Sunday, March 03, 2024

Classic Ghost Story Writers: L. P. Hartley

Joseph Losey, dir.: The Go-Between (1971)
[writ. Harold Pinter / adapted from the 1953 novel by L. P. Hartley]

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

This, the first line of The Go-Between, is certainly L. P. Hartley's most commonly quoted phrase - though it was apparently first used by his friend Lord David Cecil in his inaugural lecture as Goldsmiths' Professor in 1949.

L. P. Hartley (1895-1972)

Among all his other achievements as a writer, Hartley is perhaps not so well known as the author of some of the most effective ghost stories of the twentieth century.

Which are the best among them? Well, "A Visitor from Down Under" certainly takes pride of place. "The Travelling Grave" runs it a close second, though. What else? "Podolo", certainly - possibly "Feet Foremost", also.

You'll note that all of these are quite early stories, written, though not necessarily collected, before the Second World War, after which his energies turned decisively towards establishing himself as a novelist of manners, somewhat in the vein of Aldous Huxley or Henry James.

So what is it that makes this handful of stories so outstanding?

L. P. Hartley: A Visitor from Down Under (1926)

Let's start with "A Visitor from Down Under".

The protagonist of the story, Mr. Rumbold, has sat down in the lounge of his hotel to have an apéritif before dinner. After a while, he realises he can hear a voice - "A cultivated voice, perhaps too cultivated, slightly husky, yet careful and precise in its enunciation" - coming from the wall above his head:
‘ . . . A Children’s Party,’ the voice announced in an even, neutral tone, nicely balanced between approval and distaste, between enthusiasm and boredom; ‘six little girls and six little’ (a faint lift in the voice, expressive of tolerant surprise) ‘boys. The Broadcasting Company has invited them to tea, and they are anxious that you should share some of their fun.’ (At the last word the voice became completely colourless.) ‘I must tell you that they have had tea, and enjoyed it, didn’t you, children?’ (A cry of ‘Yes,’ muffled and timid, greeted this leading question.) ‘We should have liked you to hear our table-talk, but there wasn’t much of it, we were so busy eating.’ For a moment the voice identified itself with the children. ‘But we can tell you what we ate. Now, Percy, tell us what you had.’
Obviously a voice on the radio, obviously from some kind of children's hour broadcast. So far, so banal. But as it continues, things begin to seem just a little bit ... off:
A piping little voice recited a long list of comestibles; like the children in the treacle-well, thought Rumbold, Percy must have been, or soon would be, very ill. A few others volunteered the items of their repast. ‘So you see,’ said the voice, ‘we have not done so badly. And now we are going to have crackers, and afterwards’ (the voice hesitated and seemed to dissociate itself from the words) ‘Children’s Games.’ There was an impressive pause, broken by the muttered exhortation of a little girl. ‘Don’t cry, Philip, it won’t hurt you.’ Fugitive sparks and snaps of sound followed; more like a fire being kindled, thought Rumbold, than crackers. A murmur of voices pierced the fusillade. ‘What have you got, Alec, what have you got?’ ‘I’ve got a cannon.’ ‘Give it to me.’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, lend it to me.’ ‘What do you want it for?’ ‘I want to shoot Jimmy.’
After that the games begin. After "Ring-a-Ring of Roses", it's "Oranges and Lemons", with its sinister refrain:
Here is a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!
A child screamed, and there was silence.
"Mr. Rumbold felt quite upset, and great was his relief when, after a few more half-hearted rounds of ‘Oranges and Lemons,’ the Voice announced, ‘Here We Come Gathering Nuts and May.’ At least there was nothing sinister in that."
The game began afresh. This time there was an eager ring in the children’s voices: two tried antagonists were going to meet: it would be a battle of giants. The chant throbbed into a war-cry.
Who will you have for your Nuts and May,
Nuts and May, Nuts and May;
Who will you have for your Nuts and May
On a cold and frosty morning?
They would have Victor Rumbold for Nuts and May, Victor Rumbold, Victor Rumbold: and from the vindictiveness in their voices they might have meant to have had his blood, too.
And who will you send to fetch him away,
Fetch him away, fetch him away;
Who will you send to fetch him away
On a cold and frosty morning?
Like a clarion call, a shout of defiance, came the reply:
We’ll send Jimmy Hagberd to fetch him away,
Fetch him away, fetch him away;
We’ll send Jimmy Hagberd to fetch him away
On a wet and foggy evening.
I think by now we can tell that it's all up with Mr. Victor Rumbold. Whatever it is that he's been getting up to down under, Jimmy Hagberd's coming to deal with him. And, when the visitor finally arrives at the hotel:
‘... take this message to Mr. Rumbold,’ said the stranger. ‘Say, “Would he rather that I went up to him, or that he came down to me?” ’
It doesn't make much difference in the end.

