Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Algernon Blackwood - Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories

Algernon Blackwood wrote in the earlier years of the 20th century and has since joined the hallowed ranks of Weird Fiction's classic authors. In his study of the field, Supernatural Horror in Literature, H.P. Lovecraft called Blackwood one of the Modern Masters and wrote that Blackwood was the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere (p. 1091, H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction). Here in Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories, premier Weird scholar S.T. Joshi has collected nine of Blackwood's worthiest tales. Needless to say, they do rather more than stand the test of time.

The first thing that one realizes upon reading Blackwood is that, in his writings and perhaps beyond them, the world we know is only a thin veneer over the vast truths beneath. As Blackwood writes in "Sand": One world lay upon another, but this modern layer was a shallow crust that, like the phenomenon of the "desert-film," a mere angle of falling light could instantly obliterate (p. 321). This shallow layer of desert-film, of our modern and natural world, is kept in place by what Blackwood frequently refers to as either a veil or a curtain. That veil is made from our ignorance. But, in "The Man Who Found Out," the protagonist, after suffering a terrible revelation, says that the falsity of our world is so obvious that I can hardly understand why it is not patent to every mind in the world (p. 144); the veil, therefore, is not only our ignorance but our willful ignorance.

In his work, Blackwood continually lash out at not only the falsity of our world but also the scientific close-mindedness that underpins it and denies all else. Though written a century ago, these criticisms of materialism are still biting and, dare I say, not wholly inaccurate by any means. They are most often expressed in "Sand," so we shall return to that story once again to allow Blackwood to state his case: The mind to-day wears blinkers, studies only the details seen directly before it. Had none of us experienced love, we should think the first lover mad. […] If the world were deaf it would stand with mockery before a hearing group swayed by an orchestra, pitying both listeners and performers (pp. 301-2).

Without exception, each of Blackwood's protagonists is subjected to revelation, and its first result is a distrust or even a hatred of what the narrator of "The Insanity of Jones" comes to call the more or less interesting set of sham appearances (p. 63) that make up our world. "The Glamour of the Snow" and "Sand" society comes to look ridiculous besides the vaster world all around it; in the latter, the narrator concludes after a particularly lambasting passage, that against the background of the noble Desert their [the English socialite's] titles seemed the cap and bells of clowns (p. 283). But the veil does not only cover the actions and interactions of men; the very bedrock of the world is is shifted by its pulling aside. As Jones comes to realize, time is nothing but arbitrary nonsense (p. 63).

It is vital to remember that, with a single exception that we will come to shortly, Blackwood is not telling us what precisely lies beyond the veil. He is absolutely convinced that what we see is not all there is, but that leads him to a position of what he calls resignation filled to the brim with wonder (p. 280) rather than a new set of dogmatic beliefs. The core of his views can be most succinctly summed up as the protagonist of "Sand" says it here:  Anything may be true, since knowledge has never yet found final answers to any of the biggest questions (p. 298).

Still, we can see some of what may lie beyond the veil. The first fact of the supernatural in Blackwood's work is reincarnation. In his annotations, S.T. Joshi writes that AB believed that he himself was the reincarnation of an American Indian medicine man (p. 356). Throughout the collection, reincarnation is the main positive claim that Blackwood makes. It is the foundation for the plot of "The Insanity of Jones," but, though that's the only tale to wholly rely on it, it is present as part of the world's framework in many others, such as "Ancient Sorceries" where it is the means by which Dr. Silence explains the strange happenings or in "Sand" where the narrator speaks of the ancient soul in him (p. 327). I should be clear, however, that reincarnation is not in any way regarded as frightening or even particularly weird by Blackwood; it is simply an unacknowledged part of existence, and his protagonists experience no dread at the thought of it.

The same cannot be said for what else lies in the world of causes (p. 63) beyond the veil. It is where dwell the savage and formidable Potencies lurking behind the souls of men (p. 189). These Potencies are far vaster, more powerful, and more alien than we can imagine. These greater powers are not all behemoths that are blind to us, as in Lovecraft's Weird Fiction, nor do they all possess the malevolence exhibited by Thomas Ligotti's. The powers he writes of are intricately tied to nature and its grandeur. Yet, while they are not evil perhaps in themselves, we must remember that they are yet instinctively hostile to humanity as it exists (p. 189). If these generally indifferent powers take note of us, as they so often do in these tales, we would have no hope at all. They can kill a herd of elephants in a second as easily as you or I could squash a fly (p. 51).

