First published back in 1973, ‘Best Ghost Stories Of Algernon Blackwood’ is unsurprisingly a collection of some of the best short stories from the pen of the renowned British author of ghost stories and supernatural fiction - Algernon Blackwood (1869 - 1951) that were compiled by E.F. Bleiler.  Blackwood was born in Shooter’s Hill, England, and after attending the University of Edinburgh, he enjoyed a varied life of farming in Canada, operating a hotel, mining in the Alaskan goldfields, and working as a newspaper reporter in New York City before moving to England and starting to write ghost stories. His tales became very successful, and he went on to write ten books of short stories, along with appearing on both radio and television to tell a number of these ghostly tales to a wider audience.  Blackwood’s passion for nature along with the mysteries of the world around him captured his imagination, which can certainly be seen reflected within many of these short stories.  Indeed, the legendary horror author H.P. Lovecraft once wrote about Blackwood “He is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere”.  Never was a truer statement made.

The Willows - Written in 1907 (Taken from the 1907 book ‘The Listener’)
Two men go canoeing down the Danube River, taking in the air and scenery in this isolated and quiet part of the world.  On their journey down river, the two encounter a man, clearly attempting to warn the two of possible perils.  But they continue nonetheless.  But then that night, whilst they are settled down on the sandbank of on an island, eerie sounds and faint tapping noises can be heard from outside of their tent.  The next morning, one of their paddles has disappeared, along with a good portion of their food.  Furthermore, their canoe has been cut, requiring repair before they can continue upon their journey.  But perhaps most worrying of all, the many willows that surround the area appear to have moved during the night.  And the island seems to be gradually shrinking.  There is something very wrong happening here.  Something dark and evil, that resides around the eerie Willows...  

Bursting at the seams with almost palpable menace, Blackwood’s classis short ‘The Willows’ is an absolute masterclass in eerie atmospheric tension.  Reckoned by Lovecraft to be not only ‘foremost of all’ Blackwood's tales, but the best 'weird tale' of all time. The story was influenced heavily by Blackwood's own trips down the Danube River, where an altogether disturbing atmosphere crept upon him as well as having another rather nasty discovery.   The vivid descriptions of the desolate environment that Blackwood successfully conjures up (drawn upon from his first-hand personal experiences) set the backdrop perfectly for the hauntingly atmospheric storyline.  When the deep-seated fear overcomes the two travellers, the suspense and tension starts cranking up the gears, building upon what is possibly the most menacing and tense short stories of all time.  The terrifying final few pages are as bleak and disturbing as they are purposefully vague.  This is undoubtedly one of the very greatest short horror stories of all time.

Secret Worship - Written in 1908 (Taken from the 1908 book ‘Secret Worship’)
The travelling silk merchant, Harris, somewhat on the spur on the moment, decides to take the mountain railway from Strassbourg to revisit his old school for the first time in thirty years.  Upon arriving he is welcomed into the ancient boarding school with open arms.  But away from prying eyes the German Monks that provide the teaching and discipline in the school have taken to more blasphemous endeavours.  Here, hidden away in the isolated boarding school, the spirits of the monks are worshipping the great Asmodelius.  And they need sacrifices.  Luckily, one such unsuspecting victim has just turned up on their doorstep...

Here we have another one of Blackwood’s John Silence stories.  However, the infamous psychic detective only briefly appears in the short, turning up to rescue the hapless Harris from the occultist monks.  For the vast majority of the tale, Blackwood successfully weaves a creepy atmospheric yarn, with a wealth of menace produced by just the slightest of actions.  The plot set-up is as hokey and odd as the weirdness that takes place within the castle-like boarding school walls.  It’s little continual feeling of unease that keeps pushing the tale along.  However, this is all but ruined at the arrival of our hero John Silence, who quickly puts an end to an otherwise eerie story.

Ancient Sorceries - Written in 1908 (Taken from the 1908 book ‘Secret Worship’)
Whilst returning from a trip abroad, Arthur Vezin takes the sudden and impulsive decision to leave the train he is travelling upon and visit a small French village that’s seemingly located in the middle of nowhere.  Whilst exploring this strange and enchanted village, Vezin finds himself not wanting to leave.  But there is something that is not quite right about the village.  Something that has stayed with the people there.  And as the day draws on, to the Dance of the Sorcerers commences...

This is one of those altogether odd reads where the end result is still very vague and somewhat unresolved – even with the unnecessary appearance of John Silence to supposedly sort things out.  Paranoia plays a big part in the impact of the tale upon the reader.  That and the weird pagan/witchcraft references that are thrown into the plodding storyline, suggesting something a little more occultist is lurking behind the ‘quiet-little-French-village’ facade.  This is certainly not one of Blackwood’s better shorts.  Indeed, the slow, dragging nature of the tale can become quite tiresome, with the ultimate finale and final conclusion not really adding much more to the short to make it a particularly worthwhile read.