There are, to be sure, many such stories of nemesis being visited upon some smug fraudster, but it's the incidental details - such as the fact that the visitor comes to Mr. Rumbold on the top of a London bus, and finds considerable difficulty in paying his fare - which singles it out from the others:
‘Look here, now. Where do you want this ticket? In your button-hole?’

‘Put it here,’ said the passenger.

‘Where?’ asked the conductor. ‘You aren’t a blooming letter-rack.’

‘Where the penny was,’ replied the passenger. ‘Between my fingers.’

The conductor felt reluctant, he did not know why, to oblige the passenger in this. The rigidity of the hand disconcerted him: it was stiff, he supposed, or perhaps paralysed. And since he had been standing on the top his own hands were none too warm. The ticket doubled up and grew limp under his repeated efforts to push it in. He bent lower, for he was a good-hearted fellow, and using both hands, one above and one below, he slid the ticket into its bony slot.
That radio broadcast, steadily getting stranger and stranger, is the real prize of the piece, however. The person who wrote that had some personal demons, I would say, or at any rate found little difficulty in conjuring up such things.

Hermione Lee: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2014)

Penelope Fitzgerald, before she took to writing fiction, spent quite a number of years researching a biography of L. P. Hartley. She'd already written a book about her father and three eccentric uncles, The Knox Brothers (1977), as well as a life of the poet Charlotte Mew.

The L. P. Hartley book remained still-born, however, which is a bit of a shame. There are many respects in which she might have been the ideal commentator on the immense oddity of both his inner and outer lives.

It's an open secret that the intense brother-and-sister relationship which is the principal subject of his Eustace and Hilda trilogy is based on his own feelings about his domineering older sister Enid. He was 49 before he dared to publish it, and it made him famous. When he followed it a few years later with The Go-Between, W. H. Auden told Hartley that he was his favourite novelist.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic about his work. After the publication of his first long fiction Simonetta Perkins (1925), Virginia Woolf asked him, "Have you written any more shabby books, Mr. Hartley?" referring to it as "one that might have been written by a man with one foot in England and the other in Venice".

Poveglia (Venice)

The second story I've chosen to discuss is one which nicely illustrates the problems associated with being "a man with one foot in England and the other in Venice." It's called "Podolo," and is set on a small island in the Venetian lagoon. So far as I can tell, there is no island called "Podolo", but there's certainly one called "Poveglia" (pictured above):
For more than 100 years, beginning in 1776, the island was used as a quarantine station for those suffering the plague and other diseases, and later as a mental hospital. The mental hospital closed in 1968, and the island has been vacant ever since ...
Visits to the island are prohibited, but various books and articles report on visits by writers and/or photographers. Believers in the paranormal have claimed that Poveglia is the most haunted island, or the most haunted place in the world.
- Wikipedia: Poveglia
What, then, of the story itself? It begins with some lighthearted plans for a visit to the island by the narrator, his friend Angela, and her husband Walter. Walter cries off, as he has business in Trieste, so the other two set off for their picnic together.
The sunlight sparkled on the water; the gondola, in its best array, glowed and glittered. ‘Say good-bye to Angela for me,’ cried Walter as the gondolier braced himself for the first stroke. ‘And what is your postal address at Podolo?’ ‘Full fathom five,’ I called out, but I don’t think my reply reached him.
There are already some ominous undertones in this sunny opening. There's clearly something going on between the narrator and Angela, right under Walter's nose, and getting her away to a deserted spot seems more than a trifle devious on his part. As for their destination:
Until you get right up to Podolo you can form no estimate of its size. There is nothing near by to compare it with. On the horizon it looks like a foot-rule. Even now, though I have been there many times, I cannot say whether it is a hundred yards long or two hundred. But I have no wish to go back and make certain.
The trouble begins shortly after they reach the island. Angela spots a mangy little stray cat, and is determined to catch it and bring it back with them. After a few unavailing attempts to seize it, after luring to her with food, she changes her approach:
‘I tell you what,’ Angela said suddenly, ‘if I can’t catch it I’ll kill it. It’s only a question of dropping one of these boulders on it. I could do it quite easily.’ She disclosed her plan to Mario [the gondolier], who was horror-struck. His code was different from hers. He did not mind the animal dying of slow starvation; that was in the course of nature. But deliberately to kill it! ‘Poveretto! It has done no one any harm,’ he exclaimed with indignation. But there was another reason, I suspected, for his attitude. Venice is overrun with cats, chiefly because it is considered unlucky to kill them. If they fall into the water and are drowned, so much the better, but woe betide whoever pushes them in.
Angela is unimpressed by Mario - and the narrator's - logic.
‘Let’s go and explore the island,’ she said, ‘until it’s time to bathe. The cat will have got over its fright and be hungry again by then, and I’m sure I shall be able to catch it. I promise I won’t murder it except as a last resource.’
I don't think I can say too much more without spoiling the story for you, but let's just say that the narrator dozes off after his meal, and Angela goes off exploring by herself. Their search for her, on the tiny, darkening island, is pretty perfunctory. Mainly because there appears to be someone - or something - else there.
We soon lost sight of each other in the darkness, but once or twice I heard Mario swearing as he scratched himself on the thorny acacias. My search was more successful than I expected. Right at the corner of the island, close to the water’s edge, I found one of Angela’s bathing shoes: she must have taken it off in a hurry for the button was torn away. A little later I made a rather grisly discovery. It was the cat, dead, with its head crushed. The pathetic little heap of fur would never suffer the pangs of hunger again. Angela had been as good as her word.
At this point, Mario rushes up, bundles him into the boat, and starts rowing frantically away from the island. Later on he explains:
‘When I found her,’ he whispered, ‘she wasn’t quite dead.’

