I'll always associate Algernon Blackwood with illness. I was sick with flu, tired, over-medicated and drifting between sleep and wakefulness and the foggy country in-between. My father had left a book for me, a collection of Blackwood's stories, and I began to read "The Willows". The endless drift of the river and the susurration of the always-moving willows blended with my disassociated state and the story had an effect on me that few others have matched. I read more Blackwood, as much as I could lay my hands on. Some stories were disappointing, they suffered from over-explanation, or from an at-times clumsy reliance on occult jargon. Others lived up to "The Willows": stories like "Ancient Sorceries", "The Wendigo", or "Secret Worship" placed Blackwood in the top rank of weird fiction.
Blackwood's talent was recognised in his lifetime, and he became a popular and well-known writer (and eventually) broadcaster. Lovecraft praises him in Supernatural Horror In Literature: "[Blackwood]...amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age". Despite this success, today Blackwood seems strangely overlooked. Lovecraft is championed at one end of the spectrum of early twentieth century weird writing, MR James at the other. Mike Ashley's biography of Blackwood will, I hope, prompt a greater consideration of Blackwood's fiction - and Ashley, as biographer, has one distinct advantage: Blackwood led a fascinating life.
From a religious upbringing in England to cattle-farmer and hotelier in Canada, newspaper reporter and destitute victim of fraud in New York, struggling and then successful writer, Blackwood moved from country to country, experience to experience. He was a member of the occult organisation the Golden Dawn, he was acquainted with Gurdjeff and Ouspensky, he wrote a musical with Edward Elgar, he became a much-loved radio (and eventually, television) figure, and during the Second World War, while living in Switzerland, Blackwood even worked as a spy for the British government. With such rich material to work with, Blackwood deserves a substantial biography - and in Mike Ashley's entertaining and comprehensive book, he finally gets one.
At times the book runs the risk of becoming something of a travel itinerary, but this is largely to do with the way that Blackwood lived his life - restless, sociable, always moving between Switzerland and England and Egypt, a man with many friends, but without an immediate family, a man who could pack most of his possessions into a couple of suitcases. It is difficult for a biographer to approach any subject with as great a wanderlust as Blackwood - they have to choose a path between glossing over significant chunks of his life or of writing an extensive itinerary of cities visited and left, pensions stayed in, ferries caught, which can risk becoming dull. Ashley does his best to avoid the latter, working in interesting anecdotes where possible, such as Blackwood's fleeting encounters with other fascinating characters such as Rainer Maria Rilke.
A significant strength of the book is the care that Ashley takes to relate Blackwood's experiences on his travels to his fiction. One of the virtues of Blackwood's writing is the acute sense of place which runs through it. Whether it is the shifting waters and land of the Danube of "The Willows", the cold Canadian woods of "The Wendigo", or the hills and valleys of the Caucasus that would provide inspiration for "The Centaur", Blackwood's use of place and of the forces of nature which shape that place - and frequently, the people who venture into it - is powerful and evocative. For Blackwood, the world and everything in it was charged with hidden power. His stories reflected this concern with the genius loci, often drawn from his own experiences, and Ashley makes considerable effort to reflect this in the book. It is hard to read the account how Blackwood and a friend (later to appear in "The Willows" as "the Swede") saw a dead body floating down the Danube without it lending a certain resonance to the fiction.
Ashley gives equal weight to all parts of Blackwood's life, which is a welcome change from biographies that speed up dramatically at certain points - perhaps through lack of research as much as anything else - and this gives the biography as a whole an even and consistent tone. He also gives plenty of space to discussion of Blackwood's novels, such as The Centaur or The Human Chord, and to his considerable body of work for children, both of which are now less well known than his short fiction. One of the frustrations for the reader of this biography might be in attempting to track down some of the stories and novels mentioned (although there are a number of short story collections available, and it would appear that several of his novels are being reprinted). Every now and then Ashley steps away from a simple recounting of events to analyse, or to speculate, and does so with charm and an obvious enthusiasm. The latter is a quality that runs throughout the book: The Starlight Man is obviously a labour of love, and is all the better for it.
Blackwood was a key figure in the development of the weird story whose influence has been felt on both sides of the Atlantic; a key figure, but one who is now often overlooked. Mike Ashley's biography is readable, very well-researched, and entertaining, and I hope it goes some way to generating new interest in Blackwood and his fiction.
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© Iain Rowan 26 January 2002