The Complete John Silence Stories by Algernon Blackwood, edited by S.T. Joshi. (Dover Publications, 1997)
Algernon Blackwood is one of the titans of weird fiction, so much so that if you’ve never read his work, you need to go to www.horrormasters.com or www.gutenberg.org or even, as archaic as it may seem, your local library right now and make up for lost time. HPL rated The Willows as the greatest weird tale of all time (followed closely by Arthur Machen’s The White People), and The Wendigo is a staple of classic horror anthologies. The Listener is a chilling ghost story, Sand a weird adventure in the deserts of Egypt. Even in his weakest tales, Blackwood’s sheer style is worth the time spent, and, fortunately, most of his work is readily available in inexpensive trade paperbacks. But his initial fame, and the monetary success that allowed him to continue as a full-time author, came with John Silence, Physician Extraordinare (1908),
That said, the John Silence stories -six in all- present the exact opposite situation of that posed by Sax Rohmer’s Moris Klaw, the Dream Detective. Klaw is an intriguing character flailing about in mediocre plots and inferior prose. The problem with the John Silence stories is, I’m afraid, John Silence. He is largely a passive observer in most of the otherwise excellent stories, and that is all to the good. Blackwood is so deft at creating an atmosphere of the weird and otherworldly that the stories seem as real as dreams. But then John Silence comes striding in, a paragon of such virtue and purity that he puts the stock Victorian hero to shame, almost as if Blackwood had a hack co-author who was relegated to just the parts where Silence has to poke his nose into things.
We can quickly put to rest the idea that he is any kind of detective. His knowledge of the occult is so far reaching, I’m surprised he hasn’t already departed for the next higher plane. No surprises for John silence, whether it be a fire elemental guarding an Egyptian mummy, a sexually instigated case of lycanthropy, or the ghosts of devil-worshipping monks.
In the first story, A Psychical Invasion, a humor writer has lost his knack for jocularity because he has unwisely moved into a haunted house. Silence sits and listens as the now despairing writer relates his tale, and up to that point, we have a reasonably good ghost story. When Silence sends the man away and prepares to deal with the ghost head-on, there is the expectation of some Carnacki-like action. Instead….well, let the author speak for himself:
And John Silence, the soul with the good, unselfish motive, held his own against the dark discarnate woman whose motive was pure evil, and whose soul was on the side of the Dark Powers…..
He was conscious, of course, of effort, and yet it seemed no superhuman one, for he had recognized the character of his opponent’s power, and he called upon the good within him to meet and overcome it…He began to breathe deeply and regularly, and at the same time to absorb into himself the forces opposed to him and to turn them to his own account.
Ancient Sorceries is the best tale in the collection, and is frequently anthologized. Again, the victim relates the majority of the story, this time a traveler who impulsively stopped in a remote European village and came under the spell of a witch-cult. So far, so good. Silence only appears in a short section at the end, to add some exposition that is almost totally unnecessary.
Silence takes center stage in The Nemesis of Fire, as he and his assistant travel to help a retired army colonel who has inherited a house that is apparently haunted. The onlu clue seems to be a sense of intense heat. Of course, Silence tips to the answer almost immediately, but instead of sharing, he taunts his assistant with insufferable questions, such as “And you get no clue from these facts?” Considering the answer is a fire elemental (whose source is a stolen Egyptian mummy buried in a hidden tomb on the grounds) haunting the local woods, I guess I’m as big a dolt as Hubbard, the assistant. Imagine, not being able to deduce such a simple thing as that!
Chasing the elemental through the woods, Silence reveals another of his profound techniques for combating the supernatural:
“And , for your safety,” he said earnestly,”imagine now – and for that matter, imagine always until we leave this place – imagine with the utmost keenness, that you are surrounded by a shell that protects you. Picture yourself inside a protective envelope, and build it up with the most intense imagination you can evoke. Pour the whole force of your thought and will into it. Believe vividly all through this adventure that such a shell, constructed of your thought, will and imagination, surrounds you completely and that nothing can pierce it to attack.”
Great. Ghost-breaking with Norman Vincent Peale.
Secret Worship starts off as an atmospheric tale of some promise before descending into silliness. Harris, a German traveler, makes Silence’s acquaintance at supper in a hotel in the high forests of Germany. Excusing himself, Harris sets off on a walk, determined to revisit the remote monastery school where he had spent his youth. He recalls the strict discipline nostalgically, though it had seemed so burdensome then.
At the door, he is welcomed by a brother of the order. Things go badly rather fast. The monks are actually devil-worshippers; in fact, they are the same monks that were at the school when he was boy, or at least their spirits. They’ve lured him to the school to be a sacrifice to their deity. The ritual begins, the devil is in the act of materializing, and Harris is on the verge of giving up his soul as lost:
It was in this awful moment, when he had given up all hope, and the help of gods or men seemed beyond question, that a strange thing happened. For before his fading and terrified vision there slid, as in a dream of light,–yet without apparent rhyme or reasonΓÇöwholly unbidden and unexplained, — the face of that other man at the supper table of the railway inn. And the sight, even mentally, of that strong, wholesome, vigorous English face, inspired him suddenly with a new courage.
The Camp of the Dog is almost a warm-up for The Willows. Hubbard and four others, a clergyman/teacher, his wife and daughter, and a shy student, Sangre, who has repressed his feelings for the daughter, go camping on a Swiss Island. Silence will be along later,”unless you should send for me sooner.”
Blackwood is at his best when creating otherworldly environments out of remote, ordinary places.The tension in the camp builds slowly, the bracing atmosphere of the great outdoors turns close and oppressive, and the campers, particularly the daughter, are menaced by a fleetingly glimpsed black ‘dog’. The reader will be well ahead of the dull Hubbard in figuring out the source of the mystery. I know I wanted to leap in and reveal the secret, just to keep Hubbard from wiring the irritating physician extraordinaire.
Inevitably, Silence is sent for and turns up in time to explain all to his spiritually deficient friends. And quite an explanation it is:
“In all savage races it has been recognized and dreaded, this phenomenon styled ‘Wehr Wolf’ but today it is rare. And it is becoming rare still, for the world grows tame and civilized, emotions have become refined, desires lukewarm, and few men have savagery enough left in them to generate impulses of such intense force, and certainly not to project them into animal form.”
It’s an unusual theory on lycanthropy, at least to me, though it may have been current in the early part of the 20th century (a similar idea is expressed in The Undying Monster, which will be reviewed in Occult Detectives, Pt. 6 a few weeks from now.)
But for once, Silence does not have the last word:
“By Gad!” exclaimed the clergyman breathlessly, and with increasing excitement,”then I feel I must tell you what has been given to me in confidence, that Sangre has in him an admixture of savage bloodΓ, of Red Indian ancestry—”
The final story, A Victim of Higher Space, was not included in the original collection, possibly because it is so out of keeping with the previous tales. It’s almost comic, a gentle fantasy that reminds me of Will Eisners Spirit story about the day Gerhard Schnobble flew. Mr. Mudge is a kind of early-day Flat Stanley. In the course of his arcane studies, he has slipped into the fourth dimension, which causes him to appear in this world as cut-out figure. Of course, Silence has dealt with all the scientific and philosophical issues attending to the situation years before, and his advice, again, is essentially to think good thoughts and avoid brass bands
Carnacki, where are you when we need you?