I began to speak but he held up his hand.

‘She asked me to kill her.’

‘But, Mario!’

‘ “Before it comes back,” she said. And then she said, “It’s starving, too, and it won’t wait. ...” ’ Mario bent his head nearer but his voice was almost inaudible.

‘Speak up,’ I cried. The next moment I implored him to stop.

Mario clambered on to the poop.

‘You don’t want to go to the island now, signore?’

‘No, no. Straight home.’

I looked back. Transparent darkness covered the lagoon save for one shadow that stained the horizon black. Podolo. ...
Make of that what you will.

It's not that the plot of the story is so remarkable. Just as "A Visitor from Down Under" is a fairly standard vengeful revenant story, so "Podolo" is an account of what you fear might happen if you wander around some haunted old ruins at twilight. But in both cases it's the odd, outré details that count: In "A Visitor" it's the threatening radio broadcast, and in "Podolo" it's the joint, unspoken decision both men, the gondolier and her cavalier servente, make to leave Angela behind on the island.

She (it is implied) is the trouble-maker; she is the one who has insisted on hunting through all the crevices of the island for the small but viciously feral cat, despite Mario's warning that "It has been put here on purpose." And whatever she finds there is far beyond her powers, just as it turns out, unfortunately, to be equally far beyond theirs.

It's a dark, rather nasty story, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But it's also an almost perfect illustration of M. R. James's doctrine that less is more:
Let us be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

L. P. Hartley: The Travelling Grave (2017)

I'd like to go on and analyse some more of his stories: "The Travelling Grave" itself, in particular, not to mention the haunted house story "Feet Foremost", but I hope that I've said enough to persuade you that L. P. Hartley was a haunted man, and therefore a haunted writer.

Not everyone can combine the two conditions, and his later work does not really maintain the fierce intensity of these early stories. His Complete Stories is a fascinating book, however: well worth reading from cover to cover by anyone who has the time or the inclination.

Though perhaps, as many of his stories imply, you'd better make time. The life you save may be your own. Even if it involves sacrificing a cat-killer - or (for that matter) a coffin-collector, or a few of their business associates - along the way ...

"Drawing on exclusive access to unpublished private papers, this is the first biography of novelist Leslie Poles Hartley, covering his life and work from his childhood at Fletton Tower, Peterborough, his relationship with his mother, his experiences in the Great War, his homes in Venice, Bath and London, and his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality."

Henry Lamb: L. P. Hartley (1938)