The threat these powers pose us is not purely physical. Blackwood's belief in reincarnation actually serves to open another avenue for horror, for now it is our very souls that can be at risk. As we learn in "The Willows": Death, according to one's belief, mean's either annihilation or release from the limitations of the senses, but it involves no change of character. You don’t suddenly alter just because the body's gone. But this means a radical alteration, a complete change, a horrible loss of oneself by substation – far worse than death, and not even annihilation (p. 52). Throughout the collection, the true danger these powers pose is not petty destruction but rather the melting away of what we are, of what makes us human and us.

For an author with such grand themes and skills, Blackwood is not well served by having "Smith: An Episode in a Lodging House" open the collection. Still, for reasons beyond me, not only Joshi but Lovecraft himself consider the tale noteworthy. Lovecraft says that, in it, we behold frightful presences summoned out of black space by a sorcerer (p. 1092, HP Lovecraft: The Fiction). This is all true, but it's not so much an argument for the tale's importance as a bit of tidy plot summary. There is a sorcerer, but our protagonist only encounters him once or twice and not in a particularly significant way either time. Really, it's a competent but slight story that is rather forgettable and nothing at all compared to the greatness to come.

The same can not be said for "The Willows," which is by far the author's most famous piece and which Lovecraft called in a letter to Lieber the greatest weird tale ever written. Our two protagonists are canoeing down the Danube when they stop at an island surrounded by innumerable willows. Even in the tale's early parts, Blackwood's description is stunningly evocative and, at once, veritably coursing with the ethereal: The eeriness of this lonely island, set among a million willows, swept by a hurricane, and surrounded by hurrying deep waters, touched us both, I fancy. Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay there beneath the moon, remote from human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows. And we, in our rashness, had dared to invade it, even to make use of it! (p. 28)

The narrator's feelings are, needless to say, not in error. They are indeed interlopers, trespassers in that place; they have indeed touched the frontier of a region where our presence was resented (p. 29). To keep his weird majesty from devolving into some weak fright alone, Blackwood leaves danger wholly to interpretation, instead focusing on awe. The tale is made of passages of impossible splendor, nature writing, and the protagonist's increasingly overawed mental state. Though the reader and characters have no doubt of the impossible danger that they are in, the precise avenue of that danger is not clear; instead, we get a glimpse of the vastness of this region beyond our own and so don't have the image of some clawed monster reaching out for us but rather of another world, greater and more powerful than ours, that is simply brushing us off its back.

In the course of the story, the narrator remarks that when common objects in this way become charged with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of unusual appearance (p. 44). By the tale's end, those common things have indeed been truly and inexplicably mauled. All of this building atmosphere and tension is put to excellent use by its ending, which allows the protagonists to shy away from the seemingly inevitable and cataclysmic revelation awaiting them while still giving us a clue with which to reinterpret earlier parts of the tale and, thereby, giving us a glimpse beyond the veil.

Before we move on, we should also turn to the story's characters. Though Blackwood is not a writer primarily focused on character, he is adept at an understated understanding of what makes his protagonists tick, and "The Willows" is a prime example of using the personalities of its characters to both ground us in the story and to suggest greater things. From the beginning, the excitable narrator is contrasted with his partner's unimaginativeness. For a time, this gives the atmosphere the slight boost of affecting even the less gullible, but it's true purpose comes later, when the supposedly unimaginative character says that he has always been strangely vividly conscious of another region – not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind – where great things go on unceasingly (p. 52).

I will admit that, many years ago, I thought the passage a flaw, concluding that Blackwood had simply mixed his two characters up. Looking at it now, a far more meaningful and (for an author of Blackwood's skill) far more likely possibility appears. First off, it indicates that the awareness of this other region is not solely limited to those outwardly imaginative. Furthermore, it makes the narrator's companion into an embodiment of the means of coping that he espouses: The best thing you can do is to keep quiet and try to hold your mind as firm as possible. This feeble attempt at self-deception only makes the truth harder when you're forced to meet it (p. 43). The character's lack of acknowledgment of that other region, despite being aware of it, then becomes a means of survival; the way he keeps the two together and alive through the tale's early parts proof that his method can work; and the way that his firmness collapses at the end indicative of its potential failings.

