Blackwood, Algernon Henry (1869–1951), writer of supernatural fiction
by George Malcolm Johnson

Blackwood, Algernon Henry (1869–1951), writer of supernatural fiction, was born at Wood Lodge, Shooter's Hill, Kent, on 14 March 1869, the second son born to , who became permanent secretary to the Post Office, and his wife, Harriet Sydney Montagu (1834–1907), daughter of Conway R. Dobbs, of Castle Dobbs, co. Antrim, Ireland, and widow of George, sixth duke of Manchester. His father, in his youth a man of fashion known as Beauty Blackwood, underwent a conversion while serving in the Crimean War in 1855; he became a leading evangelist, a passion shared by his wife. Algernon, who later described himself as having been a ‘dreamy boy’, escaped from his repressive upbringing by turning to nature. At Shortlands House near Beckenham, where he lived from the age of eleven, he would climb out of the window at night, launch a boat on the garden pond, and imagine that supernatural beings observed him.

Blackwood's schooling had an unsettling and even traumatic effect on him; he referred to the five schools that he attended as ‘my horrible private schools’ (Blackwood, Episodes, 33). At one of these, in 1881, he was falsely accused by the ‘fiendish’ evangelical headmaster of stealing a poetry book, an event that ‘haunted’ him for years. Blackwood looked back ‘with disgust at the overstrict, semi-military discipline’ (Blackwood, ‘Author's note’, vi) at the Moravian Brethren school in the German Black Forest, where he spent an ‘unhappy’ eighteen months from May 1885. Yet the remote setting of this school, ‘haunted by elves and dwarfs and peopled by charming legends’ (Blackwood, Episodes, 25), only increased his worship of nature.

Blackwood's real education did not begin, however, until 1886, when he read Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms and the Bhagavad Gita and was converted to Eastern wisdom, to his father's horror. He also ‘swallowed whole’ the theosophy of Mme Blavatsky, whose claims of an extrasensory spirit realm became a central preoccupation of Blackwood's. He later claimed, ‘My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty’ (Punter, 464).

After father and son visited Canada in 1887, it was decided that Algernon would take up farming. In preparation for this he ostensibly studied agriculture at Edinburgh University during 1888–9, though he became more enthralled by lectures on pathology. For the next nine years he lived a perilous and momentous existence in North America, beginning innocuously enough in Toronto working as an editorial assistant on the Methodist Magazine (until the editor discovered his Buddhist inclinations), and then as a dairy farmer and a publican. He succeeded at none of these. Moving to New York in 1892, he floundered again, experimenting with morphine and falling into abject poverty before landing a job as court reporter for the Evening Sun. In his vivid autobiography Episodes before Thirty (1923), he recalled that reporting for a New York newspaper introduced him to ‘vice, crime, horror, terror, and every kind of human degradation’ (Blackwood, Episodes, 92). About this time he began recounting these ‘weird stories’, as well as his adventures into the Ontario wilderness, to a fellow Briton, Angus Hamilton. Homesickness drove Blackwood back to England in 1899, where he faced the thrilling prospect of a partnership in the Dried Milk Company. Fortunately for both Blackwood and probably the company, Hamilton reappeared in Blackwood's life and, unbeknown to him, submitted some of his stories to the publisher Eveleigh Nash, who accepted them.

This first collection, The Empty House and other Ghost Stories (1906), as well as the second, The Listener (1907), focuses on haunted-house ghost stories. However, the most chillingly evocative and frequently reprinted story in them is an uncanny nature tale, ‘The Willows’, based on a 2400-mile canoe trip down the Danube that Blackwood made in 1900. With his third volume, John Silence: Physician Extraordinary (1908), Blackwood achieved notoriety and success, partly because Nash promoted the book with the largest posters to appear on hoardings and horse-buses that had ever been seen in Britain. More importantly it captivated a society suffering from spiritual malaise in featuring a psychic detective, John Silence (compared with Sherlock Holmes by contemporary reviewers), who treats difficult cases of spiritual affliction.

These early works caused Blackwood to be pigeon-holed as a ghost-story writer, but he quickly moved on to fanciful novels of psychic adventure. Several of these depict young people possessed of ‘old souls’ who connect with older male mystical protagonists, notably Jimbo: a Fantasy (1909), The Education of Uncle Paul (1909), The Human Chord (1910), and A Prisoner in Fairyland (1913). He dramatized the last-mentioned with Violet Pearn as The Starlight Express (1915), for which Sir Edward Elgar composed music. Among Blackwood's more powerful mystical odysseys was The Centaur (1911), based on his 1910 voyage to Greece, in which an Irish traveller feels the call of the Urwelt and has a vision in the Caucasus of the dawning of the earth. The novel impressed writers as diverse as Rainer Maria Rilke, James Stephens, and Siegfried Sassoon, and was Blackwood's own favourite as well. The Wave: an Egyptian Aftermath (1916) is also an exotic psychic adventure, this one involving reincarnation, one of Blackwood's characteristic themes; it sets a precedent in being probably the first novel in English to refer to Freud by name as well as to explore the Oedipus complex in a supernatural context. He continued to produce atmospheric nature tales in The Lost Valley and other Stories (1910); Pan's Garden (1912); and Incredible Adventures (1914). The first includes the often anthologized story ‘The Wendigo’, dealing with the ‘panic of the wilderness’ manifested as a great moss-eating beast in the Canadian north.