Leslie Poles Hartley


  1. Simonetta Perkins (1925)
    • Included in: The Complete Short Stories of L. P. Hartley. Introduction by Lord David Cecil. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.
  2. The Shrimp and the Anemone. Eustace and Hilda Trilogy I (1944)
  3. The Sixth Heaven. Eustace and Hilda Trilogy II (1946)
  4. Eustace and Hilda. Eustace and Hilda Trilogy III (1947)
    • Included in: Eustace and Hilda: A Trilogy. ['The Shrimp and the Anemone,' 1944; 'The Sixth Heaven,' 1946; 'Eustace and Hilda,' 1947]. 1958. Introduction by Lord David Cecil. London: Faber, 1979.
  5. The Boat (1949)
  6. My Fellow Devils (1951)
  7. The Go-Between (1953)
    • The Go-Between. 1953. The Modern Novel Series. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1966.
  8. A Perfect Woman (1955)
  9. The Hireling (1957)
  10. Facial Justice (1960)
  11. The Brickfield (1964)
  12. The Betrayal (1966)
    • Included in: The Brickfield and The Betrayal. 1964 & 1966. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.
  13. Poor Clare (1968)
  14. The Love-Adept: A Variation on a Theme (1969)
  15. My Sisters' Keeper (1970)
  16. The Harness Room (1971)
  17. The Collections: A Novel (1972)
  18. The Will and the Way (1973)

  19. Stories:

    1. The Island (1924) [NF] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    2. Talent (1924) [NF]
    3. Night Fears (1924) [NF] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    4. The Telephone Call (1924) [NF]
    5. St. George and the Dragon (1924) [NF]
    6. Friends of the Bridegroom (1924) [NF]
    7. A Portrait (1924) [NF]
    8. A Sentimental Journey (1924) [NF]
    9. A Beautiful Character (1924) [NF]
    10. A Summons (1924) [NF] [WW] [CSS] [CMS]
    11. A Visit to the Dentist (1924) [NF]
    12. The New Prime Minister (1924) [NF]
    13. A Condition of Release (1924) [NF] [WW] [CSS]
    14. A Tonic (1924) [NF] [WW] [CSS]
    15. Witheling End (1924) [NF]
    16. Apples (1924) [NF] [WW] [CSS]
    17. The Last Time (1924) [NF]
    18. A Visitor from Down Under (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    19. The Killing Bottle (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    20. Conrad and the Dragon (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    21. A Change of Ownership (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    22. The Cotillon (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    23. Feet Foremost (1932) [KB] [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    24. Podolo (1948) [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    25. Three, or Four, for Dinner (1948) [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    26. The Travelling Grave (1948) [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    27. The Thought (1948) [TG] [CSS] [CMS]
    28. The White Wand (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    29. Witheling End (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    30. Mr Blandfoot's Picture (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    31. A Rewarding Experience (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    32. W.S. (1954) [WW] [CSS] [CMS]
    33. The Vaynes (1954) [WW] [CSS] [CMS]
    34. Monkshood Manor (1954) [WW] [CSS] [CMS]
    35. Up the Garden Path (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    36. Hilda's Garden (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    37. The Price of the Absolute (1954) [WW] [CSS]
    38. Two for the River (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    39. Someone in the Lift (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    40. The Face (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    41. The Corner Cupboard (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    42. The Waits (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    43. The Pampas Clump (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    44. Won by a Fall (1961) [TR] [CSS]
    45. A Very Present Help (1961) [TR] [CSS]
    46. A High Dive (1961) [TR] [CSS]
    47. The Crossways (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    48. Per Far L'Amore (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    49. Interference (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    50. Noughts and Crosses (1961) [TR] [CSS]
    51. The Pylon (1961) [TR] [CSS] [CMS]
    52. Mrs Carteret Receives (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    53. Paradise Paddock (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    54. Pains and Pleasures (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    55. Please Do Not Touch (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    56. Roman Charity (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    57. Home Sweet Home (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    58. The Shadow on the Wall (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    59. The Silver Clock (1971) [MCR] [CSS]
    60. Fall In at the Double (1971) [MCR] [CSS] [CMS]
    61. The Sound of Voices (2001) [CMS]
    62. Mrs G. G. (2001) [CMS]
    63. The Stain on the Chair (2001) [CMS]

    Short Story Collections:

