Friday, October 28, 2016

FFB: The Listener - Algernon Blackwood

Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay beneath the moon, almost unknown to human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows.

The Listener (1907) is the second collection of short stories from one of the most innovative of British supernatural fiction writers, Algernon Blackwood. The nine stories, two of them of novella length, present a variety of unusual approaches to the traditional ghost tale, as well as one story of crime, all incorporating Blackwood's interest in the power of the imagination and the psychological triggers that make his characters susceptible to other worldly encounters. In many of his tales the narrators and protagonists inadvertently summon the creatures and ghosts by simply thinking about the possibilities of the strange and eerie circumstances they find themselves in. From a petulant writer who demands quiet and no disturbances while he taps out his meager newspaper features to an adventurous camper canoeing the wild waters of the Danube each character finds himself not only at the mercy of his raving imagination but under the influence of powers he cannot nor could not ever fathom. The first three stories in the collection were of most interest to me.

"The Listener" is exemplary of Blackwood's recurring themes and motifs. The unnamed narrator is struggling writer who ekes out his living contributing features to magazines and newspapers. In the first paragraph we learn he has discovered a room in a boarding house at the astonishingly cheap rate of £25 a year. He's an irritable fellow, demanding and a bit patronizing to everyone over the course of the story. His major pet peeve is disturbing outside noises that interfere with his concentration preventing him from completing his work. It all begins with a little boy dragging a toy cart with a missing wheel across the cobblestoned courtyard. The clattering grates on his nerves so much he shouts at the boy to stop, complains to the landlady and anyone else who will listen to get the boy to take the broken toy somewhere else. He's also irritated by frequent visitors to the house and interruptions from the servants. But when the noises turn to a voice in his room whispering at first, then crying out in anguish "Give me your skin!" he begins to understand why he got the room so cheaply. He starts having luridly vivid nightmares, thinks he is going mad, and finally comes to a terrifying realization. The final sentence in the book delivers a sucker punch making all that previously happened even more chilling.

BLACKWOOD MOMENT: ...I find myself suddenly dealing in thoughts and ideas that are not my own! New, strange conceptions, wholly foreign to my temperament, are for ever cropping up in my head. [...] Sometimes they are so strong that I almost feel as if some one were in the room beside me, thinking aloud.

Algernon Blackwood, circa 1907
at the age of 38
In the second story we meet another reporter who has been assigned to cover the upcoming trial of "Max Hensig - Bacteriologist and Murderer". This is a remarkable story for its stunning foreshadowing of a popular subgenre in crime fiction. In addition to Blackwood's fascination of master criminal behavior and abnormal psychology all the rage in popular fiction at this time, this story shares many features with the modern day serial killer novel. Max Hensig may very well be the template character that led to the creation of Hannibal Lecter seventy years later. He is a German doctor on trial for the arsenic poisoning of his wife. He claims innocence of course, dismissing the method employed as one beneath him. in his interviews with Williams, the protagonist reporter, Hensig brags that he has an entirely undetectable means of murder. He would use bacteria and germs to kill his victims and would never be on trial had he truly committed murder. Death of his victims would be ascertained as natural causes, succumbing to a fatal virus or a malingering infection. Hensig even predicts that he will be acquitted of the crime, that Williams will help that verdict come true in his news stories. Much to everyone's shock the prediction comes true. But that is not the end of Williams' relationship with Hensig.

Williams is appalled yet morbidly attracted to Hensig. His journalist colleague known only as "the Senator" warns him to keep the interviews to a minimum. He would avoid Hensig altogether if he were Williams. Throughout the story Hensig is referred to as evil, without morals, a man "to be shunned", and "a monster". The mix of repulsion/attraction Williams has for Hensig is amazingly similar to feelings Clarice Starling has for Lecter as well as many other similar adversarial duos in crime fiction. That Hensig cannot leave Williams alone, that the two have become inextricably linked in a mad battle of wills and for survival, is also strikingly resonant with all serial killer fiction. I strongly recommend this story to anyone interested in the origins of that popular subgenre. The story is rife with fictional and structural motifs that are clearly precursors to the modern serial killer novel.

BLACKWOOD MOMENTS: The Senator and Williams are in a bar in Chinatown. They see a pathetic drunken barfly in a shadowy corner of the room, a woman who has degraded herself so much she no longer resembles a woman. The Senator says, "There's not much to choose between Hensig and that" pointing to the woman. But Williams counters with: "All the difference in the world. She's been decent once, and may be again some day, but the damned doctor has never been anything but what he is -- a soulless, intellectual devil. He doesn't belong to humanity at all."

