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Friday, May 24, 2024

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Friday, May 24, 2024

In Retrospect: Tales Around the Bonfire

This 19th century English broadcaster and writer is celebrated for atmospheric horror. Avantika Sharma revisits the short stories by the master of this literary genre, Algernon Blackwood. Slate, in retrospect, explores books with enduring legacies as we prepare for the long winter ahead.

By Avantika Sharma

Those who love nail biters and the subtle, uncanny kick that gets the pulse accelerating higher than 100 beats per minute are aware of the waggish terror that engulfs October. Lo and behold, as the trees shed leaves of copious varieties and flowers – tiny, miniscule and vibrant – innocent and mischievous kids, young adults and carefree elders join hands and tread forth to welcome the season of horror – Halloween.

An annual celebration across the world but quite prevalent in the West, Halloween is an observance of “Allhallowtide” dedicated to remember the dead, including saints, martyrs, and the faithful departed. As eerie as it sounds, the humble celebration has long been modernised into a festival suited as per the needs of citizens.

Offering a vivid string of memories of anything horror-related – movies, stories, books, incidents, a folk tale or an adventurous recollection of sinister and invigorating narratives, Halloween offers a common platform for horror fanatics, dark copers and white knucklers, alike to unite and engage in activities giving an edge to that much-needed adrenaline rush. Spooky, if you must!

Over the years, the genre has served itself on a table of delicacies via books, comics and stories, thanks to the masters of horror who penned spine chilling accounts of unearthly tales. Setting a new benchmark of ‘horror’, however, was Algernon Blackwood, a prolific ghost story writer who shaped the genre. Renowned for etching horrifying short stories, he penned some of the best ghost stories that exist.

Delivering a good deal of revered write-ups viz., The Willows, The Wendigo, The Man Whom the Trees Loved, The Listener, The Terror of the Twins, among others; the writer has successfully spun a web of spook in his dark stories, almost as if poetry… a thread of lyrical jottings.

“The eeriness of this lonely island, set among a million willows, swept by a hurricane, and surrounded by hurrying deep waters, touched us both, I fancy. Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay there beneath the moon, remote from human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows. And we, in our rashness, had dared to invade it, even to make use of it!” reads an excerpt from Blackwood’s most popular and celebrated story, The Willows.

Picture taking a trip with a good friend… No! not a long drive but a journey down a river on a canoe surrounded by sheer discomfort that stems from desolation. It is all beautiful until horror comes into play. Imagine being almost stranded in a situation when a supposed calm trip goes wrong.

Effortlessly, the writer weaves an unnatural turn of events that transpire over the course of a voyage two friends partake in. Set against the backdrop of the Danube River, the duo embarks, unaware of the horrors that lie ahead. Blackwood leads the story in a general manner as if hinting readers to compose themselves, should jump scares (in the form of literary imaginations) cross the way. Termed ‘weird fiction’, the story cleverly personifies the sun, water, wind, marshes, willows, sand – which give foundation to the scenario with a tinge of suspense. The two men encounter strange feelings and visuals mistaking the situation for an impending storm.

As easy as Blackwood’s writing is, it is evident that they’re inviting the unexpected. Through misunderstandings, visuals, and an imaginary passerby giving warning signals, the friends wade through the river – supposedly a home to the supernatural.

“I woke suddenly, and saw a man in front of the dressing-table regarding himself in the mirror. The door was locked, as usual. I knew at once it was the Listener, and the blood turned to ice in my veins. Such a wave of horror and dread swept over me that it seemed to turn me rigid in the bed, and I could neither move nor speak. I noted, however, that the odour I so abhorred was strong in the room,” Blackwood’s protagonist remarks in (by far) Blackwood’s most horrifying read, The Listener.

When does horror hit the hardest? Perhaps, when one is asleep, or may be lost in a dream, scary enough to grip one’s subconscious in deep trenches of blood, or in a situation where one can see just spirits, devils, aliens, monsters…wake up!

Blackwood’s devouring yet mind-numbing story is of a man, haunted by a listener on four legs. The protagonist yearns for sleep; a life devoid of headaches and stress; a room with his pens and spectacles in place; and a wardrobe he does not have to organise so often, only if the ghost in the house lets him be.

Although a simple read, this masterpiece sends shivers down the spine as the main character longs to uncover the secrets that lay hidden in the house he just moved in and what’s more…the man had to sign a one-year lease, a cheap one unaware of the spine-chilling story that engulfs the house. He experiences terrifying instances after moving in, disrupting his sleep every other night to the extent that he chases the said-ghost in his dream. On another occasion, the man wakes up to his clothes scattered around the house despite the locked door. Post chasing rooms, stairs, whispers and visuals, he, at last discovers the truth of the spirit that lurks over the house. With that Blackwood ends his brilliant piece!

“The round brass knob was slowly moving. And first, at the sight, something of common fear did grip him, as though his heart had missed a beat, but on the instant he heard the voice of his own mother, now long beyond the stars, calling to him to go softly yet with speed. He watched a moment the feeble efforts to undo the door, yet never afterwards could swear that he saw actual movement, for something in him, tragic as blindness, rose through a mist of tears and darkened vision utterly..!” is a passage from Clairvoyance, a Blackwood classic.

Only once do you come across a story that leaves you scared and touched at the same time. A story that stays with the reader, a tale of loss, longing and despair… and a tale of motherhood but with a hint of Victorian horror.

The story begins on a usual ghostly note – a group of visitors, who ensemble to discuss stories of the supernatural. What commences as a narrative of a ghostly encounter takes a different turn after the protagonist is allotted a haunted room by the lady of the house. Moving further into the story, Blackwood introduces readers to a string of memories that flood the man’s embrace, transporting him through the entities and spirits with ‘the little helpless hands and arms that have no confidence’, to his own recollections of the past as well as the ladies’. He comes face to face with the woman’s past, thus realising why he was given the room in the first place.

Blackwood not just indulges in general horror, his writings are bound to move the reader, who in hope of a haunted foreboding immerse themselves in a river of emotions that the author successfully jotted through his classic tales.

Now that you know what you could be doing this Halloween, dive right into Blackwood’s classics, curled up against the autumn chill as leaves turn golden.

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