Monday, December 3, 2012

Algernon Blackwood: An Interview with Andrew McQuade about Blackwood's Uncollected Fiction

“When common objects in this way be come charged with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of unusual appearance; and these bushes, crowding huddled about us, assumed for me in the darkness a bizarre grotesquerie of appearance that lent to them somehow the aspect of purposeful and living creatures. Their very ordinariness, I felt, masked what was malignant and hostile to us.”
Algernon Blackwood, “The Willows”

Algernon Blackwood is one of the finest and most prolific English fiction writers specializing in horror and weird tales. He was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn along with fellow weird fiction writer Arthur Machen. Blackwood’s interest in nature and the occult informs his fiction, which is less directly terrifying and more subtly scary. Much could be (and probably has been) written about Blackwood’s work in the context of the sublime. Though he primarily wrote short fiction, he also penned novels, children’s books, plays, articles, journalistic essays, prefaces, book reviews and more, and later made radio and television appearances. Unlike more popular writers like the earlier Edgar Allen Poe or the later H.P. Lovecraft, Blackwood’s work has never been collected in its entirety. 

I highly, highly recommend checking out some of his short fiction. Here are some places to start, both online and in print:

Recommended Books:
Best Ghost Stories - a great collection of Blackwood stories; probably the best place to start if you’re a newcomer. 
Ancient Sorceries - another Blackwood short fiction collection, edited by S.T. Joshi. 
Here’s a list of all Blackwood’s available books on Amazon
Mike Ashley’s Blackwood biographries Starlight Man and Algernon Blackwood: A Bio-Bibliography
S.T. Joshi’s The Weird Tale
Jack Sullivan’s Elegant Nightmares 
Peter Penzoldt’s Supernatural in Fiction

Recommended Websites:
More Blackwood Stories for free online

I recently interview Andrew McQuade - academic, writer and weird fiction fan - about his research on Blackwood and his attempts to collect and read every Blackwood short story. Andrew and I met a couple of years ago at the Dead By Dawn horror film festival in Edinburgh. When I heard he was doing some extensive research on the uncollected works of Algernon Blackwood, I thought it would be a great way to kick off a series about horror writers, particularly the ones slipping through the cracks for newer audiences. Andrew studied at the University of Wales and received a BA in Film and Television and a MA in Audience and Reception Studies.

We sat down (over the internet) and had a wonderful, lengthy chat about the importance of Blackwood and why he is still relevant today. 

Satanic Pandemonium: Why are you qualified to talk about Blackwood?

Andrew McQuade: I have always been fascinated by the experience of being scared. Which isn’t necessarily the same as horror, although horror is certainly the most obvious place to look for this experience. I spent 2008 to 2010 writing for a British horror magazine and, one day, opportunity knocked on my door and I was made part of the regular staff. Working in and around horror every day is every horror fan’s dream, but the experience was ultimately so traumatic that I frankly swore I never wanted anything to do with the genre again. 

And yet, some strange thing drew me back to writers like Blackwood, Le Fanu and James and the guys who, on page, gave me what I’d always wanted from horror – to be scared. It’s worth remembering that for all the negativity in the horror scene on a professional level, the strength and emotional power of its best practitioners is far greater. Blackwood played a big part in turning horror into something enjoyable for me again and, as a result, I’ve spent the last few years collecting as much Blackwood as I could, reading about him, and basically spreading the word of this wonderful man (he was a secret agent in WWI don’t ya know). Call it a moral obligation of sorts, to the fellow who saved me from turning my back on what is, after all, a wonderful thing.

SP: How did you get into horror literature and Blackwood in particular?

AM: Like most folks, my entry to horror literature was a rather cliché one. Some time in my teens I ill-advisedly became convinced Stephen King was the greatest thing in the universe. From him I worked back through all the other canonical and non-canonical writers. Around the same time, I developed a massive interest in folklore and the esoteric, particularly of my own native England, and became drawn to those writers who used this as an influence. I’d found the work of Lovecraft surprisingly empty, in as much as the Elder Gods weren’t rooted in any genuine folk-reality, the remnants of which scatter England profusely. It was all too outré to scare me. But in some of the authors that inspired him, I think particularly Machen and Blackwood, there is that same sense of cosmic mystery, but handled with a more genuine sense of folk realism, and a much more subtle prose style. 