The Glamour Of The Snow - Written in 1912 (Taken from the book Pan’s Garden’)
Whilst travelling around Europe, Hibbert finds himself staying at a small ski resort located within the picturesque setting of the Alps.  And there, with the beauty of such a breathtaking setting capturing his soul, he meets with the most divine woman he has ever laid eyes upon.  But their meeting is only brief, and he is left desperately seeking to meet with the young woman again.  But the woman is proving to be incredibly elusive.  But she is there somewhere, and he will spend the entirety of his vacation searching her out if needs be.  But finding the girl may not be the best move for the lonesome traveller.  She may just be the death of him...

Here we see Blackwood slowly entangle the reader with an atmospherically tale of impulsive love and the deadly powers of Mother Nature. Rather slow-paced to start with, the story does pick up once the characters and setting has been set down.  And it’s at this stage when Blackwood finally introduces the strange ice-skater into the tale.  From here on the storyline takes on an almost surreal tone, with Hibbert’s obsession pushing him further and further towards a strange twist in fate.  Blackwood’s vivid descriptions of the snow-covered mountains and the atmospherically alluring environment make for a strangely compelling read.  It’s so easy to become caught up in the romance of it all.  And when the reader is ensnared, the terrible reality is suddenly unveiled.

The Wendigo - Written in 1910 (Taken from the book The Lost Valley’)Dr Cathcart and his nephew Simpson are Dr Cathcart and his nephew Simpson are hunting in the Canadian wilderness in search of moose, accompanied by a pair of local guides, Hank and Defago, and a Native American cook.  However the moose are proving to be quite the elusive target, and so the group decide to split up, with one party going East, whilst the other goes West.  But a powerful Indian Spirit is rumoured to inhabit the grounds to the East.  Nevertheless, the Simpson is persistent, and so he and his guide Dedago push on, determined to track and kill a moose before the day is out.  But the legends of the spirit are far from mere superstition.  The Wendigo is real.  It roams the woodlands and takes away whoever it encounters.  The hunters have now become the hunted...

Blackwood does away with the usual cannibalism aspect of the Wendigo in favour of a more subtle psychological approach.  Indeed, he utilises the idea that whoever sees the Wendigo, will then become the Wendigo.  He based this approach, he claims, on an actual incident in a lonely valley while he lived in Canada. He has worked many such details of the Native American legend into the story: the Wendigo stalks hunters in the forest, eats moss, can be heard crashing through the trees, has a terrifying voice, and is closely associated with insanity.  In keeping so closely with the legend, Blackwood has renewed the myths surrounding the prowling spirit, bringing a new and ferocious life to an age old legend.  The atmosphere, rising tension and panic, along with the breathtaking finale makes this an absolutely phenomenal piece of short horror fiction.

The Other Wing - Written in 1917 (Taken from the book Day And Night Stories’)
Tim is a young boy.  Perhaps a boy with an overactive imagination, or then again, perhaps not. Every night, once the nurse has put him to bed, Tim has a visitor that sneaks a peak into his room. However he never quite manages to catch a glimpse of this silent observer, but he is aware of its presence.  And so he dreams up the notion that his visitor is in fact ‘sleep’ itself.  An idea that he quickly becomes obsessed with.  And now he wants to meet with it.  And so, on the eve of his coming of age, young master Tim decides to finally explore the wing of the huge Victorian mansion that has remained closed off to everyone.   The wing that will surely hold the answer to the secretive prowler...

To be honest, the set-up and delivery of the short is so odd, that it's quite easy to feel particularly disconnected from the tale.  Its strange premise and the dreamlike telling of the story, makes for both an unsettling and puzzling read.  Much of the tale works very well, such as the atmosphere and mystery.  However, the situation and plot make the whole plot feel much more like a child’s fairytale than an eerie horror story.  That said, the purposefully elaborate strangeness that surrounds the entirety of the tale does make it quite a compelling read.

The Transfer - Written in 1912 (Taken from the book Pans Garden’)
Mr Frene Senior (or ‘Uncle Frank’) has come to talk with little Jamie, Gladys’ seven-year-old brother.  What he has to say is very important.  But then again, it always is, when it’s something coming from the so-called ‘People’s Vampire’.  But Uncle Frank’s visit is far from a safe one.  For out in Miss Gould’s garden, there is a patch where nothing will grow.  An area devoid of life that is waiting to take more life.  Life that the notorious vampire has drawn from so many countless victims over the years...

How on earth does Mr Blackwood come up with ideas for stories such as for this one?  Okay, so it’s quite a simplistic plot, with not a huge amount actually taking place per se, but nevertheless it’s still such an odd basic concept for a tale.  Written from the perspective of Muss Gould, the story begins like it ends, with some crazy assumptions that the reader has some idea of what on earth is going on.  Yes, you do pick up the main drift of the story, but still, it’s perhaps just a little too off-the-wall to be all that engrossing.  Personally, I find this one of Blackwood’s weaker short, and one that I found easily forgettable.

Ancient Lights - Written in 1914 (Taken from the book ‘Ten Minute Stories’)
A Croydon surveyor's clerk is sent to investigate a proposed removal of the small woodland named ‘Fairy Wood’ to improve the view and accessibility of a small country cottage.  On his way to meet with the client, he decides to take a shortcut through the woodland itself.  But Fairy Wood has no intention of allowing the surveyor’s clerk to reach his destination.  The woods know of the plans to cut down its ancient trees.  And the woods will do everything in its power to prevent the destruction of the magical woodland from taking place...