As one might expect from the vintage Weird, "The Insanity of Jones" deals with the titular Jones' knowledge of the beyond. But unlike a story like "The Willows," that beyond is not a specific or localized event; Jones does not come into contact with the beyond due to some strange ritual, specific threat, or a visit to a distant place. Sensitive souls like him are, instead, aware at all times of a realm that wholly overlaps our own, of a greater world [that] lies ever at their elbow, and that any moment a chance combination of moods and forces may invite them to cross the shifting frontier (p. 63). This awareness means that, though he is capable of functioning in the modern world, Jones' passions lie ever beyond it, and he is aware as few are of the clumsy shell of space and time (p. 74). Furthermore, looking at the mundane life he is living and all the mundane lives he has lived, he realizes that he has been at this weary game for ages (p. 65).

More than any other story in the collection, "The Insanity of Jones" focuses on reincarnation. Jones is aware of his past lives, but, not only that, he is aware that he was horribly tortured in one of them, and he knows who he was tortured by. Centuries ago, his current day boss committed atrocities upon his flesh, and now Jones believes he can finally right that wrong. He learns through supernatural means that he may either use the sword of justice, or rise to the level of a great forgiveness (p. 76). Choosing the former course, Jones purchases a handgun and shoots his employer six times, horrifically wounding and torturing him before finally firing a shell into each of his eyes.

In his annotations for the story, S.T. Joshi points out that Blackwood, who believed in reincarnation, no doubt meant to subvert the insanity mentioned in the story's title. Jones, Joshi argued, is, to Blackwood, an exhibitor of a higher kind of sanity (p. 357). It's here that I have to break from Joshi's interpretation. In Blackwood's eyes, Jones is no doubt indeed showing a higher level of awareness, but, due to the incredible brutality of Jones' killing, I have a hard time believing that Blackwood supports that outcome. By showing the horrific consequences of the murder – specifying how the boss' wrist was shattered, splashing the wall behind with blood (p. 85) and other such vividly sickening details – Blackwood may be, while he acknowledges the wrong done to Jones and its need for redress, nonetheless condemning Jones' method, arguing that forgiveness was truly the only correct track.

The collection's title piece, "Ancient Sorceries," is the only one to feature Blackwood's famous psychic detective Dr. John Silence. Silence is, however, a peripheral character whose main role is listening to the story told by our protagonist, the timid and once thoroughly ordinary Vezin. After stepping off the train in a small French town, Vezin finds himself submerged in the townspeople's almost impossibly smooth and pleasant life. But, of course, all is not as it seems, and Vezin comes to realize that the townspeople's true lives lay somewhere out of sight behind the scenes […]the main stream of their existence lay somewhere beyond my ken, underground in secret places (p. 96).

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how to describe or even account for the power of this tale's first half. Though rich with portent and implication, it is nonetheless quiet in every way, and yet it inexorably relaxes the reader to an extent past the natural or comfortable, as if the narrative itself were casting a spell. Describing the story, Lovecraft wrote that it is almost hypnotically vivid (p. 1092, HP Lovecraft: The Fiction). Describing the town, Vezin says that it is like part of a softly-coloured dream which he did not even realize to be a dream (p. 93), and that description works more than passably well for the experience of reading the story.

To this bewitching brew, Blackwood adds an innkeepers daughter to the mystery's very center, and she pulls the main character towards her as he falls deeply and inescapably in love with her. In his introduction to the collection, Joshi writes that "It appears difficult to deny that Blackwood, like Poe and Lovecraft, was largely asexual, sublimating such tendencies into his work and his Nature-mysticism" (xiv). I have no reason at all to doubt the truth of that, but Blackwood, nonetheless, here shows a felicity with romance that is infinitely beyond that which can be observed in most Weird writing. The daughter, of course, turns out to be the seductive heart of the town's darkness, but that does little to alter the tender feeling with which Vezin speaks of her, the way that the mere knowledge that she was living and sleeping in the same house filled me with an extraordinary sense of delight (pp. 107-8).