In Blackwood, we have this amazing sense of the wonder of nature and the universe, and its indifference to humanity, which is neither good nor evil. This much he has in common with the Lovecraftian school, except with the difference I think that there is far less misanthropy in Blackwood. He cares about his characters, indeed he always maintained they were based very much on people he knew. And so, whilst there is definitely a philosophical depth to his work, his characters aren’t just ‘labels for ideas,’ which you get a lot in horror, especially horror attempting to be socially relevant. I’ve always seen social relevance as a ‘nice-to-have,’ but we don’t still read Beowulf for that reason. We re-read it because it delivers the goods on an emotional level first and foremost.

Blackwood’s latter work in particular is very interesting because it’s almost as if he’s not directly trying to frighten you, but evoke this mysterious sense of awe. The consequence of this is to be frightened. He was, thus, a master of the indirect, arguably more so than M.R. James, and in doing so was the obvious precursor to the likes of Walter De La Mare and Robert Aickman. Blackwood really has it all – at his best he’s really scary, but his sense of love for nature and people never fades. He was, I think, the master of creating a natural interest and a supernatural interest in his stories, to equal degrees.

SP: What are some of your favourite Blackwood collections and resources?

AM: Literary Gothic is one of the best, if not THE best, websites for horror of the pre-war period. However it is quite academic, and one might argue inaccessible to the casual fan. There are a number of Blackwood collections still in print. E.F. Bleier’s Best Ghost Stories is somewhat ill-titled as ‘ghost stories’ doesn’t really sum up Blackwood with remote effectiveness. This contains fan favourites like ‘The Willows’ and ‘The Wendigo,’ both of which are supremely scary woodland horrors (copied by just about every ‘lost in the forest’ horror movie). Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi’s Ancient Sorceries is also very well edited. Peter Penzoldt’s Supernatural in Fiction is another good starting point for the curious.

The most erudite man in the field of Blackwood is Mike Ashley, who published Blackwood’s biography Starlight Man as well as Algernon Blackwood: A Bio-Bibliography, which contains details on everything Blackwood wrote and where to find it. He also collected a hit and miss collection of unpublished Blackwood in the late eighties for the Equation Chillers range. Jack Sullivan’s Elegant Nightmares is one of the best studies of English supernatural horror, including extensive focus on Blackwood. Of course H.P. Lovecraft sang Blackwood’s praises in his excellent essay Supernatural Horror in Literature and S.T. Joshi has also written on him. 

The problem with much of this material is that its emphasis is purely on the intellectual and thematic, not on technique or the emotionality of the writing. When I’m reading horror my curiosity is always on ‘how was this effect achieved’? That’s the most burning question in my mind, which scholarly works always ignore since, sadly, scholars seem to be intellectually very gifted but emotionally illiterate for the most part.

SP: Amen. I would agree enthusiastically with all of these. Literary Gothic got me into a lot of writers I otherwise would have never known about and that Best Ghost Stories collection introduced me to Blackwood. Can you talk about why Blackwood is so neglected and why all of his works aren't printed in different fancy editions like the works of other horror writers such as Poe, Stoker and Lovecraft?

AM: Copyright. In the U.K., an author’s work goes out of copyright 70 years after their death. Most publishers, rather than pay the author’s family’s estate money, would rather just wait. I’ve heard tell from a number of sources that certain representatives of certain estates of certain authors have placed extraordinarily greedy demands on any works reissued. You can read into that what you will, but ultimately we’re the ones who lose out. 

The main problem with all facets of horror, however, is that it’s dictated purely by commercial factors. There is very minimal state support for horror in the way that there is for certain other genres or causes. Recently, some of the made-for-TV horror from the BBC in the ‘70s has been reissued by the British Film Institute, but it’s very much a genre held to ransom by commercial whim. All the power in horror is held by an extremely conservative horror establishment, especially so in film, which means it’s very hard to actually get scared nowadays. Finding good material, in literature or film, takes a hell of a lot of searching. More searching than most of us, with day jobs and other commitments, have time for.

