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Blackwood, Algernon

Entry updated 11 September 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1869-1951) UK author who spent a decade in Canada and the USA from the age of twenty, a period remembered in his partial autobiography Episodes Before Thirty (1923; vt Adventure Before Thirty 1934); a prolific author of novels and short stories for half a century. He served in World War One as an intelligence agent based in Switzerland, and in other roles. His novels of occult pantheism – best exemplified in The Centaur (1911), which builds on the theories of Gustav Fechner (1801-1887) in its projections of a sentient Mother Earth (see Gaia) – tend to argue a logic of history which seems sufficiently rational for some of his work to count as sf. This is particularly true of the LeVallon sequence, Julius LeVallon (1916) and The Bright Messenger (1921). The first is primarily an occult novel regarding an individual who retains memories of past lives (see Reincarnation) and who seeks to remedy an error caused in that life when trying to raise a fire elemental. The remedy misfires and the elemental takes over the body of a baby still in the womb. The second novel explores the life of that child as he matures in the form of a new uber-being (see Superman) for a New Age (see Perception).

Blackwood's earliest known fiction is a simple ghost story, A Mysterious House (July 1889 Belgravia; 1987 chap), and he remains best remembered for his numerous short stories published over the next half century, including those about his Occult Detective [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] John Silence, most of whose adventures are collected in John Silence, Physician Extraordinary (coll 1908) [see Checklist for vts]. Although his "explanation" of the abyssal devil-worship that irradiates an uncannily Pastoral French town (where Shapeshifters blasphemously become Cats) in "Ancient Sorceries" is demeaningly literal, John Silence does usually avoid imposing the kind of scientific or Pseudoscientific apparatus which brings the exploits of William Hope Hodgson's investigator Carnacki not quite satisfactorily close to sf. In the first Silence investigation, "A Psychical Invasion", Drugs can open doors to a potentially dangerous spiritual world; other investigations feature a kind of Werewolf and a fire elemental.

More central to Blackwood's achievement are the works that intensify a pantheistic sense of reality as driven by elemental forces which can work through other Dimensions. This is most potent in one of his most popular stories, "The Willows" (in The Listener and Other Stories, coll 1907), set in a remote stretch of the River Danube where the space between the dimensions is thin and an unexplained energy force, which drains life, leaches across the divide [for Crosshatch here and Pan directly above see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Blackwood's central philosophy is not dissimilar to the (rather more cynical) Unanimism of Jules Romains (1885-1972), or the "Creative Evolution" to be found in Ralph Straus's The Dust Which Is God: An Undimensional Adventure (1907). Blackwood's belief in other dimensions, or "higher space", as he called them, fuels several of his later stories. He enjoyed the phrase "elsewhere and otherwise", believing that people might slip through into a higher dimension and either reappear at a great distance, as in the later John Silence story "A Victim of Higher Space" (December 1914 The Occult Review) and "The Man Who Was Milligan" (November 1923 Pearson's Magazine), or be trapped in higher space, aware of our plane of existence but unable to make contact (see Parallel Worlds), as in "Elsewhere and Otherwise" (in Shocks, coll 1935).

His short fiction, which can often reach novella length and on occasion be too long for its core message, can often reach heights of brooding lyricism as in "A Descent Into Egypt" (in Incredible Adventures, coll 1914) where a man's spirit has such an affinity with the immensity of the age of the Earth that it is absorbed into the past; or "Onanonanon" (March 1921 English Review), where a man who had created an alter ego for his wartime espionage finds himself haunted by his other self. Blackwood's fascination with the concept and implications of Time manifests itself in many of his stories."The Man Who Found Out" (June 1909 The Lady's Realm) features an ancient record, the "Tablets of the Gods", whose message – including the revelation that Time is a delusion – has Basilisk-like effects on readers. Blackwood was a friend of J W Dunne, whose theories about the Serial Universe he espoused in "The Man Who Lived Backwards" (12 December 1930 World Radio; in Shocks, coll 1935) (see Time in Reverse). Other stories about time and space include "Malahide and Forden" and "Playing Catch" (both in Tongues of Fire, coll 1924) and three of his books about children, The Education of Uncle Paul (1909) and The Extra Day (1915), both of which include episodes of Perception; and The Fruit Stoners: Being the Adventures of Maria among the Fruit Stoners (1934), which deepens the scrutiny of childhood and its fate follows Maria's dream-like but binding trek into extreme old age, and back again, accompanied and seduced by the emblematic fruit stoners of the title. The Cosmology adduced is literally derived from Blackwood's understanding of Einsteinian Relativity; but a sense that past and future are rooms along a visitable corridor of time seems also to reflect the theories of J W Dunne.

Overall, Blackwood is perhaps best understood as an author of supernatural fiction with cosmic aspirations, in which guise he was a significant influence on H P Lovecraft and his circle. [MA/JC/DRL]

see also: Horror in SF.

Algernon Henry Blackwood

born Shooter's Hill, Kent: 14 March 1869

died London: 10 December 1951

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