Department of Literature
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Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood

by Donald Clarke 
Copyright @ 1998 Miskatonic University Press 


Algernon Blackwood is perhaps best known for his story "The Willows" which is considered one of the finest supernatural tales ever written.  Born in in Shooter's Hill, Kent, on March 14, 1869, he grew up in a strict Calvinist family.  He was the son of the widowed Duchess of Manchester and her second husband, Sir Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, a clerk in the Treasury and later Secretary of the Post Office.  While in private school, at the age of 14, he decided to become a doctor.  One of his teachers, a doctor himself, fascinated Blackwood with the powers of therapeutic hypnotism.  Blackwood determined to be devote himself to psychiatric medicine.  At the age of 16 was sent to Germany for a year to study at the Moravian Brotherhood school in Königsfeld.  In line with his strict upbringing he found the military discipline of the school and by the meditative atmosphere and sense of honor and justice.  But against the oppressive Sandemarian Calvinism background, a fellow medical student from India introduced him to the Hindu religion.  Young Blackwood became fascinated with the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedanta, the Yoga of Patanjali, and theosophy. 

He finished college at Wellington College, Cambridge and spent a year abroad in Switzerland, and the a year in Canada doing business for his father.  He went on to the University at Edinburgh but left the year after.  His intention toward medicine was gone.  Instead, in May of 1890 Blackwood moved to Canada and founded a dairy farm.  It failed.  He turned to hostelry but the hotel business didn't suit him and he sold his share of the business in 1892. 

Financially troubled and in conflict with his parents, Blackwood disappeared for a summer into the Canadian backwoods, a setting which would reappear consistently in later writings.  Revived spiritually, Blackwood moved to New York City and went to work at the Evening Sun as a reporter for a small salary.  He did make some side money modeling for artist Charles Dana Gibson, who was a friend of Robert W. Chambers of The King in Yellow fame.  New York was not a good place for Blackwood.  He was unhappy, surrounded by crooks and worse. Besides being conned of his money and framed for arson, Blackwood made the mistake of befriending and rooming with the unscrupulous Arthur Bigge.  Bigge robbed Blackwood and took off.  In return, Blackwood tracked the man down and had him arrested.  (Bigge's appears as Boyde in Blackwood's autobiography Episodes before Thirty.  He was also swindled out of sorely needed cash while he was lying on the brink of death, and was almost railroaded for arson.

In 1895 he was hired as a reporter for the New York Times which gave him a more financially stable existence.  Two years later he left the paper to work as the private secretary to banker James Speyer.  But in 1899 Blackwood gave up the New World and returned to England.  Blackwood would say of him time in New York: "I seemed covered with sore and tender places into which New York rubbed salt and acid every hour of the day."

In England, Blackwood returned to dairying, sort of.  He becamse a partner in a dried milk company but spend most of his time traveling in Europe.  In 1900 he discovered the Golden Dawn, the secret society, a return to the paranormal and spiritual interests of his childhood. And he began to write.  He collected the meager produce and submitted it to Eveleigh Nash who published them in in 1906 as The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories.  Blackwood followed this with a series of psychic detective stories featuring John Silence, "physician extraordinary."  It was this series of novels and short stories on which his reputation rose.  And he settled down to life as a writer moving to Böle, Switzerland from 1908 to 1914.  During this period he wrote The Centaur (1910), often considered his finest work, after a trip to the Caucasus Mountains.  A trip to Egypt produced The Sand, A Descent in Egypt, and The Wave.  His A Prisoner of Fairyland was adapted by Sir Edward Elgar into the successful musical The Starlight Express.

When the First World War broke out, Blackwood enlisted in the British military intelligence (seemingly a common career for writers in wartime).  After the war, Blackwood returned to his native Kent and produced two more collections of stories Tongues of Fire and Shocks but the majority of his fiction output was drama or children's fantasies like Sambo and Snatch, The Fruit Stoners, and Dudley and Gilderoy. 

His admirer, H. P. Lovecraft, wrote of him in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature:  "Less intense than Machen in delieating the extremes of stark fear, yet infinitely more closely wedded to the idea of an unreal world constantly pressing upon ours is the inspired and prolific Algernon Blackwood, amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age.  Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood's genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision.  Without notable command of the poetic witchery of mere words, he is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere; and can evoke what amounts almost to a story from a simple fragment of humourless psychological description.  Above all others he understands how fully some sensitive minds dwell forever on the borderland of dream, and how relatively slight is the distinction betwixt those images formed from actual objects and those excited by the play of the imagination."

While Lovecraft considered "The Willows" to be not only "foremost of all" Blackwood's tales but the best "weird tale" of all time, Blackwood, who was familiar with Lovecraft's work, failed to return the compliment.  As he told Peter Penzoldt, he found "spiritual terror" missing in his young admirer's writing, while it was all-important in his own. 

In 1934 Blackwood was invited to read ghost stories on BBC radio.  This was a great success.  Blackwood turned to broadcasting as a playwright and personality.  In 1936 he began appearing on television.  In 1949 he received the Television Society's medal and, in 1949, was made a commander of the British Empire.  He earned the nickname Ghost Man.  Algernon Blackwood died on December 10, 1951.

The Education of Uncle Paul
by Algernon Blackwood
1916 Henry Holt and Company hardback book, 340 pages.
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was a prolific fantasy and horror writer whose total production consists of more than 200 short stories, 12 novels, a couple of plays, an autobiography and even some poetry. Over 50 distinct book editions of his works have been published in the US and UK, counting the reprint collections. Today, his books are mostly out of print, but he is far from forgotten.
His style of writing is very intense emotionally, and holds a strong fascination for the reader. The supernatural element is carefully woven into the plot which often turns the ordinary and familiar into something mysterious and awesome. Many of his tales take place outdoors in some magnificent setting of nature, like the wilderness of Canada, the swamplands of the Danube river or the Black Forest in Germany. Nature spirits, haunted houses, the spirits of the dead and other ancient sorceries all abound in his strange tales.
Blackwood's private life was almost as odd and mysterious as his tales. A travelling man, he saw a great many places in the world. He was born in Kent, England, 1869. As a young man, he lived in New York and later on settled in Switzerland. Before that he had been moose hunting in Canada, hiking in Italy, France and Spain, and touring in Egypt, Austria and Sweden. After WWI, he found himself back in England. Besides writing, his activities were very diverse. He served as a secret agent in Switzerland at the end of WWI. His interest in the supernatural led him to visiting a spiritualist camp, exploring haunted houses and seeking out gurus like Gurdjieff and Ouspensky in France at a time when they were fashionable amongst the artistic jet set of the day.
His talent as a story teller brought him a devoted audience amongst his nephews and other young relatives. He also wrote a number of children's books. In his later days, Blackwood experienced a renewed interest in his work. In 1934 he made his first radio broadcast and this he took up again in 1941 and onwards when he wrote a number of radio talks and plays. In 1947 he appeared on BBC TV as a story teller and became quite popular. This popularity culminated in 1949 when he received the C.B.E. award at Buckingham Palace. He continued to work, although his health failed him in the following years and a stroke made him a convalescent. He died in 1951.
"The Education of Uncle Paul" is a weird fantasy that explores the land of lost childhood.


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