05 October 2008

“The Listener” by Algernon Blackwood

You can’t have too much Algernon Blackwood in October, I’ve discovered, so upon finishing The Complete John Silence Stories, I decided I had to read a few more of his classics.

Here’s one of his best, “The Listener,” the title story of one his most important collections, the 1907 volume that also includes “The Willows” and “Max Hensig—Bacteriologist and Murderer.” My copy is collected in Best Ghost Stories.

“The Listener” follows more traditional ghost story territory than the John Silence stories. It feels like a shivery hearthside story whispered at midnight… only told in exceptional prose and filled with a feverish intensity that Blackwood injected into the best of his pure horror tales.

The story is told in the form of the diary entries of a nameless writer for magazines and newspapers (the autobiographical elements are obvious) who rents a room in an old house in London. The diary entries soon show a deterioration and paranoia about everything in the house; the author tells us he has a history of mental illness in his family, and he has suffered from sleepwalking. But does this account for the strange nightly activities in his house, the sense of someone unseen listening outside his door, whispering strange phrases in his ear while he sleeps, bizarre thoughts recorded into his diary, a maid who refuses to talk about what once happened in the upstairs rooms, the vanishing figure on the staircase with indescribable features, and the slowly increasing sensation of some horrible illness creeping over him?

It’s a cumulative and terrifically creepy piece of work. The question of the narrator’s perception constantly haunts it, making the inconclusive and abrupt ending appropriate.

Blackwood knows how to make a reader uncomfortable:
Slowly, as moonbeams rise over a misty sea in June, the thought is entering my mind that my nerves and somnabulistic dreams do not adequately account for the influence this house exercises upon me. It holds me with a fine invisible net. I cannot escape if I would. It draws me, and it means to keep me.
Other people can have their Texas Chain Saw Massacres and Hostels. This is what I consider scary.

(Actually, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre did terrify me . . . and not in a way I enjoyed.)