01 November 2011

Book Review: The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories (1906)
By Algernon Blackwood

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

I’d say “Happy Halloween,” but by the time you read this it is probably already All-Saints Day, also known as “The Start of National Novel Writing Month.” Ah, whatever: Happy Halloween!

In celebration, I’ll turn to my favorite author of the “weird tale”: Algernon Blackwood. I’ve written about Mr. Blackwood before. Actually, I’ve written a lot about him: I gave him his his own blog label. That shows commitment.

I’ll now turn the clock back to one of his earliest original collections, a volume that is a bit more on the ordinary side but still contains fine treasures within.

Blackwood first emerged into supernatural fiction with The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories in 1906. Although the term “ghost story” would literally haunt Blackwood all of his career, much of his finest supernatural work has little to do with specters and the unquiet dead. The Empty House is the exception that proves the rule: at this early stage of fiction writing, Blackwood was interested in standard ghost tales, but showed signs he wanted to go a different direction from the style of M. R. James that was popular at the time. The classics “The Wendigo” and the “Willows” were only another bend around the river.

The book features a continuing character named Jim Shorthouse. He features in four of the stories, but his behavior is inconsistent. Most of his appearances show an average young man who is also a magnet for weirdness: “Certain incidents, important and otherwise, of Jim’s life would never have come to be told here but for the fact that in getting into his ‘messes’ and out of them again he succeeded in drawing himself into the atmosphere of peculiar circumstances and strange happenings. He attracted to his path the curious adventures of life as unfailingly as meat attracts flies, and jam wasps.” However, one of the stories has Shorthouse as the “Wise Man” figure, perhaps his maturation after so many odd adventures.

This older Shorthouse appears in “With Intent to Steal,” the finest piece in the book. Shorthouse invites an unnamed narrator to spend a night in a barn that was once the headquarters of a black magician. The magician’s malignant spirit still dwells there, with the “intent to steal” anyone who stays in the barn. The narrator experiences the full effect of this lingering power—and to the surprise of both he and the reader, Shorthouse is not the strong-willed person he seems to be. Blackwood pushes against the borders of the ghost story, and shows the potential that he would soon realize in his next collection.

Jim Shorthouse’s other appearances are in “A Case of Eavesdropping,” “The Strange Adventure of a Private Secretary in New York,” and the title story. “The Empty House” is the most anthologized story in the volume. Appropriately, it’s an archetypal haunted house yarn. “[T]here is nothing more desolate in all the abodes of men than an unfurnished house dimly lit, silent, and forsaken, and yet tenanted by rumor with the memories of evil and violent histories.” So does Blackwood present the concept of the genius loci, the building as a “psychic battery” that stores evil, similar to how Stephen King describes the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. In its genre, “The Empty House” offers nothing remarkable: Shorthouse and his Aunt Julia pay a visit to an abandoned home that has driven out all its previous tenants. The two interlopers discover that the house lives up to its reputation. The author’s skill using the numinous to create fright is already apparent: Shorthouse and his aunt get a few glimpses of possibly human ghosts, but the fear comes through inner sensations. The most remarkable moment, one that points toward the transformative horror and fantasy to come from the author’s pen, is Shorthouse’s sudden perception of a physical change in his aunt that is part wonder and part terror.

“A Case of Eavesdropping” is average for the collection, putting poor Jim Shorthouse in a haunted New York City boarding house. Blackwood drew on his own experience working as a reporter in New York to add some comic flair to this otherwise standard piece.

On the other hand, the lengthy “The Strange Adventure of a Private Secretary in New York,” is bizarrely unclassifiable as a horror tale. It combines suspense with baffling oddities and outright grotesque moments. Shorthouse now works as a secretary for Mr. Sidebotham, who dispatches him on an errand to a Mr. Garvey, a former business partner. The errand is delicate—with the hint that Garvey is blackmailing his old partner—and Shorthouse plans to finish it as soon as possible. This turns out to be difficult: Mr. Garvey lives in a spooky mansion with a creepy private servant, and the man reveals he has, uhm, bestial habits. Jim Shorthouse gets stuck in the awful mansion for the night, awaiting some horror that must be inevitable from all this insanity. Unfortunately, many of the story’s positives suffer in a frustrating ending that explains almost nothing. The heaps of anti-Semitism don’t help either.

As for the non-Shorthouse stories, the best is “A Haunted Island,” which uses a wilderness setting that hints at both “The Wendigo” and “The Willows.” The story’s narrator moves into an isolated island cabin on a Canadian lake to study for his law exams. He begins to feel uneasy about a room in the cabin. Then he sees Indians in a canoe circling the island. The build of tension build is superb and the final twist provides a good gut-punch, but the highlight is the emphasis on psychic danger over physical danger. This is one of Blackwood’s major contributions to the weird tale, the blurring of the border of psyche and reality.

“Keeping His Promise” and “Smith: An Episode in a Lodging House” both take place at the University of Edinburgh. “Keeping His Promise” is a simple but serviceable ghost story, while “Smith: An Episode in a Lodging House” is about the telling of ghost stories. Unfortunately, the delivery is pedestrian despite the interesting use of Qabbalistic elements.

Blackwood’s pantheistic leanings emerge in “The Wood of the Dead.” The title calls forth shudders, but this is actually a fable about the gentle dead. Beauty triumphs over fear, and the Algernon Blackwood who would defy classification with his fantasies begins to emerge. The writing here is often breathtaking as the protagonist finds ecstasy in the woods of the title, where he goes at the urging of an old man he later learns is the village ghost.

Finally, there is the only work in the collection without even a hint of the supernatural: “A Suspicious Gift.” Blackwood did show an occasional flair for crime/suspense tales, such as his later novelette “Max Hensig—Bacteriologist and Murderer.” “A Suspicious Gift” is nowhere near that level of excellence, with a letdown ending that uses a cliché already hoary in 1906. The level of blood that flows is a genuine shock, however, and makes up for the predictable close.

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories is not the prime place to start for newcomers to Algernon Blackwood; the author is still in an embryonic stage. A “Best of” collection will snare fresh readers, and they can save this to fill out the corners of a Blackwood library and see where the master started.