Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Blackwood, Algernon

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(1869-1951) UK writer and broadcaster, a leading exponent of Supernatural Fiction in the early 20th century; now best remembered for his Ghost Stories, in his day he was recognized also for his pantheistic fantasies and his books for children. Most of his fiction was derived from personal or mystical experience. AB's knowledge of Occultism came from several years as an active member of the Golden Dawn (to which he was introduced by W B Yeats), prior to which he had studied Eastern wisdoms (he was a Buddhist in early life) and Theosophy. But his greatest inspiration – he said – came from a proximity to nature which imbued him with an enhanced consciousness, heightening his awareness of preternatural existence. Widely travelled, AB had his most inspirational experiences in the forests of northern Canada – hence his classic encounter with the call-of-the-wild personified, "The Wendigo" (1910 in The Lost Valley) (see Wendigo) – and the remote mountains of the Caucasus, which experiences he combined with his studies of the works of Gustav Fechner (1801-1887), who postulated a sentient Mother Earth, to create The Centaur (1911), which portrays an encounter with the primeval spirits of the planet, resulting in a spiritual Metamorphosis.

AB's early writings were largely theosophical, although his first story – A Mysterious House (1889 Belgravia; 1987 chap ed Richard Dalby) – arose from his fascination for psychic research; this tale of a traditional Haunted Dwelling is spoiled by its Dream ending.

A sensitive and gullible youth, AB later chronicled his early days in Canada and New York (1890-1899) in Episodes Before Thirty (1923; rev vt Adventures Before Thirty 1934); he had many trials and privations before making good as a private secretary. His horror of New York spilled out as, essentially, emotional therapy in his first two collections, The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories (coll 1906) and The Listener and Other Stories (coll 1907). The lesser stories betray a residue of Gothicism, but the best develop themes of psychic and occult intensity. "The Listener" is particularly potent: it tells of a room haunted by the Ghost of a leper. In the same collection "The Willows", inspired by a journey AB made down the Danube, depicts a vortex at the Threshold of spiritual forces. This was one of H P Lovecraft's favourite stories and may have had some influence on The Colour Out of Space (1927; 1982 chap). Lovecraft regarded AB as the leading writer of supernatural fiction.

AB's third book, John Silence, Physician Extraordinary (coll 1908), was his most successful, and the income from it allowed him to become a full-time writer. It introduced the eponymous Occult Detective, and both popularized and gave credentials to that theme. John Silence was a doctor of the spirit who had studied for years to master the paranormal. The stories are mostly about Possession, of either person or place. One series story omitted from the collection, "A Victim of Higher Space" (1914 Occult Review), was included in Day and Night Stories (coll 1917); it showed AB's interest in other dimensions.

During 1908-1914, when AB lived in Switzerland, his work was at its most intense, and he moved from traditional ghost and occult themes towards a more mystical level. This became evident in The Lost Valley and Other Stories (coll 1910) but most so in Pan's Garden: A Volume of Nature Stories (coll 1912) and Incredible Adventures (coll 1914); stories in the latter two books seek to explore the power of nature and its impact upon spiritual consciousness, dealing primarily with humanity's heightened Perception of the Spirit world. Spirit forces may rejuvenate, as in "The Regeneration of Lord Ernie" (in Incredible Adventures), bring spiritual union, as in "The Man Whom the Trees Loved" (1912 London Magazine), challenge the unwary, as in "Sand" (in Pan's Garden), or drain the vitality of the soul, as in "A Descent Into Egypt" (in Incredible Adventures).

AB had earlier merged his mystical beliefs with the occult in The Human Chord (1910), which considers the mastery of tonal vibrations in order to summon the power of Jehovah. He firmly believed in Reincarnation, and this theme – which he had explored in stories like "The Insanity of Jones" (in The Listener) and "Old Clothes" (in The Lost Valley) – was further imbued with the occult in Julius Le Vallon (1916; written 1912), where an eternal spirit seeks to remedy problems unresolved in a former life. The experiment fails, and an Elemental spirit enters an unborn child. That child's story is told in The Bright Messenger (1921), which considers the dilemma of a freeborn spirit trapped in a human frame (see Bondage). AB also explored this notion in The Promise of Air (1918) – indeed, it was a fundamental idea to AB, who believed he himself was a trapped spirit, as was his "soul mate", Maya Stuart-King (?1880-1945), the "M.S-K." of his dedications.