  20. Night Fears (1924) [NF]
    1. The Island
    2. Talent
    3. Night Fears
    4. The Telephone Call
    5. St. George and the Dragon
    6. Friends of the Bridegroom
    7. A Portrait
    8. A Sentimental Journey
    9. A Beautiful Character
    10. A Summons
    11. A Visit to the Dentist
    12. The New Prime Minister
    13. A Condition of Release
    14. A Tonic
    15. Witheling End
    16. Apples
    17. The Last Time
  21. The Killing Bottle (1932) [KB]
    1. A Visitor from Down Under
    2. The Killing Bottle
    3. Conrad and the Dragon
    4. A Change of Ownership
    5. The Cotillon
    6. Feet Foremost
  22. The Travelling Grave and Other Stories (US 1948 / UK 1951) [TG]
    1. A Visitor from Down Under
    2. Podolo
    3. Three, or Four, for Dinner
    4. The Travelling Grave
    5. Feet Foremost
    6. The Cotillon
    7. A Change of Ownership
    8. The Thought
    9. Conrad and the Dragon
    10. The Island
    11. Night Fears
    12. The Killing Bottle
  23. The White Wand and Other Stories (1954) [WW]
    1. The White Wand
    2. Apples
    3. A Tonic
    4. A Condition of Release
    5. Witheling End
    6. Mr Blandfoot's Picture
    7. A Rewarding Experience
    8. W.S.
    9. The Vaynes
    10. Monkshood Manor
    11. Up the Garden Path
    12. Hilda's Garden
    13. A Summons
    14. The Price of the Absolute
  24. Two for the River (1961) [TR]
    1. Two for the River
    2. Someone in the Lift
    3. The Face
    4. The Corner Cupboard
    5. The Waits
    6. The Pampas Clump
    7. Won by a Fall
    8. A Very Present Help
    9. A High Dive
    10. The Crossways
    11. Per Far L'Amore
    12. Interference
    13. Noughts and Crosses
    14. The Pylon
  25. The Collected Short Stories of L. P. Hartley (1968)
  26. Mrs. Carteret Receives (1971) [MCR]
    1. Mrs Carteret Receives
    2. Paradise Paddock
    3. Pains and Pleasures
    4. Please Do Not Touch
    5. Roman Charity
    6. Home Sweet Home
    7. The Shadow on the Wall
    8. The Silver Clock
    9. Fall In at the Double
  27. The Complete Short Stories of L. P. Hartley (1973) [CSS]
    1. Simonetta Perkins (1925)
    2. The Travelling Grave and Other Stories (1951)
    3. The White Wand and Other Stories (1954)
    4. Two for the River (1961)
    5. Mrs. Carteret Receives (1971)]
    • The Complete Short Stories of L. P. Hartley. Introduction by Lord David Cecil. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.
  28. The Collected Macabre Stories (2001) [CMS]
      From the Introduction to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Third Ghost Book
    1. A Visitor from Down Under
    2. Podolo
    3. Three, or Four, for Dinner
    4. The Travelling Grave
    5. Feet Foremost
    6. The Cotillon
    7. A Change of Ownership
    8. The Thought
    9. Conrad and the Dragon
    10. The Island
    11. Night Fears
    12. The Killing Bottle
    13. A Summons
    14. W.S.
    15. The Two Vaynes
    16. Monkshood Manor
    17. Two for the River
    18. Someone in the Lift
    19. The Face
    20. The Corner Cupboard
    21. The Waits
    22. The Pampas Clump
    23. The Crossways
    24. Per Far L'Amore
    25. Interference
    26. The Pylon
    27. Mrs Carteret Receives
    28. Fall In at the Double
    29. Paradise Paddock
    30. Roman Charity
    31. Pains and Pleasures
    32. Please Do Not Touch
    33. Home Sweet Home
    34. The Shadow on the Wall
    35. The Sound of Voices
    36. Mrs G. G.
    37. The Stain on the Chair

  29. Non-fiction:

  30. The Novelist's Responsibility (1967)

  31. Edited:

  32. Essays by Divers Hands. Volume XXXIV (1966)

L. P. Hartley: The Collected Macabre Stories (2001)

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Classic Ghost Story Writers: Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood: The Wendigo and Other Stories (2023)

'The Wendigo' (1910) remains my favourite story by Algernon Blackwood, and - indeed - one of my favourite horror stories of all time.

I know that H. P. Lovecraft preferred the earlier 'The Willows' (1907), and I certainly acknowledge the wonderfully atmospheric effects achieved by Blackwood in that story, but it just can't compare with the sense of cosmic terror, as well as the intensity of his descriptions of the Northern woods, in 'The Wendigo'.

M. Grant Kellermeyer: Classic Horror Blog (2019)

"Oh, oh! This fiery height! Oh, oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire!"
If you haven't read the story (you can find an online text of it here), those words will sound very strange to you. If you have, they'll be only too meaningful.

But what exactly is a wendigo (or windigo, as it's also called)?
The wendigo is often said to be a malevolent spirit, sometimes depicted as a creature with human-like characteristics, which possesses human beings. It is said to cause its victims a feeling of insatiable hunger, the desire to eat other humans, and the propensity to commit murder. In some representations, the wendigo is described as a giant humanoid with a heart of ice, whose approach is signaled by a foul stench or sudden unseasonable chill.
- Wikipedia: Wendigo
This is far from Blackwood's description of it as a "moss-eater", with huge misshapen feet from its bounds up into the fiery upper air. In general he is careful to avoid its associations with cannibalism, a perennial problem for many of the Northern First Nations tribes, who often ran short of food in winter if the harvest had been bad the year before, and who therefore tended to be accused of acts of cannibalism by missionaries and colonisers (as historian Francis Parkman records in his 1865 account The Pioneers of France in the New World).

