Algernon Blackwood The Dance of Death

The troubling Algernon Blackwood  in the shape of The Dance of Death.

Six tales by Blackwood is probably the exact size for appreciation and I’d question a ‘best of’ as I get the impression that Blackwood is a consistently good writer who almost always fails to deliver great. We have to take into account that his first stories A Mysterious House and A Haunted Island were published in 1899 and that one of his classics The Willows was written in 1907 in his late thirties. It could be argued he was at the peak of his powers in 1907 and it could be argued that the very fact that the modern reader can plod through a hundred year old Blackwood tale with some sense that it’s rather good and almost modern is a testament to his ability.

On the down side I’m not the only one  who feels that he simply fails to deliver. There’s been some good suggestions on the Vault of Evil as to why that’s the case. I would say it’s mostly because what he is writing is not really horrific in a modern sense so if you read Blackwood assuming he’s a horror writer per se its going to be a disappointment. Monker a contributor to the Vault of Evil has said ‘he fails to exploit the full significance or implications of his plots.’ And I think that’s accurate. He evokes awe and he evokes terror but somehow fails to adequately horrify.

Horror author John Llewellyn Probert has also pointed out the flaw in one of Blackwood’s main protagonists John Silence ‘an invincible, insufferable drama-killer’ who is frankly quite a dull bloke. Just when you want him to fall down clutching his throat and mouthing dark obscenities to the foul creatures of the abyss he explains everything in a manner reminiscent of your worst maths teacher tackling quadratic equations.

The Dance of Death. Browne’s off to a dance, He’s been diagnosed with a weak heart. He’ll meet a lovely looking lady who no one can see. No prizes for the ending.

A Psychical Invasion.

Mr. Pender, the Victorian equivalent of Spike Milligan, has been at the cannabis in order to help him write a few funnies. It’s a good description of the effects of hashish on the unwary (and demonstrates almost conclusively that canoeing down rivers wasn’t the only exploration undertaken by Blackwood). Unfortunately it’s not so good at evoking the tactile sense of dread normally accompanying the onset of demons. Again John Silence’s reply ‘I saw that at once.’ To Pender’s belief that he has been spiritually afflicted just makes you feel that Silence is a bit of a smug know all. A bit more of the ‘My God, what no!!!’ might have given the story more tension. The use of the dog and the cat as spiritual monitors is effective and overall it was an enjoyable read.

The Old Man of Visions has some good descriptive passages as it takes us on a young man’s quest for spiritual truth. The old man doesn’t do much though and when you find out where he lives it’s a fair bet you would go calling on anther friend who could produce tea and biscuits and a back catalogue of Hammer Horror films for your entertainment. There are echoes of Dunsany without the ethereal woods and with only a few urban fairies somewhere just out of reach. The story failed to deliver the goods.

The South Wind is a short short about…well the South wind.

The Touch of Pan might have been better titled The Fondling of Elspeth. It’s a well written account of an idyllic Dionysian rite where the natural charms and fun are contrasted with the plastic vulgarity of the party goers. Running about naked in the woods with a charming companion beats trying to get your end away in a bush with a friend’s wife.

The Valley of the Beasts – Blackwood at his best and in his best environment – out hunting in the the woods. Grimwood gets his comeuppance when he doesn’t take his Indian guide seriously. It’s a story with a happy ending and reveals Blackwood’s intimate knowledge of the wilderness.

Blackwood is at his best when you’re out camping in the middle of nowhere, or in a canoe in the middle of nowhere or up a hill in the middle of nowhere. He deals with wilderness and its power to strike the spirit with dread with all the accuracy of someone who’s been there. He understands that we are tiny humble creatures and come to know this when left alone to face the massive universe. He attributes our dread to fear of a deep and almost inexplicable natural force. Sometimes he makes that force a tangible God, at other times, in an effect which appears quite preposterous, a psychical invasion, a man with visions a hunter with burnt feet. At his worst you feel like a man in a museum looking at a stuffed lion. You are not frightened a bit – at his best you are staring at the same lion but its real and about to eat you.