05 October 2008

John Silence—Physician Extraordinary

The Complete John Silence Stories (1997)
By Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood (1869–1951) is one of the greatest of the authors roaming October Country. He’s often classified as a horror and ghost story writer, but these terms don’t cover the span of his unusual talent. Some of his tales do deal with ghosts, and many are filled with soul-ripping horror. But his supernatural stories sometimes reach into realms of pantheistic wonder (such as “The Man whom the Trees Loved” and “Sand”), and you could hardly use the term “ghost” to describe the fear-inducing powers in “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” his two towering classics. Meanwhile, “Max Hensig—Bacteriologist and Murderer” is a horror story with no supernatural elements at all.

To start the Halloween reading season, I’m sitting down with a modern collection of Blackwood’s work, The Complete John Silence Stories. This volume contains the five stories originally published in John Silence—Physician Extraordinary in 1908, plus one additional story from 1917. Although Blackwood had already published some of his best stories by 1908, the success of John Silence made him a bestseller and assured the rest of his career. Now we have to seek his work out in small press editions; how easily our culture forgets some of its best talents.

Titular hero Dr. John Silence is a philanthropist physician who asks for no money for his services, but who prefers cases involving the spirit (although he can’t stand the word “occult”) rather than merely the body. He combines the rationality and calm of the scientist with the paranormal knowledge of a sensitive or psychic. As described in the first story, “A Psychical Invasion”:
. . . the cases that especially appealed to him were of no ordinary kind, but rather of that intangible, elusive, and difficult nature best described as psychical afflictions; and, although he would have been the last person himself to approve of the title, it was beyond question that he was known more or less generally as the “Psychic Doctor.”
The psychic or paranormal detective is a common trope in movies, books, comics, and TV today, but Dr. Silence was one of the first: part Sherlock Holmes, part Abraham van Helsing.

The six stories in this volume show that Blackwood enjoyed experimenting with how to present the character, sometimes making him the active agent, other times a sounding board for other stories, and in one case a sudden last-minute hero who charges in to save the day, much like James Bond in the novel The Spy Who Loved Me. Blackwood at his height was always an author of surprises.

The six stories in the Dover publication are presented in their original order in John Silence—Physician Extraordinary, with the 1917 story, “A Victim of Higher Space” attached at the end. Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi provides the informative introduction.

I herewith present my take on these six incredible cases in the annals of Dr. John Silence.

A Psychical Invasion: The opening story provides a solid introduction to our unusual hero, although it’s one of weaker pieces in the volume. The plot follows a common ghost tale canard, “man dares to stay the night in a haunted house,” but disposes with the creaky occultism that Silence himself so abhors. Dr. Silence comes to the aid of Pender, a popular humorist author who has suddenly lost his sense of humor. After ingesting the drug Canabis indica, which supposedly creates intense laughter, Pender opens himself up to an attack from a vicious psychic entity dwelling in his house. Silence gets to the bottom of it during a nocturnal vigil in the home, accompanied only by two assistants, the cat Smoke and the dog Flame. Blackwood does well turning an old-hat type of story into a “psychic detective” work, and the confrontation with the forces inside the house, delineated through their affect on the two animals, is effective, but it can’t compare with the works that follows it.

Ancient Sorceries: This is one of the best of the John Silence stories, and granted its name to a recent collection of his best work, Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories. (That collection contains both “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” so go buy it now.) Silence plays the passive agent in this story; he sits in his office and listens to the incredible events that occurred to a meek man named Vezin, the sort of person to whom incredible events never happen—a bit like Bilbo Baggins, I suppose. Vezin, while returning from a vacation, decides to vacate the obnoxious noisy train and stay in a quaint little town. But there is something very… wrong… about this village, as he soon starts to realize based on the obfuscatory behavior of the inhabitants. It has something to do with cats, although he has a difficult time pinpointing it exactly. But Vezin finds he can’t leave because he’s fallen madly in love with local girl Ilsé. The story simmers as a bewitching mystery until the build to the madness of the revelation, which must have had an effect on the way H. P. Lovecraft wrote “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” (Lovecraft was an enormous admirer of Blackwood, and thought “The Willows” was the greatest weird tale ever written.) In the coda, Silence offers a standard parapsychological explanation for Vezin’s horrific adventure, and it’s the only place where I feel dissatisfied with what is otherwise a superb piece of shadowy weirdness.