So gradual sometimes are the approaches of fear that the processes by which it takes possession of a man's soul are often too insidious to be recognized, much less to be dealt with, until their object has been finally accomplished and the victim has lost the power to act.

illustration by Stanley Sydney from
The Willows & Other Queer Tales (Collins, 1923)
The stand out of the collection and one of Blackwood's most often anthologized stories is "The Willows." Here we have all of his trademarks -- a narrator with a wild imagination who witnesses other worldly phenomena, a strong interest in the natural world and its power to terrify and intimidate humans in its awesomeness, and ancient elemental forces that want nothing to do with human interference in their domain no matter how innocuous or unintended. It may very well be the first story that uses the idea of communing with nature and the danger inherent in outdoor adventure to convey horror and fear rather than celebrate tranquility and the beauty of the natural world. Imagine if The Blair Witch Project or Deliverance took place at the Austria-Hungary border and add in some of the most originally conceived weird beings and you might begin to get an idea of what awaits you in "The Willows".

The writing shows Blackwood at his most evocative. In "The Willows" he begins to develop fully his ideas of unearthly creatures that live in an alternate dimension unbeknownst to humans. Forces of nature become terrifying. The beings that relentlessly hunt down the two campers in "The Willows" are invisible most of the time, when they take shape it is difficult for either man to describe them or put into words what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. They are elemental forces, shapeless things that leave odd funnel shaped holes in the sand as the travel or emerge from where they lay in wait.

If all this sounds familiar it should. The ideas expressed in "The Willows" serve as the foundation for the work of H.P. Lovecraft and all his acolytes from the 1920s to the present. At one point the Swedish man who at first is the most intellectual of the two, later the most terrified, refers to the things on the island as "the old ones". As the two men confront their fears and witness literally awesome powers at work it is hard not to think of the horde of creatures that make up Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.

BLACKWOOD MOMENTS: Mountains overawe and oceans terrify, while the mystery of great forests exercises a spell peculiarly its own. But all these, at one point or another, somewhere link on intimately with human life and human experience. They stir comprehensible, even if alarming, emotions. They tend on the whole to exalt. With this multitude of willows, however, it was something far different, I felt.

I seemed to be gazing at the personified elemental forces of this haunted and primeval region. Our intrusion had stirred the powers of the place into activity. It was we who were the cause of the disturbance, and my brain filled to bursting with stories and legends of the spirits and deities of places that have been acknowledged and worshipped by men in all ages of the world's history.

Never, before or since, have I been so attacked by indescribable suggestions of a "beyond region," of another scheme of life, another evolution not parallel to the human. And in the end our minds would succumb under the weight of the awful spell, and we should be drawn across the frontier into their world.

THINGS I LEARNED: A horse's collar is a cocktail made with bourbon, ginger ale, and a long curling orange rind extending outside the lass. It's apparently still somewhat popular and can be found in modern bartending books though the name has been changed to horse's neck.

In the early twentieth century US news reporters covering the firehouse and arson beat would be issued "a conspicuous brass badge" called a fire badge. As Blackwood tells us in "Max Hensig..." this badge "gave them the right to pass within the police cordon in pursuit of information, and at their own risk."

EASY TO FIND? While the original Eveleigh Nash 1907 collection is a rarity in the book collecting world and will cost you a chunk of change should you want to own a genuine first edition the stories are easily found in modern collections of Blackwood's tales as well as countless supernatural fiction anthologies. I guarantee it will be easy to find most of these stories, especially "The Willows", both in book format and for free at various online fiction websites.

Entire Contents of The Listener
"The Listener"
"Max Hensig -- Bacteriologist and Murderer"
"The Willows"
"The Insanity of Jones"
"The Dance of Death"
"The Old Man of Vision"
"May Day Eve"
"Miss Slumbubble--and Claustrophobia"
"The Woman's Ghost Story"

5 comments:

  1. Never been attracted to horror stories. Too chickenshit, maybe.

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  2. Hi John, Great post and really interesting. Blackwood is to some extent very underrated. ' The Kit Bag' is one of my favourite ghost stories!

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  3. Another author I read a lot of in my teens but it has been decades and decades - must (re_read THE WILLOWS - thanks chum.

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  4. John, I read Max Hensing recently and was so impressed that I am looking forward to reading more of Blackwood. The Listener seems to be a very interesting collection. But I wish they has not added the subtitle to the story of Hensing. The vol that I read and reviewed this friday does not have the subtitle so there was an added dimension to the story that perhaps it is Williams own prejudice that makes Hensing seem like a devil.

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    1. Hmmm... That is a possible reading. But I think the other aspects of the story: the perceptions of "the Senator" that lead to his warning, Hensing's own words, serve to underscore that Hesing is in fact a monster and a devil.

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