Algernon Blackwood Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Algernon Blackwood is primarily known as a writer of ghost stories, but of his more than two hundred published stories bibliographer Mike Ashley lists only thirty under the subject categories of ghosts and haunted houses. Blackwood’s other stories cover themes as diverse as nature worship, psychic experiences, and reincarnation. Almost all of his work, though, concerns the expansion of consciousness and the ability of humans to perceive supernatural forces and even briefly contact other worlds just beyond ordinary reality. His stories are powerful and convincing because the reader can sense that the author really believes in what he is writing. In the introduction to a 1938 collection of stories, Blackwood listed numerous events in his own life that inspired his stories. In the same introduction, he wrote, “If a ghost is seen, what is it interests me less than what sees it.” He was concerned with the human faculties that, under the right stimulation, can sense sights, sounds, and feelings normally imperceptible.

Blackwood has also been called a nature mystic, and many of his stories effectively evoke the feelings of terror or awe that individuals experience when they come face-to-face with the universe, usually when alone in a spectacular landscape. Nature then assumes a spiritual consciousness that can be malevolent and dangerous, as in “The Willows,” or beautiful and alluring, as in “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” and “The Glamour of the Snow.”

Blackwood’s power as a writer lies in his ability to minutely describe subtle feelings and emotions, letting the coming event or vision build up over many pages. His writing also has the ability to sustain suspense and an otherworldly atmosphere through long stories, often with several climactic events and scenes. At the same time, he has occasionally been criticized for his wordy style, which often tells the reader what to feel, and his lengthy quasi-scientific explanations of the phenomena portrayed.

“The Empty House”

This is the title story of Blackwood’s first collection and demonstrates his approach to the traditional haunted-house story. Jim Shorthouse is convinced by his aunt, who is interested in psychical research, to spend the night in a reportedly haunted house. Well prepared with blankets and “strong spirits,” and acquainted with the story of murder and unrequited love associated with the house, they undertake their vigil. Mysterious events build up gradually, including an early apparition of a ghostly woman, doors that close by themselves, and a grotesque vision of a man’s face so close that Shorthouse could have touched it with his lips. Though the reader expects such events, Blackwood’s descriptive and narrative skills provide surprise and a real “suspension of disbelief.” Predictably at midnight, the two witness a noisy yet ghostly reenactment of the original chase and murder, entirely through sound and feeling, without any visible apparitions. This extended...

(The entire section is 1231 words.)