Friday, April 26, 2013

Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood (stories 1906-1917)

     Algernon Blackwood spent his whole life under the spell of nature. For him nature was not only an escape from the cruelties of urban life, it was a gateway to a larger world that existed just beyond our own. The trees, the rocks and the sky were all alive to him and harbored a consciousness. He felt that communication with this life was possible if only he could find a way. These feelings were behind all his work and it was a sense of awe rather than pure fear that he hoped to instill in his readers.
   All that being said, he wrote some of the most terrifying stories of the twentieth century. Most of his best are indeed found in this "best of" volume. I can't think of a better introduction to this great writer than this book.
   The best story is the first, The Willows. H. P. Lovecraft felt that this was the greatest weird tale ever written, and if Lovecraft had never written any stories himself it still would be. It tells the story of two friends who are traveling by canoe on the Danube river and camp on a small, sandy island surrounded by willows. Here they encounter strange elemental beings that seem to exist just outside our own world. No summary can to justice to this story. The building of suspense and horror are brilliantly presented and Blackwood succeeded in instilling a sense of cosmic awe. It is unlike anything that came before and it is small wonder that Lovecraft was so impressed.
   For pure horror The Wendigo is probably the stand-out story. A hunting party encounters the legendary Wendigo of Native-American legend. The encounter is uniquely different from anything one would expect, and really delivers the chills. Take this one on your next camping trip to the deep woods.
   The Glamour of the Snow is particularly interesting. It tells the story of a man's meeting with a woman who just might be a nature elemental. However, the story is truly about Blackwood's own feelings of conflict between urban life and living in the larger natural world. The main character is torn between them and he must choose between the two. A very dangerous choice as it turns out.
   For a classic ghost story, The Listener is one of the best. It is a creepy tale of  haunting and possession. The ending is probably more sad than shocking for today's readers but that seems to work to its advantage.
   I also must give special mention to the final story, Max Hensig. This is so unlike any other story in the book that it gives a great sense of Blackwood's range as a writer. It takes place in New York City with all its urban grime and it is not a supernatural story at all. It is a brilliant suspense story about an alcoholic reporter who becomes the target of a fiendish serial killer. Max Hensig, the killer, is a truly vile and menacing character that one would expect to find in more modern fiction. Blackwood spent time as a New York reporter himself, a bitterly unhappy period for him, and his experience gives this story a grim sense of reality.
   Nearly all the stories in this book are good. The Empty House, a typical haunted house story, is the only one that really falls short. This was one of Blackwood's earliest tales, and it shows. There really isn't an ounce of fear in the whole thing, and frankly the comic-relief characters are so annoying that one can't help but hope for their demise. That said, it is more than made up for by the other stories in the book. The rest are top-notch. 
   Blackwood is one of the most important writers of the early twentieth century. It is a real shame that he isn't better known today by general readers. For fans of horror fiction however, he remains a giant. If you are unfamiliar with him do yourself a favor and pick up this book. 

1 comment:

  1. Sounds good, I hadn't been very familiar with Blackwood before.