[This is one of a continuing series about past masters of fiction writing. SPOILER ALERT: This post contains minor plots points from three of Blackwood’s stories: “The Insanity of Jones,” “Ancient Sorceries” and “The Willows.”]

Happy post-Halloween and All Soul’s Day-Eve!

Haven’t done one of these in a while…but it’s time for another “Past Masters.” This time, it’s Algernon Blackwood, an English “Weird” fiction writer.

Algernon Blackwood, London, 1951; photograph by Norman Parkinson

As many of you know, Blackwood was a favorite of H.P. Lovecraft who especially loved his story, “The Willows.” Lovecraft particularly points out Blackwood’s ability to conjure a mood, a creepy atmosphere. And I have to say that is one of his strengths, his ability to cast this uncanny mood, to create a “unity of effect” that is, at once, eerie and ominous.

But if I had to summarize what it is about Blackwood I like best, it’s his themes. He seems to combine Horror with Nature writing—to great effect. It’s like a mashup of Edgar Allan Poe and Thoreau. It all starts so pleasantly. He sets up this feeling of “awe” with his introduction of some great quest into nature, then morphs it into “dread” as that same nature turns from awe-inspiring to plain sinister. These stories often involve camping trips with just two or three individuals. Or even a solitary wanderer going off on their own into the desert or snowy mountains. Needless to say, they’re soon confronted with forces beyond their control. At the same time, he layers in powerful metaphysical digressions about consciousness, nature, and psychology that are very powerful and just add to the heady mix.

Taken together the overall effect is startling and powerful. I’m glad to have started reading his stories, but I’m left with a hunger for more.

I’m taking just a few of his stories below and highlighting the very best quotes in them, hoping to entice you to read some of his stuff. And so, I offer the following in no particular order.

“The Insanity of Jones”

This was the first piece of Blackwood’s I read and I was immediately hooked. It’s about your typical office schlub who daydreams about being someone else. This office worker frequents a French restaurant where he gets the instinct or premonition that he’s to meet someone important there. He does, and the man reveals that reality is not what it seems and sets Jones off on a strange quest.

I will leave what happens to Jones out of this post, but I will share some of his thoughts, which point out the lyrical—almost poetic—side of Blackwood. For example, in the office Jones thinks about his day:

“During office hours he kept the strictest possible watch upon himself, and turned the key on all inner dreams, lest any sudden uprush from the deeps should interfere with his duty. But, once the working day was over, the gates flew open, and he began to enjoy himself.”

After work he relaxes before setting out for the bistro:

“…after dozing a little in his leather chair before the fire, he started out as usual for dinner in the Soho French restaurant, and began to dream himself away into the region of flowers and singing, and to commune with the Invisibles that were the very sources of his real life and being.”

The story starts as a subtle psychological portrait and soon it heads of into a Weird/Horror direction as Jones gets into the quest. And I loved every minute of it!

“Ancient Sorceries”

You ever wondered what it would it like to be a cat? I mean, precisely and definitively a cat? What would you “think” about? Would you “think” at all? What would you like and dislike? Where would you hang out? What would you do? What would your relation to other cats be? To dogs be? To other humans? If you built a society, what would it look like?

Blackwood takes this simple thought experiment and blows it out into a whole story. It’s called “Ancient Sorceries.”  

The protagonist is a human who finds himself drawn to a small French city. He notices the city is quiet, well-kept and almost deserted after dark. He keeps wandering around the quiet streets and thinks:  

“For the whole town, I suddenly realized, was something other than I so far saw it. The real activities and interests of the people were elsewhere and otherwise than appeared. Their true lives lay somewhere out of sight behind the scenes. Their busy-ness was but the outward semblance that masked their actual purposes.”

It’s a master class in psychological subtlety and I can trace influences of Buddhism in it (Blackwood was a lifelong student of that religion). I think it’s really impressive to clothe a thought experiment as Horror and…he pulls it off!

“The Willows”

This is generally considered Blackwood’s best story—and it’s a masterwork. Whether it’s the plotting, the characters, the mood—it’s hard to find fault in the story. It’s simply pitch perfect.

The setup is easy: Two friends are taking a rafting trip down a deserted section of the Danube river just downstream of Budapest. They decide to land on small island (really a spit of sand) to make camp and spend the night. The island is surrounded by dense willow trees, but they find a way in. Let’s just say that everything is not as it seems and they come to regret their decision.

Whether they survive or not and what happens to them—well, I leave that up to you to discover. But here’s a great mood setting quote from it that I have drawn lots of inspiration from for what I’m trying to write now:

“…Great revelations of nature, of course, never fail to impress in one way or another, and I was no stranger to moods of the kind. Mountains overawe and oceans terrify, while the mystery of great forests exercises a spell peculiarly its own…With this multitude of willows, however, it was something far different, I felt. Some essence emanated from them that besieged the heart. A sense of awe awakened, true, but of awe touched somewhere by vague terror.”

Diving Deeper                            

These stories are from the Penguin Classics’s “Ancient Sorceries.” It’s a great place to start with Blackwood and contains some of his most famous tales. If you want to dive deeper, let me suggest two more things:

  • Centaur, a novel he wrote.
  • This short film where the man himself (in 1949!) recounts an eerie story of his. It’s about 13 minutes long and well worth the time.

My New Poem Is Out

As for me, I have a new poem “The Darkness” that’s now officially out in SFPA’s Star*Line Magazine’s Fall 2022 (45.4) issue. This won’t appear anywhere online, so you’ll have to order a physical copy of the journal here if you want to read it!

Enjoy and please help to spread the word. Thanks!


2 thoughts on “Past Masters: Algernon Blackwood

  1. Love the discussion of classic authors. It has inspired me to read more on my own. Your poetry success also has inspired me to write one of my own.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great! Glad to inspire your reading AND writing.
    BTW, have you ever considered writing for Podcasts? 🙂
    …I joke…But am glad you’re getting into poetry. I was surprised not only to find some success there, but that I actually ENJOY doing it, the actual process of writing poems. It’s made me a believer in writing poetry for its own sake, whether or not a public or publishers are waiting on the other end. …Alright, enough! Happy trails and good writing to you!

    Liked by 1 person

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