Roarings from further out: Four weird novellas by Algernon Blackwood
I picked this book up in Kinokuniya looking for a new horror book to read. This is a compilation of four novellas by Algernon Blackwood; The Willows, Ancient Sorceries, The Wendigo and The Man Whom The Trees Loved. I got interested because it was marketed as weird fiction, and wanting to expand my weird fiction forte beyond just Lovecraft (read my opinion of that one here) was one of the reasons why I got it. I suppose I wanted to read more horror because I was trying to answer one question every new horror writer must ask in their lives.
How do you terrify a reader?
The answer is plainly laid out for students of visual media such as film, video games and even theater. It basically boils down to “show something scary on screen”. Jumpscares, camera tricks, blocking and angles, these are their tools of the trade. And since you’re filming, you can control the pace at which the audience receives your information. Slow down, establish a beat, then jumpscare. That’s pretty standard. But how do you do it in a print medium? You can’t visually show something scary happening. Right away, you’re at a disadvantage.
The stories contained within this book are very scary, but my reaction to them isn’t as strong as, say, a visual depiction of horror. As I type that I’m put in mind of Sadako crawling out of the TV, a ghostly apparition appearing in a window, or just a chainsaw wielding maniac bursting through the wall. But although my reaction to Blackwood’s stories aren’t as strong, I say again; they were very scary.
What was so scary about them? Part of it, I think, was the intimacy. Let’s back up for a second.
If you’ll notice, Western horror involves a lot of violent body horror, axe murderers and serial killers. Maybe an alien or two. Rarely does it involve supernatural horror — even zombies are explained away by it being a virus of some sort. In contrast, Eastern horror involves nothing but supernatural horror. Sadako of The Ring fame is an onryo, Malaysian B-Horror flicks abound with pocong and pontianak, in fact even the most recent supernatural horror in the West was directed by James Wan, with Eastern heritage.
Why is this? My opinion is that this is due to what each society believes is possible. The West is largely secular — they don’t believe in ghosts, spirits and the supernatural, and their culture revolves less around those. People, though, people doing very bad things to other people are very real to them, and so they fear that more. The East is more spiritual. You can’t swing a dead cat without someone telling you the cat’s vengeful spirit will haunt you. Eastern culture revolves a lot around spirituality. Being haunted or cursed is very real to them. The idea here is that people are more scared of something when there’s a greater perceived likelihood that the thing they saw happen to someone else could happen to them.
This is how I think Blackwood’s horror, and literary horror in general, works. In writing, you get an intimacy you won’t — or can’t — get from film or other visual media, which is being in the same headspace as the point of view character. In writing you can show a character’s moods, know what they’re thinking, feel how they’re feeling. You can see the internal world of a character and see what’s making them tick.
Algernon Blackwood, being one of the old guard writers from the early 20th century, is one of the masters of this style of internal narrative. I hadn’t heard of him before picking the book up, and was pleasantly surprised by how clear his style was. Again, he writes very wordy passages, describing things in minute detail, but it never becomes cumbersome — every paragraph has a point, a reason for being, even though sometimes the themes he attempts to convey feel like he’s beating you over the head with it. This, however, is perhaps a reflection of how his writing compares to modern ‘writing as if you’re seeing things through a camera lens’ style rather than any weakness in the writing itself. This is most apparent in the novella Ancient Sorceries, where he hammers the cat motif home and keeps banging on and on about it for what seems like a million years.
Ancient Sorceries is apparently just one in a series of stories about a character Blackwood has created after joining the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Dr John Silence is an occult physician, who uses his scientific and medical mind to tackle supernatural occurrences. In this story, however, Dr Silence is listening to a man relate a trip to France and how he became entangled in a village whose people seemed to turn into cats at night. The whole experience ends without Dr Silence doing anything other than listening to the man’s narration.
