06 October 2008

Algernon Blackwood Presents: “Max Hensig—Bacteriologist and Murderer”

“Max Hensig—Bacteriologist and Murderer” is an unusual entry in the Algernon Blackwood horror story canon. Although originally printed in the same volume as “The Listener” and “The Willows,” “Max Hensig” is not a supernatural horror story at all, but a suspense horror story. It also moves away from the ethereal naturalist themes that form an important part of much of Blackwood’s best work. Instead it dwells in the urban canyons of turn-of-the-century New York, its prison and bars and courthouses, and specifically the lives of hustling newspaper reporters. Blackwood had worked as reporter in NYC for a few years and loathed the experience—he was a man of the wilderness, not the concrete jungle—and here puts to good use his frontline knowledge of the newspaper world of 1907.

(“The Listener” also concerns a writer for a newspaper, but that was incidental to its story of madness and haunting.)

Williams, a reporter for the rapaciously named Vulture, receives the assignment of covering the murder trial of Max Hensig, a German bacteriologist accused of poisoning his wife in Amityville (snicker). Hensig proclaims his innocence: why would a brilliant man like he, who knows hundreds of ways of slowly poisoning someone and leaving no trace, use a stupid and easily traceable method of murder as arsenic? He makes a good point, but Williams finds Hensig a reprehensible and frightening man, remorseless and with no regard for human life whatsoever.
But never before had [Williams] met a man who in cold blood, deliberately, under no emotion greater than boredom, would destroy a human life and then boast of his ability to do it. Yet this, he felt sure, was what Hensig had done, and his vile words shadowed forth and betrayed. Here was something outside humanity, something terrible, monstrous; and it made him shudder. This young doctor, he felt, was a fiend incarnate, a man who thought less of human life than the lives of flies in summer, and who would kill with as steady a hand and cool a brain though he were performing a common operation in the hospital.
Williams’s newspaper articles reflect these potent feelings of Hensig’s guilt, something the accused notices. And when Hensig is acquitted, Williams fears that perhaps the doctor will make good on his vague threats of revenge against him—Hensig isn’t a man anyone would want for an enemy.

You have an idea what’s coming. But you have no idea how much suspense Blackwood will wring out of Williams’s paranoia and fear when Hensig reappears in his life.
To be stalked by such a man was terrible. To realize that he was marked down by the white-faced, cruel wretch, merciless and implacable, skilled in the manifold ways of killing by stealth—that somewhere in the crowds of the great city he was watched and waited for, hunted, observed: here was an obsession really to torment and become dangerous.
I don’t really need to say that Cornell Woolrich would be proud of this kind of suspense writing, do I? And the sweaty, shivery finale, where Blackwood keeps the reader on a knife’s edge for page after page, is masterful. Again, it stands fair comparison to Woolrich.

Blackwood also shows that he can describe the urban landscape with as much talent as he does his beloved outdoors. Early twentieth-century New York breathes and wheezes through the whole story. “Max Hensig” is an unusual work for Blackwood, but it’s one of his best and shows the range of his talent.

The editor of Best Ghost Stories, where “Max Hensig” is collected, has this to say about the story’s appearance in a volume where it seems out of place:
Even though this is a collection of ghost stories, I have taken the liberty of including “Max Hensig.” It is such a good story that it should not be lost (as it has been), simply because it does not fit its author’s major bent. Based on Blackwood’s experiences as a reporter covering the Carlyle Harris murder case in New York, it shows how much was lost by Blackwood’s concentration on supernaturalism and children’s fiction.
I personally don’t think we lost that much by Blackwood’s focus on supernatural horror, since he had so many other brilliant weird stories to write, but “Max Hensig” makes a terrific detour from the pantheistic and fantastic Blackwood, and provides pure suspense fiction at its finest.