Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Algernon Blackwood, the Occult Sherlock Holmes (1914 Article)


See also Supernatural Horror in Fiction Literature - 350 Books on DVDrom (Lovecraft) and 200 Books on Fantasy and Science Fiction on DVDrom

ALMOST stealthily, out of the unknown, there has stepped into the foreground a new English writer who challenges comparison with Edgar Allan Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann. Although the author of eight or nine strange books, all written with a subtle but insistent suggestion of the uncanny, the name of Algernon Blackwood has been mentioned in the literary journals only in the last three or four years. The book that made his reputation, “John Silence, Physician Extraordinary,” has just been published in this country by Vaughan & Gomme, who intend to bring out his other books as well. Four or five of his books have already been published by Macmillan.

Modern science reaffirms many of the miracles of the Middle Ages. Obsession is a real thing to the modern psychologist. Spiritualism finds its exponents among the scientific leaders of the world. The transmutation of metals seems no longer an idle dream. Algernon Blackwood is the first writer who effectively avails himself of this renaissance of wonder in the light of modern science. He writes of the occult in terms of the psychology of the twentieth century. His hero, John Silence, is a Sherlock Holmes of the soul, hunting down the ghosts of prenatal obsession. And John Silence, by the testimony of the author's other books, is Algernoon Blackwood himself. The secret lore of the Rosicrucians is at his fingers' ends.

Familiar spirits, fire elementals, malignant forces of nature, the posthumous subsistence of desire, are the commonplaces of Blackwood's fiction. In one of his stories, “A Psychic Invasion,” he has hit upon the ingenious device of bringing the souls of lower animals, a dog and a cat, into contact with the spirit world of evil. Neither Poe nor Hoffmann, both laureates of the occult, excel the masterful interpretation of animal psychology in Blackwood's tale. He introduces here a note into fiction which is absolutely original. This overworked term, as a writer in the Evening Post remarks, is undoubtedly deserved by one who writes ghost stories like a poet. John Silence, the writer goes on to say, is a psychical doctor, and his cases are those involving the rescue of patients' souls from the perils that beset them, not in the sense in which the alienist and the moralist would speak of psychic perils, but the dangers that lie beyond the normal threshold of our senses, a world of discarnate malignant spirits. We are concerned with haunted houses, devil-worship, sorceries, a form of material which, in unskilled hands, makes the worst of shilling shockers, but which, given artistic handling, becomes, as in the present volume, literature that tempts comparison with the best of the literature of fantasy and horror.

Blackwood, remarks a writer in the London Times Literary Supplement, is a master of the horrible—perhaps the terrible is a better word. “He writes beautiful English, he creates an atmosphere of suspense and terror that thrills the most jaded reader, his plots are strikingly novel, and he varies the exciting action with delightfully humorous dialog and descriptive passages of lyrical charm.” If he uses the occult terror as a charm, adds another British literary authority, The Athenaeum, in a review of Blackwood's most recent book, “Ten-Minute Stories,” his reader is constantly reminded that “magic” is a child's word for unknown law. He provides, in short, “a nursery for the teachable materialist.” Mr. Blackwood, Public Opinion (London) remarks, has the great gift of seeing the invisible and the intangible. The same paper goes on to say: “He is a man who lives on the hilltops, and loves the wind, and believes that the whole world is apant with life—closer than hands and feet—if we could but See it.”

Mr. Blackwood's own career, according to The Bookman (New York), has been wildly adventurous. He was educated in a Moravian Brotherhood School in the Black Forest, which furnishes the background for one of his stories. He worked on a farm in Canada, edited a Methodist magazine, and superintended a dairy. His wanderings led him penniless to New York. He made a living by posing for Gibson, Cox and Zogbaum, went through the newspaper mill, working both on the Sun and the Times, and at one time was private secretary to Mr. James Speyer, the banker. Since 1905 —he must be nearly forty now—Blackwood has taken up writing and traveling. He claims no abiding-place and no possessions, not even a room in London. All he owns, we are told, three trunks can hold, and snail-like he takes his home about with him—in the winter to Switzerland and Egypt; and in summer wandering somewhere—to the Caucasus (where he wrote the “Centaur”), to the Jura Mountains (“Pan's Garden” and “The Humane Chord”), to the Dorsetshire pine woods of England (“Education and Uncle Paul”), and to the Alps (“A Prisoner in Fairyland”).

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