This short and somewhat light-hearted tale plays with the age-old idea of a magical enchanted woodland that has natural powers in order to protect itself.  The plot is simple, and quickly established, leaving just the slightly farcical joviality of the tale to amuse the reader for the majority of the story.  This isn’t any great supernatural masterpiece or a monumental piece of literary fiction.  It’s a fun read which simply entertains for a short while.

The Listener - Written in 1907 (Taken from the book ‘The Listener’)
A struggling writer rents a room in an old rundown house in London, but slowly he begins to realise that something is amiss in the building.  He starts to experience intense headaches, becoming aware of strange footsteps echoing around the building, and becoming convinced that someone (or something) is watching him while he sleeps.  There is certainly something not quite right about the property.  Something that is clearly beginning to terrify our writer.

Written in a diary form from the perspective of the writer, Blackwood has produced a chilling tale of a supernatural presence that escalates in its tormenting menace.  The effect that this ghostly presence has on our poor narrator is where the real strength of the short rests.  Our writer begins to question his own sanity as the tormenting continues, the writing producing vivid images in an utterly emotive fashion.  It’s an instantly captivating read, which keeps building upon the menace until Blackwood slices the end off the tale to see it finished.  This is by far and away one of Blackwood’s more chilling of shorts.

The Empty House - Written in 1906 (Taken from the book ‘The Empty House’)
A young man named Shorthouse decides to pay his Aunt Julia a weekend visit.  Soon enough the two of them decide to explore an empty house that has been left deserted in the middle of the street.  They choose the middle of the night to undertake their brave exploration of the empty property.  But their inherent fears of such an abandoned property are well warranted.  They should have listened to their inner voice.  For within the cold uncaring walls of the empty house a supernatural presence has manifested itself.  And it’s been waiting...

Once again Blackwood utilises a classic (and quite simplistic) supernatural horror story idea, this time with the premise of a ‘Haunted House’.  True enough, Blackwood incorporate many of the usual horror traits that go along with such a story; mounting up the tension with each creek and thump within the house.  However, Blackwood is a master of creating a monumentally menacing atmosphere.  And he uses this particular strength well here.  The end result is a creepy and intense read with plenty of suspense and menace to keep the pulses hurtling along at a hundred beats a second.

Accessory Before The Fact - Written in 1914 (Taken from the book ‘Ten Minute Stories’)
A young traveller named Martin finds himself walking into a strange psychic trap as he reaches a set of crossroads. As he stands there, the young traveller experiences an explosion of incredible paranoia as he is asked for the time by a pair of German tramps.  Is this a vision of something that will soon take place?  And what is it that the German tramps really want?...

This is one of the shortest of Blackwood’s offerings.  Indeed, the bizarre story seems to have been crammed into the few pages it covers, with little to no explanation of what is transpiring or why it is happening being given.  The end result is a somewhat strange tale that never really connects with the reader, and fails to properly explain much of what, why and how that simply puzzles (and possibly frustrates) the reader.

Keeping His Promise - Written in 1906 (Taken from the book ‘The Empty House’)
Marriott is a fourth-year student at Edinburgh University.  One night he is cramming for his finals when a friend from a long time ago knocks on his door in an obvious state of distress.  His friend is close to starvation, and so Marriot feeds him and sets him to sleep.  As his friend sleeps, Marriott discovers that nothing is quite as it seems with the situation.  A promise that was made a number of years ago has come back to haunt him...

Blackwood plays around with a little light-hearted black comedy, with this slightly predictable but nevertheless, utterly enjoyable read.  Blackwood’s prose and style of writing instantly pulls the reader into this delightfully intriguing tale which is sadly too focused on a particularly predictable twist ending.  But still a good bit of ghostly supernatural fun.

Max Hensig - Written in 1907 (Taken from the book ‘The Listener’)
Williams is an enthusiastic reporter working for the New York Vulture.  The reporter is assigned to cover the case of the German doctor Max Hensig who reportedly murdered his second wife using arsenic.  During his investigations into the case, Williams comes to the conclusion that the German was undoubtedly responsible for the murder, and writes up his article detailing just that.  But, when Hensig is found not guilty for the crimes, he swears revenge upon the overzealous reporter.  Williams needs to watch his back from now on.  But he can’t avoid the German doctor forever...

This final short is a bit of a slow-paced affair.  The early investigations on Hensig are intriguing, pulling the reader into the basic premise of the tale.  However, once Hensig is found not-guilty and as such set free, Blackwood’s tale suddenly grinds to a near standstill, with the following storyline dealing with the reporter’s avoidance of the vengeful doctor in a plodding and frustratingly drawn-out fashion.  Furthermore, the ending is quite strange in its almost schoolboy-ish understanding of the effects of excessive alcohol on the body.  Indeed, this strangely ludicrous finale ends the tale and indeed the whole collection on somewhat of a flat note.  A shame, but with so many absolute literary gems in the collection, not exactly the end of the world.

The collection runs for a total of 424 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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