Algernon Henry Blackwood, CBE (14 March 1869 – 10 December 1951) was an English short story writer and novelist, one of the most prolific writers of ghost stories in the history of the genre. He was also a journalist and a broadcasting narrator. S. T. Joshi has stated that “his work is more consistently meritorious than any weird writer's except Dunsany's” and that his short story collection Incredible Adventures (1914) “may be the premier weird collection of this or any other century”.
Life and work
Blackwood was born in Shooter's Hill (today part of south-east London, but then part of northwest Kent) and educated at Wellington College. His father was a Post Office administrator who, according to Peter Penzoldt, “though not devoid of genuine good-heartedness, had appallingly narrow religious ideas”. Blackwood had a varied career, working as a milk farmer in Canada, operating a hotel, as a newspaper reporter in New York City, bartender, model, journalist for the New York Times, private secretary, businessman, and violin teacher.
Throughout his adult life, he was an occasional essayist for various periodicals. In his late thirties, he moved back to England and started to write stories of the supernatural. He was very successful, writing at least ten original collections of short stories and eventually appearing on both radio and television to tell them. He also wrote fourteen novels, several children's books, and a number of plays, most of which were produced but not published. He was an avid lover of nature and the outdoors, and many of his stories reflect this. To satisfy his interest in the supernatural, he joined the Ghost Club. He never married; according to his friends he was a loner but also cheerful company.
Jack Sullivan points out that “Blackwood's life parallels his work more neatly than perhaps that of any other ghost story writer. Like his lonely but fundamentally optimistic protagonists, he was a combination of mystic and outdoorsman; when he wasn't steeping himself in occultism, including Rosicrucianism and Buddhism, he was likely to be skiing or mountain climbing.”
His two best known stories are probably “The Willows” and “The Wendigo”. He would also often write stories for newspapers at short notice, with the result that he was unsure exactly how many short stories he had written and there is no sure total. Though Blackwood wrote a number of horror stories, his most typical work seeks less to frighten than to induce a sense of awe. Good examples are the novels The Centaur, which climaxes with a traveller's sight of a herd of the mythical creatures; and Julius LeVallon and its sequel The Bright Messenger, which deal with reincarnation and the possibility of a new, mystical evolution in human consciousness. In correspondence with Peter Penzoldt, Blackwood wrote:
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. So many of my stories, therefore, deal with extension of consciousness; speculative and imaginative treatment of possibilities outside our normal range of consciousness. … Also, all that happens in our universe is natural; under Law; but an extension of our so limited normal consciousness can reveal new, extra-ordinary powers etc., and the word “supernatural” seems the best word for treating these in fiction. I believe it possible for our consciousness to change and grow, and that with this change we may become aware of a new universe. A “change” in consciousness, in its type, I mean, is something more than a mere extension of what we already possess and know.
Blackwood was a member of one of the factions of the qabbalistic Order, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as was his contemporary Arthur Machen: Qabalistic themes are at the heart of his novel The Human Chord.
Blackwood wrote an autobiography of his early years, Episodes Before Thirty (1923), and there is a biography by Mike Ashley (ISBN 0-7867-0928-6).
Blackwood died after several strokes. Officially his death on 10 December 1951 was of cerebral thrombosis with arteriosclerosis as contributory. He was cremated at Golders Green crematorium. A few weeks later his nephew took his ashes to Saanenmoser and scattered them over the mountains that he had loved for over forty years.
Critical responses and legacy
H. P. Lovecraft included Blackwood as one of the "Modern Masters" in the chapter of that name in Supernatural Horror in Literature. Peter Penzoldt devotes the final chapter of The Supernatural in Fiction (1952) to an analysis of Blackwood's work, and the book is dedicated "with deep admiration and gratitude, to Algernon Blackwood, the greatest of them all". There is an extensive critical analysis of Blackwood's work in Jack Sullivan's book Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story From Le Fanu to Blackwood (1978). There is a critical essay on Blackwood's work in S. T. Joshi's The Weird Tale (1990). The plot of Caitlin R. Kiernan's novel Threshold (2001) draws upon Blackwood's "The Willows", which is quoted several times in the book. Kiernan has cited Blackwood as an important influence on her writing. In The Books in My Life, Henry Miller chose Blackwood's The Bright Messenger as "the most extraordinary novel on psychoanalysis, one that dwarfs the subject."
Algernon Blackwood appears as a character in the novel “The Curse of the Wendigo” by Rick Yancey