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Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was one of the most prolific English writers of the twentieth century across short stories, novels and plays. His passion for the supernatural and for ghost stories often made readers and critics to compare him to M. R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu. Some even argue that he had a more sophisticated style and that a more artistic touch marked his extraordinary storytelling. Today, much of his excellent fiction remains out of print and undiscovered by the wide public. Algernon Blackwood was born in on March 14th 1869 in Shooter’s Hill, now part of modern day South East London, to an upper middle-class family who led a religious life. His mother was a widowed Duchess and his father was her second husband. Biographers believe that Algernon started to be interested in subjects related to the paranormal and the supernatural at an early age, being influenced by the kind of life his parents were living as new converts to Calvinism. His father, who was a post office administrator, sent him to be educated at Wellington College.
However, his fascination with “weird” stories only grew stronger and he started to read on Oriental philosophies, mysticism and occultism. Later, his interests made him join the renowned The Ghost Club which had earlier been joined by other important writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle and William Butler Yeats. It was hence that Algernon Blackwood started to consider writing on the subject of the supernatural and his writings took various forms ranging from the ghost story and children’s stories to plays and long novels. However, in addition to displaying his wide knowledge related to subjects such as mysticism, hypnotism and ghosts, Blackwood’s writings were also enriched by his long and diversified life experience. In fact, after leaving university and visiting parts of Europe, mainly Switzerland, the young writer was sent to the new continent. He settled in Canada and then in the United States where he occupied numerous different jobs and extended his comprehension of life and people. He worked as a farmer, a bartender, a secretary, a journalist and a reporter, and a teacher. This enriching experience was not very successful on the financial level, though, and he eventually had to return to his home land. It was only when he came back to England that Blackwood started to give his writing activities more importance. It all started when two of his supernatural stories were published in the Pall Mall Magazine. They were entitled “A Haunted Island” (1906) and “A Case of Eavesdropping” (1900) and dealt with weird apparition. Meanwhile, the young writer kept on travelling and enriching his experience and imagination, meeting new people and visiting new places.
Blackwood’s name started to be associated with supernatural fiction among the literary circles of the age as more of his highlyentertaining stories were published. In 1906, his first volume was published under the title The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories and realized considerable success. In addition to the other strange accounts related in the volume, the eponymous story centers around the then classic theme of the haunted house and follows the heroes who accept a challenge to spend a night inside the house. It is believed that most of these stories were based on the author’s personal experiences. While being rather unsuccessful with non-fiction and journalistic reports, Blackwood’s rise to fame with his ghost stories was phenomenal. More collections of short and ghost stories followed, including The Listener and Other Stories (1907) and John Silence: Physician Extraordinary (1908), which were flavored by the introduction of a detective tone.
When Blackwood’s stories achieved an outstanding success, publishers encouraged him to produce more and he was invited by radio and television to retell his stories, which helped popularize his works and familiarize his name. During the same period, Blackwood also published a number of stories for children which do not all draw on the supernatural tradition. These included a Victorian love story entitled “The Story of Karl Ott,” published in the Pall Mall Magazine in 1896. In 1910, there was also the publication of a collection of stories for children under the title The Lost Valley and Other Stories. With the outbreak of the First World War, Blackwood was assigned a responsibility with the British intelligence and engaged in writing propaganda to support his country’s war efforts. While developing a life-time personal interest in occultism and the metaphysical, Blackwood often expressed implicit criticism of organized religion and openly criticized churchman at times. For instance, this can be perceived in one of his short stories entitled “An Egyptian Hornet” published in 1915.
The story juxtaposes the behavior of two Englishmen staying in the same hotel in Egypt. The one is a priest who is there to give masses to the English living in Egypt and the second is an irreligious drunkard who never hides his contempt for parsons. By the end of the story, the hypocrisy and cowardice of the priest and the honesty and bravery of his adversary are unveiled by the little insect of the title. What is particularly entertaining in the narrative, however, is the way Blackwood minutely and figuratively describes the Egyptian wasp: The word has an angry, malignant sound that brings the idea of attack vividly into the mind. There is a vicious sting about it somewhere - even a foreigner, ignorant of the meaning, must feel it. A hornet is wicked; it darts and stabs; it pierces, aiming without provocation for the face and eyes. The name suggests a metallic droning of evil wings, fierce flight, and poisonous assault. Though black and yellow, it sounds scarlet. There is blood in it. A striped tiger of the air in concentrated form! There is no escape - if it attacks.
The 1910s was also the period when Blackwood started to be interested in writing novels. The latter form offered him the opportunity to develop more serious ideas about the paranormal world and to explore the relationship between man and metaphysical powers. This manifests, for instance, in one of his most important novels entitled The Centaur published in 1911. Many critics and biographers argue that Blackwood’s oeuvre and the themes developed in them reflect the author’s own personality and experience. This was also confirmed in the plays that he started to write at a later stage. Among his most popular plays, one can probably mention The Starlight Express (1915) which was co-authored by Violet Pearn and which was actually an adaptation of an earlier novel by Blackwood entitled A Prisoner in Fairyland.
Blackwood also wrote other plays and in 1927 another influential collection of short stories was published under the title The Dance of Death and Other Tales. Apart from a sole autobiography that Blackwood wrote earlier in his life and entitled Episodes before Thirty (1923), a number of critical works dealt with his life and works. These included a biography by the British editor and bibliographer Mike Ashley. The volume is entitled Algernon Blackwood: An Extraordinary Life (2001). The name of Blackwood also appeared in H. P. Lovecraft’s seminal and foundational work on horror fiction, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” in which the American horror writer and critic hails him as one of the “masters”. Lovecraft mainly showed a particular fascination with Blackwood’s tale entitled “The Willows” which he considered as an ultimate masterpiece. Towards his last years, Blackwood published The Doll and One Other which was also a runaway success. The eponymous story deals with the motif of the supernaturally malignant little doll, a motif that has incessantly kept on returning after Blackwood.
In 1949, Blackwood was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire which was an official recognition of his literary merits as well as of the services he presented to the British nation during the First World War. Other tales of sorceries and magic were anthologized following Blackwood’s death. Having spent a very hectic life, full of travelling and explorations of the natural and the supernatural, Algernon Blackwood died on December 10th, 1951 after a series of strokes. His ashes were sprinkled on Mount Saanenmoser in Switzerland, a place that the writer was fond of and that he had visited on many an occasion.
Literary scholars and critics recognized the merits of Algernon Blackwood as a major contributor to horror fiction, ghost stories and the Gothic genre. He was, indeed, somebody who dedicated his whole life to the quest of the supernatural and had always understood that what is hidden and kept beyond natural consciousness should be more pertinently explored through the arts and the imagination. As he was to write “My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty. So many of my stories, therefore, deal with extension of consciousness; speculative and imaginative treatment of possibilities outside our normal range of consciousness. ... Also, all that happens in our universe is natural; under Law; but an extension of our so limited normal consciousness can reveal new, extra-ordinary powers etc., and the word "supernatural" seems the best word for treating these in fiction. I believe it possible for our consciousness to change and grow, and that with this change we may become aware of a new universe. A "change" in consciousness, in its type, I mean, is something more than a mere extension of what we already possess and know.