Algernon Blackwood and Clark Ashton Smith

Teresa Edgerton

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Yes, I know there is a CAS thread somewhere about, but that one is moribund -- so castigate me how you will, I'm starting this one.

I am currently alternating between short stories by Smith and stories by Algernon Blackwood, and although this is not my first experience of either writer, I'm finding the contrast interesting.

Smith had the most amazing imagination, but after a while some of his stories begin to look the same. (Not more necromancers performing dubitable rites in the eldritch shadows of immemorial tombs!) Even so, his range was amazing.

But Blackwood's writing, even though simpler and more straight-forward, could be just as evocative.
 
I think Blackwood is one of the finest horror prose stylists I've read, though he can be a little up and down in quality. But when he's on he's on. I think one word that comes to mind when reading Blackwood is subtlety, not so much with his John Silence tales as with his tales of wilderness and nature. He can make the rattling of a tree's branches sound cosmically eerie. His best horror is always believable, always dancing on a dreamlike film of normalcy that can break at any moment. Yeah, I dig Blackwood.

CAS is an interesting writer. His prose is almost ultraviolet at times and most often I've found it near unreadable, but every so often he'll get it just right, and then you're plunged into a crazed psychedelic universe unlike anything on earth. Truly the definition of weird fantasy. I agree that he can be repetetive. I've found his Zothique/Hyperborea cycles to be hard to read in more than one go. It's a deluge of weird imagery and creations that can quickly satiate any appetite for the unusual. But yeah, amazing imagination.

Have you tried his prose poetry, Kelpie?
 
The first time I looked at C. A. Smith's prose poetry, everything read like story fragments, and not particularly good ones at that. But when I started reading the poems out loud, the patterns and the cadences and the alliterations became more apparent, and I thought some of them quite beautiful.

Have you read any of the Averoigne stories, fungi? The language is less florid than in the Atlantean tales and the characters tend to emerge more out of the background. Although certainly a character like Malygris is vivid enough, however monstrous and one-sided.

Yesterday I (re)read Blackwood's "Ancient Sorceries." It was something I'd read several years ago, and some of the scenes in it were indelibly etched on my brain (especially the one of the cats/witches slinking over the rooftops), but when I went looking for it again I couldn't find it. I was almost certain the story was by Algernon Blackwood but could not remember the title and kept looking in the wrong collections and bringing home the wrong books from the library. I was very pleased to find it again.
 
Oddly, I first heard of Blackwood in an old Black Sabbath interview. Bassist Geezer Butler mentioned that a lot of his lyrical inspiration came from horror films and authors like Algernon Blackwood. Naturally, I had to seek out the fellow's books. Fortunately, my father and grandfather both seem to have had a solid streak of appreciation for good horror, because I burrowed around through the shelves their houses and found two compilations of Blackwood's short stories - one published in the 1920s, the other in the 1970s.

Blackwood is, as others have mentioned, a more consistently readable stylist than Smith. His stories are often less in-your-face horror as they are about the supernatural and occult finding its way into real life. In this aspect, I see his approach to horror as reflecting the 'spirit' fad of his times, although with a greater conviction and depth than many Victorian spiritualists actually posessed. Some of my favourite Blackwood stories are about the psychic investigator, John Silence.

Blackwood often set his stories in outdoor settings, against forests and swamps or in hilly regions. He excels as a descriptive writer, giving you a vivid sense of place. This earthy naturalism serves as an especially effective underpinning for the supernatural elements of his stories.

HP Lovecraft, never reticent in speaking of the many excellent writers who shaped his own vision has this to say about Blackwood in his essay 'Supernatural Horror in Literature:

"Less intense than Machen in delieating the extremes of stark fear, yet infinitely more closely wedded to the idea of an unreal world constantly pressing upon ours is the inspired and prolific Algernon Blackwood, amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age. Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood's genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision. Without notable command of the poetic witchery of mere words, he is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere; and can evoke what amounts almost to a story from a simple fragment of humourless psychological description. Above all others he understands how fully some sensitive minds dwell forever on the borderland of dream, and how relatively slight is the distinction betwixt those images formed from actual objects and those excited by the play of the imagination."

I admire Clark Ashton Smith's imagination and his way with words - there's no denying that he was a man deeply in love with language and its rhythms, and took the affair to extremes at times. I like his Averoigne tales a lot, although the Zothique tales have some seriously memorable weird scenes and characters in them. Many of them read like incomplete fragments from lost manuscripts chroncling some world that never existed - at least, that's how I like to think of them. It's very hard to read several of his stories in succesion and indeed, doing so is probably a disservice to both Smith and yourself. It's best to savour them at the rate of one or two a month, much as his original readers would have, in the monthly pulp magazines. Too many of them at a time and the stories can start seeming like unintentional self-parody.

