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)