"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
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 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 glass. 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
"Max Hensig -- Bacteriologist and Murderer"
"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"