From the genre literally called ‘weird fiction’, Blackwood’s creepy Edwardian, late-Gothic tales from beyond the veil between Heaven and Earth are best read by firelight in a deep leather armchair on a cold winter’s night.
I like Gothic. I’ve read Dracula and some M.R James. Frankenstein is perpetually on my to-read list. I’ve grown up in an esoteric, half-Roma household full of Tarot cards and stories about Aleister Crowley sending a demon to kill one of his enemies on a remote Scottish Island. I thought I knew what I was getting into with this book, but nothing can quite prepare you for your first experience of Algernon Blackwood.
I don’t know if I ever would have stumbled upon this incredible name had I not decided to translate neo-Gothic fiction loosely based on his autobiography for my dissertation, but I’m glad I did. This is a collection of short stories put together by Reyes with a delightfully short introduction. The stories (“The Willows”, “Ancient Stories”, “The Wendigo”, and “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”) are actually more like novellas, and some are even weirder than others, but there are some overarching themes: nature, the supernatural, occultism, spiritualism, fabulous creatures, philosophy, psychology, dreams and nature. Did I say nature twice? I meant to. There’s nary a paragraph here without a tree in it.
The stories are well worth reading. There’s a deep beauty to them, something haunting and almost intangible. They drip with horror and existential angst, but Blackwood never fails to show his deep regard for nature and the Earth we live on. A lot of the prose is incredibly introspective and internal, which is not necessarily a bad thing, just don’t expect much action or dialogue.
Blackwood is good at building a sense of dread and his descriptions are beautiful. His personification of the land we live on, and his deep psychological analyses of the unexplained are things I’d never experienced on this level before. You finish each novella with the distinct feeling that there could be things in Heaven and Earth that we could never even begin to understand, or things working in our subconscious to slowly drive us mad.
He brings in so many fantastical subjects: the weirdest novella of the four covers a tourist who stops at a French village and slowly begins to realise that the people actually turn into cats at night and behave more and more like cats during the day. Despite the utter nuttiness of this, the prose never feels forced or contrived. Blackwood can somehow make a ridiculous premise or situation feel believable and tangible, which is no mean feat.
This prose is incredibly ‘of its time’. I feel like most paragraphs could have been half as long as they ended up. The editor in me wants to put lines through so many superfluous adverbs, adjectives and even whole sentences which say almost exactly the same thing as the preceding sentence. But, then again, this was the style back then. It was completely normal to be verbose, to have purple prose, to add in reams and reams of disorientating description. Sometimes there was so much description I lost sight of what was actually being described.
I feel like these stories could do with a modern-retelling, much abridged. The ideas are so original and the creepiness so acute, but the stories do tend to go on for twice as long as they need to, which does damage the tension and suspense somewhat. The verbosity of the prose also dilutes the action, and the dialogue is lost amongst page-long paragraphs of internal monologue or natural descriptions.
Obviously, these stories were published over a hundred years ago, so it’s not surprising that there’s a bit of casual paedophilia thrown in (a forty-something man falling in love with a seventeen-year-old girl in “Ancient Sorceries”), and the image of women, along with Native American characters, is pretty dim. Actually, there are hardly any female characters at all, and, where they do exist, they are passive, not particularly intelligent, and extremely self-sacrificing. The two N-words also appear (both ‘negro’ and the unsayable one). Again, this was completely normal at the time, but it does make the modern reader’s toes curl.