SP: This is a good explanation for why Hollywood would rather do lousy remakes of ‘80s horror classics and churn out 16 Saw sequels than risk investing in anything new. 
You’ve done a lot of work recently on completing the short fiction section in Blackwood’s Wikipedia page. Why did you decide to research his so far uncollected and poorly researched short fiction?

AM: A lot has been done on Blackwood. Mike Ashley has done some wonderful things over the years and I cannot sing his praises enough. However, his research remains pretty much only within the reach of the die-hards. I’ve added bits and pieces to Wikipedia because I think everyone should be able to enjoy this work, not just collectors with bucket loads of cash to spare. That’s a kind of cultural elitism I object to. What’s needed is an institution of some sort to promote horror without the trappings of commercial necessity. Such institutes exist, for example, for gay and lesbian fiction/film, yet there’s nothing for horror. There are those who will say that horror is unimportant in the grand scheme, but it’s important in the small scheme, and it’s important to me. And I hate the way all that is great in horror is constantly brushed aside for the mediocrity enforced by the horror-establishment.

Blackwood wrote well over 200 short stories, in fact, closer to 250. The bulk of this was collected in his lifetime, though some of these are easier to get hold of than others. I had to go to a few different libraries to find Shocks, his final collection, and The Doll and One Other was only released in the U.S. (although both tales from that collection have been issued in the U.K. in other collections). Several tales appeared in periodicals like Pall Mall Magazine, which are kept by the British Library, who keeps a copy of every book published in the U.K. and has a vast collection of Victorian and Edwardian periodicals. The harder ones to get hold of are published in newspapers, for which I’ve had to visit specialist libraries like The British Newspaper Library in Colindale. Beyond Ashley’s book, I’ve gone through periodical indexes to see if I could find outstanding stories. What little I have found has been non-horror - Blackwood also wrote sentimentalism and, at the height of the war, propaganda pieces. In total, there are about 30 or so uncollected works. There are at least five pieces of worthy consideration that weren’t collected by Ashley in the late eighties though and I hope there are still more. It’s a wonderful feeling when you come across something that nobody has probably read in decades.

What I hope to do with Blackwood’s collected fiction, when the time is right, is put it out into the public domain, along with various other writers whose works I’ve collected. Their materials will all be annotated, arranged into order of publication, and accompanied with critical commentaries. I’d also like to include some illustrations to give them a visual appeal that will attract a larger audience. This is really how the horror establishment has kept the likes of Poe and Lovecraft alive in the public consciousness for so long and so well. I need to get more people on board to help me with this, then we can distribute this stuff on the net. The challenge is finding people who also want to keep this project free from commercialism, which has basically killed horror. 

SP: Has Blackwood left any sort of legacy other than his collected and uncollected writing?

AM: It would appear that Blackwood was quite the radio celebrity in his latter years and wrote additional tales for radio that were never put in print! Mike Ashley collected one, “Lock Your Door,” which is quite good. You can only get the scripts/production notes at the BBC, but it’s still an exciting development. He also wrote a number of novels, including children’s, mostly of a supernatural character. As for his essays, letters, book reviews, and other published materials, you could spend a lifetime going into this. He really was incredibly prolific. 

SP: So what’s next?

AM: I can't magic Blackwood back into publication, but I can at least show people where this stuff is. Until I posted on Wikipedia, you had to read his bio-bibliography to find this information, which is like £50 a pop and puts it out of reach of most people. And I think that's unfair. Blackwood shouldn't just be the property of the elite. He wrote for everyone and everyone should still be able to enjoy him. 

I've exhausted all the literary sources, and now have all of his printed weird tales (bar one, which the British Library is currently photocopying for me). The next stage will be to go through his auto-biography, and various other secondary reading, and prepare annotations. A good day for weird fiction!

SP: Thanks so much! Please keep us posted about your efforts. And thanks for sharing this final link, Ghost Stories for Christmas: The Definitive Collection. This BFI collection contains adaptations from a variety of classic horror writers and is the perfect holiday gift for every horror fan!

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