Alas, the tale's end does not live up to the rest of it. Its climax, in which the town's subtle atmosphere is revealed to be an homage to Satan, is acceptable if not the equal of the excellence that came before, but its true black mark comes when Silence reenters the story once the telling's done. Silence concludes that the entire affair took place subjectively in the man's own consciousness (p. 128) and justifies that conclusion by mumbling about reincarnation and the lived memories of past lives. To explain away the events of a Weird Tale such as this would be a shame, but to do so and replace them not with reality but with another, equally confused and equally nonsensical but not at all powerful, mess of fantasy is inexcusable. Still, the last few pages can't really damage the greatness of the story as a whole.

 "The Man Who Found Out" is a stunningly pessimistic tale of revelation. It focuses on Professor Ebor, a man of science and a mystic (p. 131), Ebor's colleague, and the awful truth that Ebor finally discovers after so much searching. There isn't a huge amount of action here, and Blackwood wisely keeps the details of the ultimate revelation secret, which leaves this as one of the less striking stories of its own merits. Still, it's a powerful piece on the weight and danger of pessimism and on the threat of failure or worse in the quest for truth. In stark contrast to the inquisitive if risky position of a piece like "Sand," "The Man Who Found Out" ultimately ends with the bliss of ignorance, an escape from the merciless clairvoyance (p. 144) that leaves even a man as driven as Dr. Ebor with nothing: The central fires had gone out. Nothing was worth doing, thinking, working for. There was nothing to work for any longer! (p. 138) The story may, perhaps, be seen as the feared and possible outcome of Blackwood's resignation filled to the brim with wonder (p. 280).

Like "The Willows," the "Wendigo" takes place deep in nature. As our hunter protagonists venture deeper, Blackwood continually ramps up the majesty of the forest, a majesty that is at first simply beautiful and then, as night falls, grows frightening as it becomes clear just how much greater it is than the insignificant humans crawling through between its trunks: Outside the world of crowding trees pressed close about them, marshalling their million shadows, and smothering the little tent that stood there like a wee white shell facing the ocean of tremendous forest (p. 162). Unlike in "The Willows," though, the menace here is a far more specific one, a beast known by the natives as the Wendigo. The Wendigo comes as the night's somber atmosphere reaches its peak, and, just out of the protagonist's sight, his guide is taken by the beast.

The protagonist follows, desperate to reclaim his friend, and so begins one of the greatest triumphs of implication in all of the Weird. We never do catch up to the Wendigo, and the chase yields no clear sight of it. All we have are its footprints, its and those of its captive marching alongside it. And, as we follow that double trail, the footprints begin to change, morphing away from the human, changing to the impossible. Without a single glimpse of the foe, using nothing but shapes in the snow and the reasoning that follows their shift for his fuel, Blackwood is able to kindle an incredible atmosphere of unearthly dread amidst the freezing forest's unsearchable size.

The tale does not end there; no, before it truly closes, we get a final scene in which the shell shocked protagonist not only meets with the rest of the now shrunken hunting party but gets to see the guide one last time. That climactic scene could have been the story's undoing, but it's anything but. Using our prior knowledge and fear, Blackwood imbues ordinary conversation with the incalculable aura of wrongness until a single concrete glimpse of the perversion beneath the world sets our suspicions alight.

It is a mark of the tale's masterful impact and vividness that it can afford to diagnose itself before its completion without ruining its strength. In an attempt to explain away what he's seen, one of the hunters says that The Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified (p. 181). The claim is at once true and hopelessly inadequate. The Wendigo is, of course, an expression of Nature, but both nature and the unexplainable are both so much vaster than the speaker can comprehend that his description only serves to enhance the impossible's power.