After Maya had married (in fact, remarried) in 1916, AB's work lost a vital spark, and his inspiration was further stifled by WWI, in which he served as an intelligence agent and a Red Cross worker. The net result was a series of uninspired works of maudlin sentimentality, including Karma: A Reincarnation Play (play 1918) with Violet Pearn (1880-1947) and The Garden of Survival (1918), composed after the death of his brother and seeking to portray a link with the Afterlife. This mood was only slightly lightened by The Wolves of God, and Other Fey Stories (coll 1921), the best of his latter-day collections, based on ideas by Wilfred Wilson (1875-1957). Tongues of Fire and Other Sketches (coll 1924) is more ephemeral, the better stories – like "The Man who was Milligan" (1923 Pearson's Magazine) – showing AB's continued interest in Time and the fourth dimension. This vein was mined more diligently in his last significant collection, Shocks (coll 1935), particularly in "Elsewhere and Otherwise", Full Circle (1925 English Review; 1929 chap) and "The Man who Lived Backwards" (1930 World Radio); it has to be said that this collection also shows an unhealthy preoccupation with suicide.

AB's other main works were either for children or, more enticingly, about them. His first completed novel, Jimbo (written 1900; 1909), graphically envisions the Dreams of a child in a coma who must learn to fly (see Talents) to escape from an old house; the link with the idea of the spirit seeking to flee its corporeal prison is evident. The Education of Uncle Paul (1909) is a novel for adults about Children; it explores the land of lost childhood on the threshold between today and tomorrow. This novel was later adapted for the stage by Violet Pearn as Through the Crack (produced 1920; 1925), and the theme was reworked by AB himself in The Extra Day (1915) and The Fruit Stoners (1934), books that became increasingly for children rather than about childhood. He had hoped that the play The Starlight Express (produced 1916), adapted by Pearn from A Prisoner in Fairyland (1913) – dealing with the astral projections (see Astral Plane) of children's spirits, released during sleep and spreading good thoughts in the form of stardust – would be as popular as J M Barrie's Peter Pan (performed 1904; rev 1928), which it often imitates, but the production failed. During the 1920s AB wrote increasingly for children, with Sambo and Snitch (1927), Mr Cupboard (1927 Joy Street Annual; 1928 chap) and others. Dudley & Gilderoy: A Nonsense (1929; considerably cut by Marion Cothren as The Adventures of Dudley and Gilderoy 1941 chap US), although ostensibly a children's story about the adventures of a parrot and a cat, was too philosophical for children, and is really more a critique on 1920s society.

During the 1930s AB became popular as a radio broadcaster and storyteller (following the trend established by A J Alan), and he further developed this career in the 1940s, extending it to tv (he received a Television Society Medal), but by now he was recycling old material, and found it difficult to produce anything new; it was only through the intervention of August W Derleth that his final original collection, The Doll, and One Other (coll 1946) was published. His tv popularity led to the release of an omnibus of his stories, Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural (coll 1949; assembled with Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre [coll 1967] as Tales of Terror and Darkness omni 1977). This has become the standard volume of his work, although more representative selections are Strange Stories (coll 1929 UK; cut vt The Best Supernatural Tales of Algernon Blackwood 1973 US) and The Tales of Algernon Blackwood (coll 1938) ed L M Lamont.

AB received a CBE in 1949. He suffered a stroke in his last year, although he continued to write and broadcast until his death.

AB was a prolific writer – over 200 stories and a dozen novels – and in his chosen field he has never been rivalled and seldom imitated. Even at its best, his work struggles to express abstract mystical experience in lay terminology; this limited its overall potential and restricted its commerciality. As a result, AB's contribution to Supernatural Fiction has generally not been fully appreciated; instead, he tends to have been measured by the radio soubriquet that made him famous but which he so disliked: the "Ghost Man". [MA]

other works: Ten Minute Stories (coll 1914); Ancient Sorceries and Other Tales (coll 1927); The Dance of Death and Other Tales (coll 1927); Short Stories of To-day & Yesterday (coll 1930) ed F H Pritchard; The Willows and Other Queer Tales (coll 1932); Selected Tales (coll 1942); Selected Short Stories (coll 1945); In the Realm of Terror (coll 1957 US); Selected Tales (coll 1964); Ancient Sorceries and Other Stories (coll 1968); Best Ghost Stories (coll 1973 US) ed E F Bleiler; Tales of the Supernatural (coll 1983) ed Mike Ashley; The Magic Mirror: Lost Tales and Mysteries (coll 1989) ed Ashley.

other works for children: By Underground (1929 Joy Street Annual; 1930 chap); The Parrot and the – Cat (1930 Joy Street Annual; 1931 chap); The Italian Conjurer (1931 Joy Street Annual; 1932 chap); Maria (of England) in the Rain (1932 Joy Street Annual; 1933 chap); Sergeant Poppett and Policeman James (1933 Joy Street Annual; 1934 chap); The Fruit Stoners (1934 Joy Street Annual; 1935 chap) which is not the same as the 1934 novel; and How the Circus Came to Tea (1935 Joy Street Annual; 1936 chap).

further reading: Algernon Blackwood: A Bio-Bibliography (1987) by Mike Ashley.

Algernon Henry Blackwood


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.