Here's a typical Windigo folktale, collected from a Chippewa informant by Lottie Chicogquaw Marsden:
One time long ago a big Windigo stole an Indian boy, but the boy was too thin, so the Windigo didn't eat him up right away, but he travelled with the Indian boy waiting for him till he'd get fat. The Windigo had a knife and he'd cut the boy on the hand to see if he was fat enough to eat, but the boy didn't get fat. They travelled too much. One day they came to an Indian village and the Windigo sent the boy to the Indian village to get some things for him to eat. He just gave the boy so much time to go there and back. The boy told the Indians that the Windigo was near them, and showed them his hand where the Windigo cut him to see if he was fat enough to eat. They heard the Windigo calling the boy. He said to the boy "Hurry up. Don't tell lies to those Indians." All of these Indians went to where the Windigo was and cut off his legs. They went back again to see if he was dead. He wasn't dead. He was eating the juice (marrow) from the inside of the bones of his legs that were cut off. The Indians asked the Windigo if there was any fat on them. He said, "You bet there is, I have eaten lots of Indians, no wonder they are fat." The Indians then killed him and cut him to pieces. This was the end of this Giant Windigo.

Sophia Cathryn: Wendigo (2022)

As you can see from the illustration above, Wendigos are generally depicted as being cadaverously thin, ravenously hungry, and prone to eating their own faces and limbs if no other food is available - hence their blood-stained teeth. They can also pass on this curse to others, which may account for the return of the French Canadian guide Défago in altered form at a crucial point in Blackwood's story. They don't always have horns, so it's not necessarily easy to identify them at first.

It's just one of many stories Blackwood set in the wilds of Canada. One of the best of the others is "A Haunted Island" (1899), though "Skeleton Lake" (1906) runs it a close second.

Algernon Blackwood: John Silence, Physician Extraordinary (1908)

Probably the most impressive of his many collections of mostly fantastic and supernatural stories is John Silence, Physician Extraordinary. John Silence is clearly an heir to Sheridan Le Fanu's Dr. Martin Hesselius, the psychic physician, as well as Bram Stoker's Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, bane of vampires everywhere.

John Silence is, however, more of a spectator than an active participant in the events he witnesses. He's probably at his best in "Secret Worship," set at a haunted boys' school in the Black Forest of Germany, but all of the six stories he figures in (five in the original book; another, "A Victim of Higher Space," collected later) are well worth reading.

It's true that many of Algernon Blackwood's fictions offend against one or other of the three rules for effective ghost stories laid out by his close contemporary M. R. James in the preface to his own collection More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911):
I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day. A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story. Again, I feel that the technical terms of ‘occultism’, if they are not very carefully handled, tend to put the mere ghost story (which is all that I am attempting) upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative.

Algernon Blackwood: Ancient Sorceries (2022)

  1. the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day ...
  2. Blackwood, by contrast, is fond of setting his stories in Canada, or on the lower reaches of the Danube, or on an island in the Baltic, or in a mysterious small town in France. That is, in fact, part of their attraction. One feels, in almost every case, that he's writing about a place familiar to him, and describing the kinds of characters encountered by him in his adventurous early life.

  3. the ghost should be malevolent or odious ...
  4. This is probably true of the Wendigo itself (though that's debatable), but as a general rule, Blackwood's ghosts and occult manifestations of various kinds tend to be largely indifferent to mankind: they operate according to their own rules, for reasons that remain largely obscure to us. The danger comes from the intersection of these otherwordly entities with our own quotidian concerns.

  5. the technical terms of ‘occultism’ tend to put the mere ghost story upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative.
  6. It seems probable that James had Blackwood specifically in mind when he wrote this sentence. There's a lot of 'quasi' (or pseudo-) scientific discourse in a good many of his stories, particularly the ones which star John Silence, though in this he was following the example of such classic supernatural novellas as Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain" (1859).

Algernon Blackwood: The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories (1906)

There's an expansiveness and range to the best of Blackwood's early stories which far surpasses his later work in the genre, influenced (as it was) by the need to provide stories short enough to broadcast or to fit into the increasingly restrictive demands of magazines.

