Born in London the son of a nobleman, Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was nevertheless a rebel against conformity and turned his back on a strict religious upbringing to travel across North America in his twenties, almost starving in the process. Eventually he made his living as a reporter and short story writer in New York, where his output included travel, adventure, humour and some work of a semi-mystical nature. Like his contemporary Arthur Machen, another writer of supernatural fiction, Blackwood became a member of one of the factions of the Kabbalistic order, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His interest in the supernatural led him to investigate several haunted houses and start writing the stories which made him famous in the form of several collections of tales of the psychic and the macabre, beginning with The Empty House and other Ghost Stories, which appeared in 1906, and culminating in Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural in 1949. His reputation grew with radio and television appearances, earning him the epithet ‘The Ghost Man’.
One of Blackwood’s earliest successes was A Haunted Island, a first person narrative set on a remote Canadian island haunted by the ghost of a murderous native, which bears the hallmarks of his adventurous early life and may be autobiographical. Several of Blackwood’s later short stories have echoes of his war experiences, such as “Vengeance is Mine”, in which the narrator finds himself thrust into a horrifying situation when the soul of a terribly wronged young woman demands the sacrifice of an enemy POW. During the First World War Blackwood was initially a Red Cross worker and then recruited for ‘secret service’ work, following in the footsteps of Somerset Maugham to operate a network of agents in France and Switzerland. Such derring-do may well have provided the inspiration for Blackwood’s most famous creation: John Silence.
Algernon Blackwood was the first to earn fame in the occult detective field – one later dominated by William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder – with the publication of John Silence in 1908. Blackwood described Silence as a ‘psychic detective’, the first of his kind in the sense that he was a character who investigated supernatural evil – hauntings, poltergeists, inexplicable manifestations and the like – rather than human misdemeanours. The book became a great success and Blackwood later revealed that these tales of his indomitable psychic investigator were originally separate studies of various psychic themes and that it was only on the suggestion of Mr Nash, who had already published two books for him, that he grouped them under the common leadership of a single man, Dr John Silence. It was a shrewd suggestion from his publisher, as the format gave a new shape and force to the author’s otherwise somewhat diffuse studies in the supernatural prior to that.
I’ll leave you with what was probably Blackwood’s most famous short story The Willows (click to read!). This tale was the personal favorite of none other than H P Lovecraft, who wrote of it in his treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature, “Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note.”