Invisible ink no 271: Algernon Blackwood


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In the league table of obscure British writers, Algernon Blackwood now ranks highly. His tales were collected in the kind of tattered books that lay around British houses 60 years ago. Arguably the greatest writer of supernatural fiction in the 20th century, he is most remembered for 13 collections of around 200 mystical tales.

As a sensitive, dreamy youth, he studied the Bhagavad Gita and theosophy, learning spiritual exercises that divorced him from worldly problems. His inner calm was tested in Canada, where his dairy farm failed, and in New York where he was penniless and ill. Conned out of his cash and framed for arson, he finally became a reporter for The New York Times in 1895. His interest in the paranormal led him to join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He also became an undercover agent for British military intelligence during the Second World War. So, he had plenty to write about.

Blackwood based his stories on personal experiences and beliefs, creating plots that twisted the familiar into something mysterious and confounding. Haunted mansions, the souls of the dead, the spirits of nature and a fascination with time and space recur. Many tales take place in wild, sensual settings, from frontier Canada and the Black Forest to the marshes of the Danube. Favourites include “Wendigo” and “The Willows” but I like “The Dance of Death”, with its central image of Death as a beautiful dancer.

His works spanned two centuries and inspired Elgar, Henry Miller and H P Lovecraft. He counted H G Wells, Hilaire Belloc and W B Yeats as his friends, and appeared on the very first British television programme. Blackwood came from a now-vanished world; his mother was the Duchess of Manchester, his evangelist father was a knight, but he forsook his privileged heritage to become an adventurer and traveller, and remained a natural storyteller to the end of his life. He was awarded a CBE in 1949, and still we knew virtually nothing about him, probably because he hailed from a period when the concept of the peculiar Briton was hardly a novelty.

Blackwood’s first collection, The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, found favour with readers, and his popularity soared. He was nicknamed the Ghost Man and never made much money from his stories, but they paid enough to free his life. There really was no one quite like him. Many of his haunting tales are classics of the genre and have entered the collective memory.