Despite this, over time he built quite a reputation as a reader of his own stories on radio, and (eventually) on the burgeoning medium of television. But he should really be seen - along with Wilkie Collins, M. R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu - as one of the principal ornaments of the golden age of ghost stories, roughly from the mid-nineteenth century to the outbreak of the First World War.

It's a shame that there's no really comprehensive collection of his work in this genre, uneven in quality though it undoubtedly is. Perhaps the best introduction to his work remains E. F. Bleiler's careful selection, published by Dover in 1973.

E. F. Bleiler, ed.: Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood (1973)

Mind you, the wendigo itself has gone on to become one of the standard 'cryptids' - along with Bigfoot, the chupacabra, the Loch Ness monster, and the Jersey Devil - investigated by proponents of the pseudoscience known as Cryptozoology. It also bears an obvious resemblance to the Slender Man figure in contemporary pop culture.

It's even inspired a couple of feature films, as well as numerous stories, comics, novels and even role-playing games.

Larry Fessenden, dir. & writ.: Wendigo (2001)

Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Henry Blackwood


  1. Jimbo: A Fantasy (1909)
  2. The Education of Uncle Paul (1909)
  3. The Human Chord (1910)
  4. The Centaur (1911)
  5. A Prisoner in Fairyland [sequel to The Education of Uncle Paul] (1913)
  6. The Extra Day (1915)
  7. Julius LeVallon (1916)
    • Julius LeVallon: An Episode. London: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1916.
  8. The Wave (1916)
  9. The Promise of Air (1918)
  10. The Garden of Survival (1918)
  11. The Bright Messenger [sequel to Julius LeVallon] (1921)
  12. Dudley & Gilderoy: A Nonsense (1929)

  13. Children's Books:

  14. Sambo and Snitch (1927)
  15. The Fruit Stoners: Being the Adventures of Maria Among the Fruit Stoners (1934)

  16. Plays:

  17. [with Violet Pearn] The Starlight Express. Music by Edward Elgar (1915)
  18. [with Violet Pearn] Karma: A Reincarnation Play (1918)
  19. [with Bertram Forsyth] The Crossing (1920)
  20. [with Violet Pearn] Through the Crack (1920)
  21. [with Bertram Forsyth] White Magic (1921)
  22. [with Elaine Ainley] The Halfway House (1921)
  23. [with Frederick Kinsey Peile] Max Hensig (1929)

  24. Short story collections:

  25. The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories (1906)
  26. The Listener and Other Stories (1907)
  27. John Silence (1908)
    • John Silence, Physician Extraordinary. 1908. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1912.
  28. The Lost Valley and Other Stories (1910)
  29. Pan's Garden: A Volume of Nature Stories (1912)
  30. Ten Minute Stories (1914)
  31. Incredible Adventures (1914)
  32. Day and Night Stories (1917)
  33. Wolves of God, and Other Fey Stories (1921)
  34. Tongues of Fire and Other Sketches (1924)
    • Tongues of Fire and Other Sketches. 1924. London: Herbert Jenkins Limited, n.d.
  35. Shocks (1935)
  36. The Doll and One Other (1946)

  37. Short Story Selections:

  38. Ancient Sorceries and Other Tales (1927)
  39. The Dance of Death and Other Tales (1927)
    • The Dance of Death and Other Stories. 1927. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1973.
  40. Strange Stories (1929)
  41. Short Stories of To-Day & Yesterday (1930)
  42. The Willows and Other Queer Tales. Ed. G. F. Maine (1932)
  43. The Tales of Algernon Blackwood (1938)
  44. Selected Tales of Algernon Blackwood (1942)
    • Selected Tales: Stories of the Supernatural and Uncanny. 1943. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1948.
  45. Selected Short Stories of Algernon Blackwood (1945)
  46. Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural (1949)
    • Included in: Tales of Terror & Darkness: Part One: Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural / Part Two: Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre. 1949 & 1967. Spring Books. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1977.
  47. In the Realm of Terror (1957)
  48. Selected Tales of Algernon Blackwood (1964)
  49. Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre (1967)
    • Included in: Tales of Terror & Darkness: Part One: Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural / Part Two: Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre. 1949 & 1967. Spring Books. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1977.
  50. Ancient Sorceries and Other Stories (1968)
    • Ancient Sorceries and Other Stories. 1906-1908. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.
  51. Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood. Ed. Everett F. Bleiler (1973)
    • Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood. Preface by the Author. 1938. Ed. E. F. Beiler. New York: Dover Books, Inc., 1973.
  52. The Best Supernatural Tales of Algernon Blackwood. Ed. Felix Morrow (1973)
    • The Best Supernatural Tales of Algernon Blackwood. 1929. Introduction by Felix Morrow. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.
  53. Tales of Terror and Darkness (1977)
    • Tales of Terror & Darkness: Part One: Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural / Part Two: Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre. 1949 & 1967. Spring Books. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1977.
  54. Tales of the Supernatural. Ed. Mike Ashley (1983)
  55. The Magic Mirror. Ed. Mike Ashley (1989)
  56. The Complete John Silence Stories. [with "A Victim of Higher Space"]. Ed. S. T. Joshi (1997)
  57. Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories. Ed. S. T. Joshi (2002)
  58. Algernon Blackwood's Canadian Tales of Terror. Ed. John Robert Colombo (2004)
  59. Ancient Sorceries and Other Stories (2022)
  60. The Wendigo and Other Stories. Ed. Aaron Worth. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Troy Town