Ancient Sorceries is the odd one out of the four. For one, its setting is decidedly urban as opposed to the nature settings of the other three — even The Man Whom the Trees Loved had the Forest as both a location and Character, and invades (quite literally) into the main characters’ lives. In fact, this is a recurring theme in Blackwood’s stories; where Lovecraft sought terror beyond the stars, Blackwood seems to argue that nature contains enough to terrify and threaten humanity already. Three out of four of the novellas deal with terrors arising from nature; the unmentionable horrors from The Willows, the titular Wendigo, and the massive Forest in The Man Whom the Trees Loved. Ancient Sorceries, the John Silence story, is the exception.
In Ancient Sorceries, the threat of nature is replaced by the threat of the occult — of the titular Ancient Sorceries, and reflects Blackwood’s interest in the occult (come on, the man joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. You don’t join that outfit unless you’re a little bit interested in occultism). I feel this makes it the weakest. Of the four novellas in the book, I feel Blackwood was at his best when writing about Threats From Nature, of the weird things that hide in the wilderness where man does not trod. Don’t get me wrong — I liked Ancient Sorceries, but it wouldn’t be the go to story I’d point to if one asked me about Algernon Blackwood.
The Willows was the first of the novellas and thus the first one I read. It tells of two men, unnamed (the narrator only ever uses first person pronouns and the other character is only ever referred to as The Swede) canoeing down the river Danube. They take a break on a sandbar, only to find themselves threatened by…something, coming from the willows nearby. This is characteristic of weird fiction stories — the characters often find themselves in situations facing things they cannot describe with any certainty. Indeed, Blackwood eschews a ‘camera’ description of the entities bugging the Swede and (I’m assuming) the Briton, preferring instead to describe how the entities made them feel, or what they saw, or thought they saw. This helps with the intimacy I mentioned earlier. For instance, early in the story they see a dead body floating in the river — ominous. But they aren’t sure, and the text doesn’t give any clues. They eventually decide it’s actually a log that somehow looks like a dead body, and is dismissed summarily by the characters and the text alike, until the final act of the novella when the characters see what could have happened to them if the entities in The Willows have their way.
The other two novellas in the book are tied by another, singular theme aside from Blackwood’s continuing theme of threats from nature; the unmistakable Call of the Wild, that threatens to overwhelm a man’s senses and draw him into the wild, forsaking civilization and reason, becoming one with the wilds themselves. The Wendigo and The Man Whom the Trees Love both have this theme, but it is more apparent with the latter — and I also believe that the latter is better.
In fact, I feel The Wendigo is the weakest of the four novellas. Not for its lack of horror — it has that aplenty — but because of its depiction of the Wendigo. I cannot claim to be an expert in Wendigo lore, but all that I’ve heard of the Native American legend does not jive at all with Blackwood’s description. Worse, racism rears its ugly head again. A native character, named Punk, is featured but he doesn’t do anything, not even warn the White Man off Wendigo territory. There isn’t even any mention of White Man going where he ain’t wanted. In fact, Punk’s only reason for being is so one of the White Man can tell him to ‘wash his dirty brown skin’. Arguably, this serves to show rather than tell all of the above, but I can’t help but feel that racism, not a desire to attribute a legend accurately to its origins and creating thematic cohesion, was the driving desire here. If it were so the legend would be more accurate, now wouldn’t it?
The final story took my breath away. All that happens in The Man Whom the Trees Loved is a man, who lives on the border of the forest, is consumed by a strange entity. This entity is attributed to the collective consciousness of the Forest, and much to the horror of his Christian wife, the Forest loves him and wants him for itself. This novella in fact shows how effective internal narrative can be in creating horror in writing. Several pages tell of nothing but the wife’s inner turmoil as her husband is slowly but surely overcome by the will of the trees, her helplessness to do anything, and the sense of dread that the Forest evokes in her. I believe this impossible to adapt to screen — not with any sort of justice done to the original story, anyway.
I’m glad I read this book. It truly is a classic of English literature, especially of the weird fiction or horror genre. It’s right up there with my favorite books of all time. The only issue is that picking a next book to read is going to be impossible; I had trouble reading my planned next read because I was too enamored by Blackwood. Hopefully, I can find more of his other works, and enjoy them too sometime in the future.