The Unknown is an Algernon Blackwood anthology in four sections. (1) Canada, (2) Mountain, (3) Reincarnation, and (4) Imagination. Nine short stories and four essays. Henry Bartholomew provides an excellent introduction and his selection cannot be faulted for it conveys well Blackwood’s exhilarating and disturbing awe in the face of nature.
The Canadian backwoods, Alpine Mountaineering and the loneliness of the desert were not fictional environments for Blackwood but real locations that he travelled through as a young man. So much of Blackwood’s work has been lived experience transmuted into intense prose.
No essay in the first section just three stories, 'Mid the Haunts of the Moose', 'Skeleton Lake' and' The Wolves of God'. I found the moose story to be a little pedestrian; almost Jack London-like but without any real suspense or horror. However the other tales are gripping and powerfully atmospheric. 'Skeleton Lake' is well known and psychologically finely paced. It describes the anxiety of a hunter who gives us an account of his friend’s accidental death. Yet his listeners sense a hidden unease. They eventually discover the hunter had murdered his companion. In 'The Wolves of God' (a great title) Blackwood beautifully holds back on the horror with an effective slow build-up. "I saw the leader...a splash of white on his great chest, I saw them all" says Jim Peace now early retired from the Hudson Bay Company. Jim has murdered the leader of a wolf pack. Yet these animals are possessed of a frightening supernatural force: embodying highly retributive powers. The story was published in 1921 and how they avenge the killing reminded me, of then, silent film melodrama. Again Blackwood is a master of determined mood-painting and mental disturbance.
The essay 'The Winter Alps' is arguably this anthology’s best example of the aesthetic beauty of Blackwood’s prose style. At just over five pages the essay describes the winter Alps through the seasons and pre-eminently in winter"I know nothing more impressive than the silence that overshadows the world of these high slopes. The faint ‘swishing’ of the ski as one flies over the powdery snow becomes almost loud in the ears by comparison. And with the silence that holds true awe comes that other characteristic of the winter alps – their immobility...All the engines that produce movement have withdrawn deep within their frozen selves, and lie smothered and asleep."
Blackwood was a friend of Elgar who composed music for Algernon’s ‘A Prisoner in Fairyland’ which was staged with the title The Starlight Express. I wonder if Blackwood ever met the composer Richard Strauss? Or was Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony of 1915 influenced by a reading of Blackwood’s 1910 essay? Both works are amongst the most powerful descriptions of the Alps that I’ve experienced and have a remarkable musical intensity. ‘The Glamour of the Snow’ sees Blackwood in a poetic, semi-fairy tale mode. Hibbert, a self-contained skier, is bewitched by a mysterious female ice skater: again an exquisitely well written and haunting story blending Hans Christian Anderson with the ghost story.
‘The Sacrifice’ is the most mystical story in The Unknown. Mountain climbing also becomes a metaphor for regeneration. It’s often said that Blackwood, more than any other ghost story writer, wrote many happy endings - though for me they are qualified and mysterious happy endings. The emotional release at the end of ‘The Sacrifice’ isn’t contrived but deeply felt. Once the protagonist’s ‘hallucination’ of looking at the snowy summit of the Tour de Neant mountain (that he will now never climb) disappears in a blinding flash, he’s spiritually reborn to deal with the disappointments and former setbacks he’s suffered in the real mundane world.
After the essay ‘On Reincarnation’ we are plunged into real Blackwoodian horror with one of his darkest and greatest stories ‘The Insanity of Jones (A study in Reincarnation)’ “...a chance combination of words & forces may invite them to cross the shifting frontier.” And John Enderby Jones does cross the frontier and tears through the veil of appearances. On being approached, in a restaurant, by a strange man, from the past, called Thorpe Jones, he’s told that in Spain 400 years ago, in a life of suffering and torture, he gave his life to save his friend – Thorpe. And that Jones’s former torturer has now been reincarnated as Jones’s manager at his work place and must be killed. The mentally unhinged Jones takes a pistol and shoots his boss. Having done his duty and pleased the gods he’s arrested by the police yet joyfully welcomed by “the host of faces that were thronging in upon him from the Other region.”
‘The Tarn of Sacrifice’ is another reincarnation tale with a ‘happier’ ending than ‘The Insanity of Jones’ yet both stories still leave you with a disconcerting feeling of what happened was real or imaginary, sane or mad.
Perhaps the essay ‘The Genesis of Ideas’ and the story ‘Imagination’ are interesting if minor works yet they are thematically correct for Bartholomew’s editorship. However ‘By Water’ is a stunning and terrifically ingenious tale. Before leaving to take up a new job in Egypt a man called Larsen visits a clairvoyant who tells him he will drown but not in an obvious manner. The woman’s exact words are puzzling. “You will drown, but will not know you drown.” To reveal anymore would spoil things. Read and be amazed!
Even if you have a complete Blackwood The Unknown places hard to find essays, well anthologised and lesser known fiction together to create another perspective on Algernon Blackwood, a writer who excelled in expressing unknown fears residing in the world of nature and enlarging your consciousness to engage with them.
- Alan Price