The Haunted Vistas of Algernon Blackwood

“When common objects in this way be come charged with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of unusual appearance; and these bushes, crowding huddled about us, assumed for me in the darkness a bizarre grotesquerie of appearance that lent to them somehow the aspect of purposeful and living creatures. Their very ordinariness, I felt, masked what was malignant and hostile to us.” – Algernon Blackwood

Gravestone imageAlgernon Blackwood was a master of the weird, a genre which isn’t really practicsed today. His stories are all interesting not so much because they are horrible in the modern sense, but because they are attempting to create a certain type of fear that people rarely believe in and do not practice anymore. Backwood was interewsted in awe – a form of fear so little understood by modern people that its adjectival form, “awesome”, has been uttery debased to mean “excellent”. Awe was the sensation of being in the presence of something so significant that you, personally, had no value. In English it used to be used to describe the potential anger of God. Now, we use “awful”, which used to be about how it felt to be utterly enslaved to terrified admiration, to describe restaurants we don’t like.

This makes reading Blackwood tricky. You keep waiting for the plot to begin. The plot’s not the point. The point is to put yourself in the shoes of his protagonist, as his world falls apart. It’s about letting a sensation of being overwhelmed slowly creep over you.

To a lot of modern readers this is difficult. They approach horror as a challenge. “Come on. Scare me if you can!” they seem to say. Many modern authors responded first with gore, and now that doesn’t work, with shock. If you go into a Blackwood story expecting bodily invasion and mutilation, then the stories never seem to go anywhere. His best known work is The Willows, and it’s a good represenation of Blackwood’s style of atmospheric horror. If you’re at a loss for where to start, try there.

The Library Service has very little Blackwood but his work is easily found on Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive. The audiobooks on Librivox are also well-recorded.