“The Occupant of the Room” by Algernon Blackwood

[spoiler alert]

ALGERNON BLACKWOOD

I get the feeling, from various essays and book introductions I’ve read, that there was a time when Algernon Blackwood was much more respected than he is now.  I’ve seen him listed more than once alongside Edgar Allan Poe as one of the two absolute exemplar horror authors, a spot that nowadays seems to firmly belong to Lovecraft.  What’s more, while Poe and Lovecraft have both had a tremendous influence on culture in general, even above and beyond the horror genre, Blackwood’s writing seems to have faded away as an influence, beyond, perhaps, the very Lovecraftian short story “The Willows” (which is indeed excellent and terrifying and worthy of your time) and “The Wendigo” (also great, also not part of the collection I’m working with).  These days, it seems like the metric of your influence on culture is often your influence on film, and Blackwood’s IMDB page boasts a paltry 9 credits of story-inspired works, all of them but one (The Wendigo) from before 1980.  Cutting out another version of “The Wendigo” all of them are from before 1972, and all made-for-TV.  Compare this to Lovecraft’s 107 credits, Poe’s 260, or Stephen King’s 155 (I’m only including writing credits here).  So just what happened to Blackwood, and why has his reputation seemingly disappeared after the sixties?

Based solely on speculation, I would say that the answer is very simple: his writing doesn’t translate to film.  Or, more broadly, to a visual culture.  Regardless of how much you want to buy into the McCluhanesque idea that television aesthetics have come to define social discourse, it’s clear that culture has changed in the past hundred years to become more visually and narratively driven.  Wait, you might be saying, doesn’t Lovecraft fill his writings with ‘unimaginable’ horrors and thus create exactly the sort of thing that can’t be represented visually?  Well, yes—and that’s what makes his writing perfect for film.  Anyone who has studied horror film in depth knows the importance of what you don’t see, of visual suggestion, and Lovecraft’s flat denial of visual indexicality lends itself to visual horror.  Blackwood, on the other hand, is for the most part unconcerned with the visual—he neither embraces nor denies it, he ignores it.  Blackwood’s focus is on emotion and sentiment.

For example—a narrative-focused author like Robert E. Howard might describe fear thusly:

The man set down the glass, his hands shaking.  The hairs on his arms stood on end.  When the sound came from behind him, he couldn’t turn; his body was stiff with terror.

A psychologically-focused author like King or Oates might do this:

He tried to set the glass down—why was the ice rattling, and the glass rattling against the table?  It was unnerving. . . but the silence that replaced it was much worse.  It seemed to tug at his skin with the emptiness, the suggestion . . . until the sound came.  From behind.  Why can’t I move?  Why can’t I just turn and look and see that it’s nothing?

Blackwood, on the other hand, seems to take this approach:

What had first set his nerves on edge was unknown to him, but now that they were thus disturbed the disruption moved through his body, affecting his hands so that they shook as he set down the glass, and where then amplified by the sound of the rattling glass against the wooden tabletop.  These same impulses, transformed to ulterior purposes, now set the hairs up and down his arms on end, so that his whole body felt primed, as if readying itself to respond to some unnamed and unknown terror.  Although the fear had grown within him unprovoked, it now held dominion over his body, so that when provocation finally did come—a sound, from behind him—he was kept captive, unable to move and confirm or deny those unvoiced terrors growing within him.

You’ll notice the different relative lengths; this is deliberate and reflects my opinions of these styles.  You’ll also notice that only one of these styles—Howard’s style, which I’ve in the past called ‘pulpy’—is easily transferred to cinema or visual culture in general.  King’s style, which on reflection is not dissimilar from Hearn’s style, is not very conducive to cinema, and I think that this is one of the reasons that, if you’ll pardon the broad speaking, King has rarely if ever been successfully adapted to screen.  In fact, in my opinion the best King adaptation is Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, which isn’t a King adaptation at all but seems to somehow capture some of the same impulse and strangeness that shines from King’s writing.

Blackwood, however, is unfilmable.  Or at least the thing that can make his stories effective is.  Here it is a little jarring, but that’s because we’re not used to it; it takes several paragraphs or pages into a story for one to get used to Blackwood’s style, and I’ve never found anything quite like it since.  In the context of some of his stories, the way he anatomizes emotions, particularly fear, can be very effective.  But it’s just not something modern audiences want to read.  King and Oates succeed with modern audiences because their writing reflects a psychology that, while not visual, is easily understood.  Blackwood’s strangely clinical approach to a character’s psychology takes some getting used to. . . and I’m not quite sure it’s worth the effort.  Because, to be frank, he doesn’t belong in the same category as Poe and Lovecraft, at least not in terms of narrative.  Some of his ideas are original and interesting, but a lot of them are what you could think of as somewhat silly musings on the nature of fear, or how the supernatural might be received by the mind.  All that clinical perspective becomes a mask for a superficial reading of the situation.  And because Blackwood has such a tight grip on character psychology, there’s no opportunity for deeper readings, no way to look beyond what he’s trying to tell you in a scene.