Leo Deuel, ed.: Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann (1978)

Troy Town is the traditional name for many of the mazes and earthworks of England. This may refer to the tricky way in which the walls of Troy were constructed, full of dead-ends and blind corners to baffle an enemy. Or, alternatively, it may be just because the razing of the city of Troy, leaving only a few mounds of earth behind, has been seen ever since as emblematic of such scenes of utter devastation.

Heinrich Schliemann (1821-1890)

Recently I've been reading a compilation of autobiographical pieces by Heinrich Schliemann, the (so-called) discoverer of Troy. Schliemann was a bit of a con-man, an inveterate exaggerator, and a self-promoter on a Barnum-like scale, but there was also a touch of genius in him. His instincts often led him to the right place at the right time when others' well-reasoned arguments led them astray.

His initial excavations at Hisarlik, the Anatolian hillock which he believed to be the site of Homer's Troy, were catastrophic. He dug a huge trench through the centre of the mound, in the process destroying many of the remains which might later have helped him and others reconstruct crucial layers of the ancient city. To some extent he made up for this in subsequent years as he found collaborators with a firmer knowledge of archaeological method, but the fact is that he probably did more harm than good as an actual excavator.

He was, however, largely responsible for the discovery of a hitherto unsuspected civilisation. Whether you call it Minoan or Mycenaean, the existence of an advanced, sophisticated culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, long before the Classical Age, was unsuspected before he began his explorations in the 1870s. In the process, Schliemann whipped up a frenzy of enthusiasm not just for treasure hunting but for scientific archaeology in the Europe of his time.

He remains an ambiguous figure, but his contribution to the debate over the historicity of Homer's Troy is undeniable.

Michael Wood: In Search of the Trojan War (1985)

But why should there even be such a debate? Is there anything intrinsically implausible in the story of Troy? Whether the war was fought because of the abduction of Helen of Sparta by the Trojan Prince Paris, as Homer claimed, or over trade-routes through the Bosphorus, as the Greek historian Herodotus preferred to describe it, the basic plotline of a destructive conflict between west and east hasn't changed that much over the past three millennia.

Nor have the ruinous results.

Al Jazeera: Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza Strip (31/10/23)

As I write, Netanyahu's soldiers are invading hospitals and exulting as they blow up mosques. They film themselves doing it, in fact. Shades of Ajax and Achilles looting and desecrating their enemies' bodies!

Has anything changed in the intervening period? The weapons have got more powerful, and the propaganda easier to slipstream around the world. Otherwise, it's business as usual for humanity: hatred, lies, contempt for anyone you can define as 'Other', on whatever flimsy pretext you can find.

Perhaps in another few hundred years archaeologists will be speculating on the various layers of pulverised debris they find in their excavations in ancient Canaan / Judea, modern Israel / Palestine. Maybe they'll conclude that the whole idea of an Israel-Gaza war was just a myth: after all, the subsequent layers of radioactive fallout will have wiped out any sense of whatever civilisation (if any) proceeded the bombardment.

For the moment, though, women and children are dying in their thousands. It seems impossible to exaggerate the terror and privations being suffered by the people of Gaza: 27,708 is this morning's total of dead. Just stop. How can that be so impossible to achieve? Have we learned nothing at all from those previous massacres and cataclysms?

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus (1920)

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
- Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Rear Window

A friend of mine
set up a camera
in the back of her car

and drove down the hill
to the beach and back
art film

scoffed her boyfriend
and yet
there was something

so strange in the way
it bucked and leapt
as it recorded 

the unchanging mountains
with no hint of the wild sea in front

Benjamin’s angel of history
does that
sweeps on

looking back
unable to help
as the rubble and graves pile up

they used to project it at rock concerts

Demonstration in London (14/10/23)