"The Glamour of the Snow" is a competent tale served badly by being packed alongside so much greatness. Its protagonist is torn between civilization and the wilderness, and many of its descriptions are effective, but almost all of its elements are utilized stronger elsewhere in the collection. The female personification of the wild is far better in "Ancient Sorceries," the social satire in "Sand," and the natural world's call better described in "The Man Whom the Trees Loved." Ultimately, "The Glamour of the Snow" is only really memorable for two excellent bits of prose, the first of nature (Snow covered all. It smothered sound and distance. It smothered houses, streets, and human beings. It smothered – life. (p. 201)) and the latter of man and his narrow thoughts (the dead conventions that imprison literal minds (p. 205)).

The Weird's essence, its status as both vaster than man but not the kind of cheap evil seen so often in Horror, is exemplified in "The Man Whom the Trees Loved." The consciousness of the forest comes to love a man who takes care of the trees. We see this primarily from the perspective of his highly religious wife, who at first finds any belief in the forest's life absurd and then comes to dread the trees. Before long, however, she comes to realize that in the forest there is no positive evil at work, but only something that usually stands away from humankind, something alien and not commonly recognized (p. 265). That recognition, however, does not bring with it a lessening of danger, for, though not evil as we understand it, the trees are nonetheless hugely powerful, and they take her husband into them and destroy her that stands in their way.

Though the story is about the trees, its heart is the relationship between husband and wife. Initially, this is rather worrying. Mrs. Bittacy seems almost impossibly foolish, and passages such as like many women, she never really thought at all, but merely reflected the images of others' thinking which she had learned to see (pp. 217-8) are, to put it as kindly as I possibly can, not exactly indicative of a man about to write a convincing female protagonist. Thankfully, as the story progresses beyond the woman's foolishness and its long and slow opening (through which, I'll admit, I did not think much of the piece at all), Blackwood evidently forgets his low opinion of womankind and writes a woman that feels real and a love that feels powerful.

This is certainly more a tale of wonder than of terror, but I can't agree with Joshi when he writes that, in it, "fear has no place" (p. 366), for there is fear here and, more importantly still, there is tragedy. In her love, Mrs. Bittacy tries to stand aside for her husband and the trees, but such easy resignation is not possible. She is forced to watch him drawn inexorably away from her, and she is destroyed by the experience and by the forest's malice. By the end, she is utterly alone with this terror of the trees… mid the ruins of her broken and disordered mind (p. 272). She is destroyed in the very manner that so many of Blackwood's protagonists fear, for her very being is undone. As she sees herself passing away, she consoles herself with the thought that the spiritual love that linked her to her husband was safe from all attack (p. 271). But it is not so. When her husband tends to her as she fails, we learn that he just aped the services of love (p. 272). "The Man Whom the Trees Loved" took a very long time to win me over but had me completely when it did.

The collection closes with the monolithic "Sand," a story set in far off Egypt that introduces Blackwood's fascinating idea of a group soul, a fascinating idea of the interplay between the divine and the believer: A wave of spiritual awakening – a descent of spiritual life upon a nation […] forms itself a church, and the body of true believers are its sphere of action. They are literally its bodily expression. Each individual believer is a corpuscle in that Body (p. 308). Here we do not have the God and the believers existing independently, nor the believers having wrought the god; instead, the god, through the believer's faith and belief that his actions are correct, uses them as his concrete expression. Awesome stuff.

Besides that, "Sand" exhibits Blackwood's nature writing abilities to their fullest extent, is the source of much of the criticism of science that I quoted in the introduction, and features the summoning of a Power amidst the desert's sands, one whose splendor could never lodge in minds that conceive Deity perched upon a cloud within telephoning distance of fashionable churches (p. 339). Like "The Man Whom the Trees Loved," "Sand" is a slow building tale, and it is fully capable of having an entire chapter given over to philosophical and symbolic discussions and debates. But the spell of its atmosphere is present from the beginning and, by its climax, its every word is filled with incredible depths and dreads.

By this point, it is no doubt needless for me to say that Algernon Blackwood lives up to his reputation. Nonetheless, I will say it; he does. But it's more than that. Blackwood's work is a brilliant envisioning of the Weird and the incomprehensible, an evoking of what the author calls with immeasurable understatement the peculiar beyond ordinary (p. 164). These stories not only defy time and the reality that gave our conception of it birth but, themselves, are timeless.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting, as ever.

    A few of these stories are over at Project Gutenberg as free ebooks.

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/1370

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