Smith was also a poet, painter and sculptor. Many of his sculptures would not be out of place as the 'accursed artifact' of a Lovecraftian tale. They posess a raw, primitive power that is very different from the polished pleasures of his prose and poetry.

Nyctalops is one of my favourite poems by Smith. It almost seems like a paean to all the strange visions that Smith and his fellow visionaries of the Weird Tales era dreamed up.
 
Well I can't really add much to the discussion about CAS that's not already been said but just to reiterate that CAS was conisdered in his day one of the finest if not the greatest living American poet. I prefer the stories to the poetry but then that's just my personal taste.

Sadly I know little of Blackwood and can't recall reading much if any of this author's work. Therefore can anyone please tell me where a good starting point may be in terms of what stories to track down??

I also read somewhere that Lovecraft considered Blackwood's tale "The Willows" to be the greatest Weird Tale ever written. Anyone read this yet???
 
GOLLUM said:
Sadly I know little of Blackwood and can't recall reading much if any of this author's work. Therefore can anyone please tell me where a good starting point may be in terms of what stories to track down??

You might want to avoid some of his earliest stories, like "An Empty House," which aren't as good. I didn't like "Clairvoyance" or "The Attic," or "The Tryst" either. They had a peculiarly Victorian/Edwardian sensibility that didn't go over very well for me, though in general I'm fond of that sort of thing.

"The Willows" is good, but not as good, in my own opinion, as "Ancient Sorceries," "Secret Worship," or "The Glamour of the Snow." Any of those would be a fine place to start.

If you're looking for something light and whimsical there's "The Goblin's Collection."
 
Just by total chance picked up a couple of Alegernon Blackwood short story collections for a song today as part of our local bookshop's clearance sale. Looking forward to reading them and comparing to how they stack up against CAS.

2 collections include:
The Dance Of Death, A Physical Invasion, The Old Man Of Visions, The South Wind, The Touch Of Pan & Ancient Soreceries, Secret Worship, The Empty House, A Haunted Island, Keeping His Promise, A Case Of Eavesdropping and The Nemesis Of Fire.

Plenty of reading for the holidays....
 
Hey, Gollum, in another thread you asked me to report on my progress through the Blackwood novel, The Human Chord, so three-quarters of the way through these are my impressions:

What you might call a metaphysical or esoteric novel -- not shaping up to be horror. Not very much like his shorter works, except in terms of style.

The closest I can come to a comparison with any other author is to say it's a bit like a cross between Charles Williams and Dion Fortune, if you're familiar with the works of either.
 
I have indeed heard of Charles Williams who was at one stage a member of the Inklings which as you would know famously included Lewis and Tolkien as members. I read his latter novels Descent into Hell and All Hallow's Eve which focus more as a ghost story than his earlier work or so I understand. Dion Fortrune rings a vague bell but I've never read anything by her. I seem to recall they are linked by both having an association with the fraternity Golden Dawn which interestingly enough Blackwood was also a member of, so perhaps it's not unsuprising you cite them although I'm sure you were already aware of that asoication.

Not sure if it sounds like my cup of tea but thanks anyway for the update...:)
 
I was sure you would know about Charles Williams, I just didn't know if you had read any of his work so that the comparison would be useful.

But now that I think of it, besides her occult involvement (she left the Golden Dawn and started her own order, the Fraternity of the Inner Light) Dion Fortune was also a practicing psychotherapist -- so in some ways a female version of Blackwood's Dr. John Silence. I hadn't made that connection until just now.

I meant to ask, Gollum, which two collections you picked up at that clearance sale. If it's the two I recently ordered from Amazon, I'm going to be exceedingly jealous of your good luck.
 
That's a nice link you make there between John Silence and Dion. I know that at least 2 of the stories I have listed in this thread revolve around him as the book's blurb indicates as much, so I'm looking forward to getting to those.

As far as the books I have are concerned they literally contain the stories I listed, so they're not exactly major collections of Blackwood's work. In fact this publisher has 9 Blackwood titles/collections listed on the inside cover. Now the publisher is Redwood Editions, an imprint of Hinkler Books, which appear to be based right here in the state of Victoria of which you're probably aware Melbourne is the capital of. Therefore it's pretty unlikely I'm guessing that they're the same collections you've ordered over there. I posted the titles over at the Book Hauls thread but to reiterate they're:

Ancient Sorceries and other stories (incl. stories featuring Dr John Silence).
The Dance of Death and other stories.

Actually I'm going to check out what other titles this local publisher may have on offer, could be a fun exercise...:)

PS Once you get hold of the collection perhaps you could list the stories they contain or provide a link to the book's details? Would be interesting to compare who has what exactly.

EDIT: Chat later, off on my afternoon stroll...
 
The two Blackwood collections I ordered finally arrived today. Since I ordered them from two different places via Amazon, I was pleasantly surprised to get them both at once.

Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre contains 23 tales, about half of which I haven't read before. There is one John Silence story "A Victim of Higher Space," but it seems to be light on his more famous and highly regarded stories. Among those that are new to me: "Chinese Magic," "The Sacrifice," "The Heath Fire,"and "Initiation.

Tales of the Uncanny and the Supernatural contains 22 stories, including the ever popular "The Man Whom the Trees Loved," "Glamour of the Snow," and "Valley of the Beasts." Again, about half are new to me, stories like: "The South Wind," "The Touch of Pan," and "The Lost Valley."

I'm wondering if some of these don't turn up in collections very often because they aren't particularly good. I guess I'll soon know.

I've read enough of his work now to be able to say that the quality varies considerably. But one thing that surprised me was how compellingly he could write about Egypt. It's not a subject that holds much glamour for me, generally speaking, yet in stories like "Sand" and "A Descent into Egypt" he made it all sound quite alluring.
 
Well I've also got the story "The Touch Of Pan" so we may be able to compare notes on that one Kelpie.

I've got a John Silence story in my mini collection yet to read called "The Nemsis of Fire" which is about 100 pages and about Egypt. You read this one yet??

The other John Silence stroy is the well known "Ancient Sorceries" you appear to have liked. I'm planning on reading this one next.
 
Kelpie said:
The first time I looked at C. A. Smith's prose poetry, everything read like story fragments, and not particularly good ones at that. But when I started reading the poems out loud, the patterns and the cadences and the alliterations became more apparent, and I thought some of them quite beautiful.

Have you read any of the Averoigne stories, fungi? The language is less florid than in the Atlantean tales and the characters tend to emerge more out of the background. Although certainly a character like Malygris is vivid enough, however monstrous and one-sided.

I've read pretty much all of CAS's fiction, including Averoigne. My favorites are probably the standalone tales: A Night in Malneant, Monster from the Prophecy, City of the Singing Flame. They strike the perfect balance between weirdness and normalcy, in my opinion; I feel I can empathize with the protagonist moreso than his purer fantasies, making the tales less a deluge of weird images as a genuine otherworldly experience. I also enjoy his contemporary tales, especially the excellent Ubbo Sathla and Treader of the Dust. His Lovecraftian tales are enjoyable reads too, despite their somewhat derivative nature.

Yesterday I (re)read Blackwood's "Ancient Sorceries." It was something I'd read several years ago, and some of the scenes in it were indelibly etched on my brain (especially the one of the cats/witches slinking over the rooftops), but when I went looking for it again I couldn't find it. I was almost certain the story was by Algernon Blackwood but could not remember the title and kept looking in the wrong collections and bringing home the wrong books from the library. I was very pleased to find it again.

Blackwood's Ancient Sorceries is one of my favorites also. His subtle weaving of the fabrics of magic and reality remains today an exemplary example of supernatural fiction. I haven't read the John Silence tales for a while now, and in my mind they're mostly muddled up with Hodgson's Carnacki tales, but that is one that has particularly stuck in my mind.
 
GOLLUM said:
Well I've also got the story "The Touch Of Pan" so we may be able to compare notes on that one Kelpie.

I've got a John Silence story in my mini collection yet to read called "The Nemsis of Fire" which is about 100 pages and about Egypt. You read this one yet??

The other John Silence stroy is the well known "Ancient Sorceries" you appear to have liked. I'm planning on reading this one next.

Nemesis of Fire is an excellent piece, if I remember correctly. Genuinely terrifying in places. The scene in the tomb (I won't reveal further) will definitely put the chills up you.
 
fungi from Yuggoth said:
Nemesis of Fire is an excellent piece, if I remember correctly. Genuinely terrifying in places. The scene in the tomb (I won't reveal further) will definitely put the chills up you.
Thanks, I'll let you know how I find it...:D
 
"Nemesis of Fire" involves Egypt, but it takes place in England.

It turns out that I'd already read "The Touch of Pan," not very long ago. As soon as I started reading it I knew, though I hadn't remembered the name or associated the story with Blackwood. Made me feel old, that did.
 
Kelpie said:
It turns out that I'd already read "The Touch of Pan," not very long ago. As soon as I started reading it I knew, though I hadn't remembered the name or associated the story with Blackwood. Made me feel old, that did.
So was it any good? I guess I'll know soon enough and what's this nonsense about being old, you're only as old as you feel and besides you have all that wonderful literary knowldege and insight, which to my mind is irreplacable and makes me for one all the gladder for being able to correspond with you...:D
 
GOLLUM said:
you're only as old as you feel

Which in my case is fairly decrepit of late.

I haven't been able to decide what I think of "The Touch of Pan." It's an odd story, and in spite of its fantastic trappings it seems to be more of a social commentary on the sexual morals (or lack thereof) of his times.

It certainly doesn't go on my list of favorites.
 

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