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An excursion into the realms of nightmare
on 25 February 2007
There are several collections of Algernon Blackwood's stories that become available from time to time, are sold out, go out of print and become (seemingly) as rare as hens' teeth for a while. It can be very frustrating trying to get hold of them. The good news is, this particular collection is in stock at Amazon as I write. The bad news is, if you want to buy it, you shouldn't hang around because by the time this review is displayed, it might have sold out again and then goodness knows when fresh stocks will be available. There's a fair amount of overlap in the collections so that certain stories appear in several of them. No detail is given of which ones appear in this book so I didn't know what to expect, but just hoped there might be two or three that I hadn't already read in my other Algernon Blackwood books. I was pleasantly surprised to find that all the stories were new to me. The stories are:
1) "The Empty House". A man (Jim Shorthouse) is persuaded by his Aunt Julia to join her on a ghost hunt in a notorious haunted house. The spooks obligingly appear.
2) "A Haunted Island". A student tries to get some studying done in an out-of-the-way cabin, situated on an island in a Canadian lake. The local 'after life' has other plans for him however.
3) "A Case of Eavesdropping". A lodger is kept awake nights by the rows of his neighbours but all the din and discord is issuing from a room he thought was empty.
4) "Keeping His Promise". A student has a strange visitor - an old school friend. But why is the friend so quiet, pale and hungry?
5) "With Intent to Steal". Two men lie in wait for an evil alchemist who seems to be stealing people for his experiments.
6) "The Wood of the Dead". A hiker stops at a west-country inn where he meets a mysterious, charismatic old fellow who invites him to a meeting, later in the wood.
7) "Smith: an Episode in a Lodging House". A doctor recounts a strange and disturbing adventure he had as a student staying in lodgings.
8) "A Suspicious Gift". A poor writer/journalist, living in a New York boarding house, sharing with two even poorer friends, falls asleep, tired and hungry and falls into a terrible nightmare.
9) "The Strange Adventure of a Private Secretary in New York". This man is sent by his employer on an ostensibly trivial, but in reality very dangerous, mission.
10) "Skeleton Lake: An Episode in Camp". A party is hunting for moose. One of their guides returns to camp after several days away, in a distressed and confused condition.
This particular collection of ten stories first appeared in about 1906 and therefore contains some of his earlier work. A couple of the tales seemed less polished than the Algernon Blackwood stories I'm accustomed to reading - I imagine because when he wrote these, he was still honing his writing skills and hadn't quite perfected them. He uses the Shorthouse character in four of the stories but Shorthouse seems to have a different personality in each of them. And if it is supposed to be the same man in each of the stories then the stories appear to be in the wrong order. One of the best of the stories was also spoiled for me by an extravagant peppering of anti-Semitism. This came as a disappointment because I consider myself a fan of Algernon Blackwood's writing and I find it very odd that such a clever man should (even allowing that these tales were written over 100 years ago) fail to see through the rather repugnant racial stereotypes - the sort that, no doubt, made the holocaust possible. Just one story is polluted by this inexplicable attitude but I estimate that 80% of the story content of the book falls within the range: satisfactory to excellent.