During the First World War Blackwood experienced some incredible adventures of his own, involving ‘code names, invisible ink and hair's breadth escapes’ (Ashley, 22) while operating as an undercover agent in Switzerland for British military intelligence. Afterwards Blackwood travelled extensively and associated with the mystics P. D. Ouspensky and Georgi Gurdjieff. He also found time to collaborate on several successful plays, and pen half a dozen more psychical novels, including The Bright Messenger (1921), and story collections. Blackwood's friend Wilfred Wilson suggested some of the ideas for one of the latter, The Wolves of God and other Fey Stories (1921). Most of the tales deal with the effects of wild animals on man or with animal instincts within man, and several of the best draw on experiences in the Canadian backwoods, including the title story, as well as ‘Running Wolf’, and ‘The Valley of the Beasts’.

In the late 1920s, when the volume of his prose writing was declining, Blackwood achieved high acclaim for his children's story Dudley and Gilderoy: a Nonsense (1929). It brings to the fore Blackwood's sense of humour in its description of the London adventures of a renegade parrot and a cat.

In the 1930s and 1940s Blackwood embarked on two new careers, in radio and television; he appeared on Britain's first television show, Picture Page, in 1936. By 1947 his regular Saturday Night Story spot on television had made him a household name, and in 1949 he was appointed CBE, one of his proudest moments. Late in 1951 his health deteriorated, and on 10 December he died in London of cerebral thrombosis and arteriosclerosis.

One interviewer described Blackwood as being possessed of an ‘unusual, singularly fine personality, with its sympathy, sensitiveness, humour, charm, and touches of a most appealing naiveté’ (Field, 304). These qualities garnered him a large circle of friends and yet he remained determinedly independent, never marrying. Tall and with striking, rugged features, he relished the open-air life, spending a good deal of his time hiking and skiing in Europe, especially Switzerland.

Altogether Blackwood published over forty books, penning more stories and novels in the realm of the psychological, mystical, and supernatural than any other contemporary. His work is informed by an eclectic framework of ideas, ranging from Eastern mysticism, theosophy, and psychical research to psychoanalysis. Occasionally in his novels Blackwood is too didactic or verbose, but most often he carries the reader along on his flights of poetic fancy. Many of his stories excel at evoking uncanny atmospheres, leading no less an expert than H. P. Lovecraft to refer in 1927 to Blackwood's work as ‘some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age’. E. F. Bleiler more recently confirms Blackwood's position as ‘the foremost British supernaturalist of the twentieth century’. However, Blackwood's best work defies categorizing by genre; for his powerful and unique exploration of the possibilities of expanded consciousness he deserves wider recognition.

GEORGE MALCOLM JOHNSON

Sources  

M. Ashley, Starlight man: the extraordinary life of Algernon Blackwood (2001) · M. Ashley, Algernon Blackwood: a bio-bibliography (1987) · A. Blackwood, Episodes before thirty, rev edn (1950) · E. F. Bleiler, ‘Introduction to the Dover edition’, Best ghost stories of Algernon Blackwood (1973), v–x · J. R. Colombo, Blackwood's books (1981) · A. Blackwood, ‘Author's note’, John Silence (1942), v–vi · L. M. Field, ‘What New York did to an English novelist’, Literary Digest International Book Review (1924), 304–5 [review of Blackwood's Episodes before thirty] · D. Hudson, ‘A study of Algernon Blackwood’, Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, new ser., 14 (1961), 102–14 [repr. as ‘Algernon Blackwood’, chap. 9 of Talks with Fuddy and other papers (1968), 81–91] · S. T. Joshi, ‘Algernon Blackwood: the expansion of consciousness’, The weird tale: Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft (1990), 87–132 · H. P. Lovecraft, ‘Supernatural horror in literature’, The Recluse, 1 (1927) [incorporated, after revision, in The outsider and others (1939); repr. in Dagon and other macabre tales (1965; rev. edn 1986)] · P. Penzoldt, ‘Algernon Blackwood’, The supernatural in fiction (1952), 228–53 · D. Punter, ‘Algernon Blackwood’, Supernatural fiction writers: fantasy and horror, ed. E. F. Bleiler, 1 (1985), 463–70 · D. Scarborough, The supernatural in modern English fiction (1917); repr. (1967) · J. Sullivan, ‘The visionary ghost story: Algernon Blackwood’, Elegant nightmares: the English ghost story from Le Fanu to Blackwood (1978), 112–29 · E. Wagenknecht, ‘Algernon Blackwood’, Seven masters of supernatural fiction (1991), 69–94

Archives  

BBC WAC · Boston College, Massachusetts · Hunt. L. · priv. coll., corresp. · Richmond Local Studies Library, London, corresp. and literary MSS · University of Toronto |  BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 54972 · BL, letters to Vera Wainwright, Add. MS 54329 · NYPL, Berg collection · State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, August Derleth collection

 

SOUND

 

BBC WAC


Likenesses  

W. Tittle, lithograph, 1922, NPG · H. Coster, photographs, 1929, NPG [see illus.] · Histed, photograph, repro. in The Bookman, 39/2 (Nov 1910) · K. Shackleton, drawing, repro. in ‘Algernon Blackwood the mystic’, John O'London's Weekly, 5/126 (3 Sept 1921) · photographs, Hult. Arch. · photographs, repro. in Blackwood, Episodes before thirty

Wealth at death  

£14,189 1s. 4d.: probate, 8 Feb 1952, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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Algernon Henry Blackwood (1869–1951): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31913