Friday, December 13, 2013

In which concept is marred by execution: the stories of Algernon Blackwood

(By the way: this one's late. It was written back in October, but I forgot to post it. Still relevant: maybe for next October. . .)

I can't do it. I know it's October, and I know he inspired HP Lovecraft, but try as I might, I cannot get into this Algernon Blackwood guy.

No I don't want to get sidetracked into providing a full biography, bibliography and psychoanalysis. This being the internet age, you can zip over to wikieverything and get everything you need to know there. See you in a few:

Done? Good. This is not going to be a scholarly essay, this is going to be a collection of initial impressions I want to get out of the way so I can eat my Thanksgiving dinner. It is now the 13th of October (not a Friday, alas), and the only real seasonal reading I've managed is Algernon Blackwood. And I've decided not to continue. I'm finding his writing clumsy, meandering, and a tad melodramatic.

Now melodrama is not a bad thing in itself, but you need the meat and potatoes to back it up - in a word substance. Events in the narrative must lend credence to the melodrama, it must seem a reasonable to be melodramatic under the circumstances. In Blackwood's stories, it does not. It seems a whole lot of overreaction to circumstances that really aren't that exciting. They are not terribly exciting because unlike a Lovecraft, a Bierce or a Poe, Blackwood doesn't seem capable of making them exciting.

An example: I am currently slogging through "Ancient Sorceries". A man has gotten off a train in a strange town. He's beginning to notice its strangeness and is getting alarmed. I, the reader, am not. Partly because I'm pretty sure I can guess where this story is going – Blackwood is incredibly unsubtle in his foreshadowing – and partly because I am utterly indifferent to both the town’s mystery and the man’s predicament. So he arrives in a town full of weirdos? So what? Leave. I don’t find myself terribly concerned.


Now here’s the paragraph that convinced me to drop the book and abandoned the story. It’s supposedly an important one:

”It was on the fifth day he made a definite discover which increased his alarm and brought him to a rather sharp climax. . . Before that he had already noticed that a change was going forward and certain subtle transformations being brought about in his character which modified several of his minor habits. . .

At the best of times he was never very positive, yet when necessity arose he was capable of reasonably vigorous action and could take strongish decision. The discover he now made that brought him up with a such a sharp turn was that this power had positively dwindled to nothing. He found it impossible to make up his mind.”


So our protagonist is having bouts of indecision. This is supposed to be a horrifying personal revelation? Call me unimpressed.


For one thing, the character up until this point has been described in such a way as to make indecision entirely consistent with his character. What comes as a surprise rather is that he could ever be capable of “reasonably vigorous action and strongish decision.” There is also the element of “who cares?” If the character had noticed a change in his sleeping or sexual habits, sudden weight gain or loss, bizarre dreams and visions, or developed an appetite for past-its shelf life tuna, we could share his alarm. He’s changing! Something weird is definitely happening! If he’d grown confused and befuddled, or started forgetting things, we could go along with it. But he simply can’t make up his mind? Come now, who can, even at the best of times? On the scale of creepy goings on, it ranks well below 3 out of 10.   


The result being that this supposedly important plot point falls absolutely flat. I am not compelled to read on. I have no curiosity. A failure to instil that is, I think, a writer’s cardinal sin.


Remember, this is not a scholarly essay. I am not analyzing the story. I am only telling you what I read so far, and why I won’t be finishing. Maybe the ending is brilliant and I’ll be missing out missing out on a masterpiece - and maybe that Nigerian oil tycoon really does want me to look after his millions. I’ll take that chance. I would not expect a brilliant conclusion to follow from a sloppy set up. And don’t give me that “you can’t judge it ‘till you’ve read it” line. The fact is, this writer has failed to capture or maintain my interest. How much time am I supposed to give him? As far as I’m concerned, I’ve kept my side of the bargain – I gave his story an honest shot, and in return he bored me. He violated the contract between writer and reader, rendering it null and void. I’m now a free agent, to take my time elsewhere. . .



Post Scriptus:

Lest I come across as too grouchy – no, don’t protest! – I should make it clear that not all of Blackwood’s stories are clunkers; “The Wendigo” and “Willows” contained in them some delightful moments – he’s particularly evocative in his descriptions of vast, hostile wilderness. Made me homesick when I was in UK. But even in those stories, there were moments where I wondered what exactly his characters were frightened about. I think I know what he was trying to achieve: nameless dread at something intangible or unknowable is a staple of good horror fiction: Lovecraft was a master at this. So is Ramsey Campbell (though, to be honest, I find his short fiction more successful than his full length works). Blackwood I'm afraid was not. It doesn't matter that Lovecraft found inspiration in him: sometimes the master is inspired by the student. . .