The Nemesis of Fire: The longest of the John Silence stories runs sixty close-printed pages in this edition. For the first time, we meet Dr. Silence’s assistant, Mr. Hubbard. The first two stories hinted at a first-person narrator who recorded Silence’s cases, but remained almost invisible except for a few dropped “I”s. Now, the “Dr. Watson” assistant steps up to active participant. Hubbard and Dr. Silence go to a manor house in Ireland to investigate the strange assault upon Colonel Wragge and his sister. The Colonel’s brother died years ago from a mysterious scorching, and a feeling of “mental heat” lays over the house and grounds. Unexplained fires and lights have plagued the Colonel and his sister, and he has brought Dr. Silence to help him combat a bizarre pyrotechnic horror. Dr. Silence discovers a shocking power that stretches back to ancient Egypt and its deities—a favorite topic of Blackwood’s. There are two amazing suspenseful sequences of supernatural appearances, and the finale is a tingler. It’s unfortunate that length has often kept this story from anthologies.

Secret Worship: After “Ancient Sorceries,” this is the most commonly anthologized John Silence story. I first came across it in another Blackwood collection from Dover, Best Ghost Stories. And this one actually is a ghost story, although Dr. Silence has his own explanation of it as evil that leaves its “photographs upon surrounding scenes and objects.” Silence appears briefly, showing up as the heroic figure of rescue in the finale. Until that point, “Secret Worship” is the tale of Harris, an English silk merchant who decides to pay a visit to the south German religious school where he spent two years under the strict discipline of a Protestant brotherhood. Harris’s ruminations on the harsh life in the school come directly from Blackwood’s own childhood: he attended a school of the strict Moravian Brotherhood. The writing here is astonishing; Blackwood shows in detail a man ecstatic with visiting a place from his distant past that is associated with pain but also exhilaration. Of course, all is not as it seems—the school has changed, uhm, drastically since Harris last saw it. As in “Ancient Sorceries,” the protagonist starts to realize in the pit of his soul that something is very, very wrong around him. Blackwood was masterful at creating a sense of dread when nothing appears outwardly wrong. Another excellent story.

The Camp of the Dog: Camping meets extreme Freud (or maybe Forbidden Planet) as Dr. Silence’s assistant Hubbard takes center stage as the main character. Blackwood was an enthusiastic outdoorsman, and many of his stories use the backdrop of the lonely wilderness encounter, where humanity touching the vastness of nature brings about confrontation. Hubbard goes on a long camping trip to a lonely Baltic island with clergyman Maloney and his wife, their daughter Joan, and young Canadian Peter Sangree. But the discovery of dog tracks on an island they know has no animal life brings up frightening possibilities, and Dr. Silence rushes up to the Baltic to deal with the problem. Most readers will figure out fast what is happening, but Blackwood’s twist on lycanthropy is interesting. Silence does go too rationalist for my taste, and it weakens some of the more fearful passages in the center, but the analysis of final resolution of this case of humanity facing its animal passions is refreshing for refusing to give in to the obvious. And nobody can write about a camping trip as well as Algernon Blackwood.

A Victim of Higher Space: And the award for “Coolest Title in an Anthology” goes to…. Unfortunately, it’s also the weakest story in the collection, missing the shivery power of the others. “A Victim of Higher Space” is neither horror nor supernatural; the exploration of a man who cannot control his slippage into the fourth dimension (often triggered by Wagner music—no joke) is pure science fiction, although the term hadn’t been coined in 1917. A Mr. Mudge comes to visit Dr. Silence with his bizarre problem in physics and mathematics and hopes the genius doctor can solve the problem. The doctor has picked up a new assistant, Barker, who lacks book learning but is a genuine “sensitive.” The reader also learns a great deal about Silence’s remarkable office, filled with gadgets to help in his studies. But ultimately, “A Victim of Higher Space” feels like a quickie, and even though Blackwood was ahead of the curve of most writers in dealing with trans-dimensional travel, nothing feels new here. It is, however, the only John Silence story written entirely in third person.