Still, there are times when he can be plenty effective, and his place overall as a significant voice in the pantheon of horror authors past is secured by the rare times that he can evoke genuine terror and a sense of encountering the supernatural more effectively than Poe (see: Wendigo; Willows).  This collection was not nearly as good as the first collection of his I read a year ago, but it was much longer, and was perhaps filled with lesser stories; it seems to be a sort of reader’s club book just hobbled together, though I may be wrong.  Either way, let’s take a quick look (I mean, I’m already over 1000 words) at one of the better stories in the collection.


THE OCCUPANT OF THE ROOM

Our protagonist arrives in a small village in a high Alpine valley late at night (one other thing I should mention about Blackwood is his marvelous familiarity with and use of the wilder parts of nature).  Unfortunately, when he tries to secure a room at an inn he discovers that “at the inn—the only inn—there was no vacant room.  Even the available sofas were occupied. . .”  However, as he’s leaving to try petitioning locals for a room to sleep in, the hotel staff calls him back with the mention of one room which is, of a sort engaged, and a sort not.  We get Blackwood’s rumination on the dangers of climbing as a roundabout way (successfully executed, in my opinion) of bringing us to the facts: the room was rented by an Englishwoman who had “left just before daybreak two days before—the porter had seen her start—and . . .  she had not returned!”  The setup is thus established: our protagonist is to spend the night in the room of a person who is absent, and may be at this very moment lying dead or even dying somewhere in the mountains.

Although he feels odd about the situation, he’s desperate for a room.  He wonders if she might burst in on him in great confusion.  The room is fairly empty: “There was no chest of drawers, and the cupboard, an unusually large and solid one, was locked.  The Englishwoman’s things had evidently been hastily put away in it. … In spite, however, of these very slight evidences, the whole room was pervaded with a curious sense of occupancy that he found exceedingly distasteful.”

Then we get the old Blackwood standard: a lot of talking about how odd and scared the man feels.  It’s not poorly done, but there’s really no way to represent it in summary.  But suffice to say his relation to the room first puts him into fear and then into despair, eventually lead him to existential ponderings.  “There was no meaning in anything.  The only real thing was—DEATH.  And the happiest people were those who found it soonest.

Then why wait for it to come?

“He sprang out of bed, thoroughly frightened.  This was horrible.  Surely mere physical fatigue could not produce a world so black, an outlook so dismal” … “He was, beyond question, experiencing all the mental variations of—someone else!  It was un-moral.  It was awful.  It was—well, after all, at the same time, it was uncommonly interesting.”

He decides to investigate the room, and immediately his attention is drawn to the cupboard.  Well, it’s about the only thing in the room, and it contains all the possessions of what he has already come to think of as “the dead woman.  For he knew now—somehow or other—that she was dead. . . ”

He suddenly becomes possessed by the desire to open the cupboard, and rings the bell for help, insisting on the porter when “the cross and sleepy chambermaid” arrives.  “But now he understood that some force, foreign to his own personality, was using his mind and organs.”  The porter finally produces the key.

“They held their breath as the creaking door swung slowly open.  All heard the clatter of that other key as it fell against the wooden floor—within.  The cupboard had been locked from the inside.”

“There were no clothes, skirts or blouses on the pegs, but they saw the body of the Englishwoman suspended in mid-air, the head bent forward.  Jarred by the movement of unlocking, the body swung slowly round to face them. . . Pinned upon the inside of the door was a hotel envelope with the following words pencilled in straggling writing:

“‘Tired—unhappy—hopelessly depressed. . . I cannot face life any longer. . . All is black.  I must put an end to it. . . I meant to do it on the mountains, but was afraid.  I slipped back to my room unobserved.  This way is easiest and best. . . .'”

Narratively, this is to me a perfect little ghost story.  I’ve always loved those creepy stories about finding a body already in your presence, and this one goes about it well with a strong setup and a payoff that you can kind of anticipate, but not precisely (the portions excised from this summary do a lot of leading the reader toward the belief that if her spirit is in the room, the body is definitely on the mountains).  On the other hand, Blackwood’s prose is often too much for the story.  There are times it works and times it doesn’t but a page could have been cut out from the center of this story and it would have only been an improvement.  I would give this story an 8/10, but I’m dispensing with the ratings system as of here, because it seems like I give everything an 8/10.  If it’s any worse I don’t feel like writing a review of it, and if it’s any better I don’t want to spoil it for potential readers.

I hope you’ve got something of a feel of Blackwood from all this; my basic opinion is that you should read his stories (particularly “The Willows” and “The Wendigo”) but only sparingly; many of his stories are too repetitive, and reading too much in his style consecutively—as if, say, trying to read a 400-page collection in one day—it can really start to grate on you.  Find a good collection and keep it on the shelf by your bed; read a story once every couple of weeks.

Tomorrow we look at a writer who isn’t particularly well known, but who has actually exhibited a substantial influence on film: Daphne Du Maurier.


All quotations from Algernon Blackwood, Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural, copyright Book-of-the-Month Club 1992.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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