Introduction

Arthur Machen reported on a broad array of topics for the Evening News, but he naturally seemed the wise choice to handle reviews of recently published literature. He fulfilled this function via a number of irregular features known variably as “Odd Volumes” or “Among my Books.” The following article comes under the latter heading and this particular example was chosen for highlighting Machen’s views on another contemporary master of supernatural literature.

Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) produced a body of work of unequalled beauty and idiosyncrasy. Succinctly put, he was an original thinker and artist. A natural storyteller, Blackwood succeeded not only in letters, but contributed to drama, and finally became a personality on radio and early television. His life experience was vastworld travel, investigation of hauntings, journalism in New York and intelligence work for the British government during the Great Warare only a few examples.

But Blackwood’s gifts went deeper than personal adventure. Rejecting the Evangelical Christianity of his parents, the writer embraced other doctrines such as reincarnation and occultism. However, the core of Blackwood’s mystical beliefs lay in a pantheist approach to Nature. In his view, the world, and all things in it, are made of spirit, of which the soul of man is but a part. Therefore, Nature plays a central role in his work.

Blackwood and Machen were acquainted, but never close companions. As Machen reported to Vincent Starrett, “I have met him a number of times in esoteric circles. He is a most interesting and amiable man. There is some difference perhaps in our approach to our subject matter, although I realize that we are lumped together by the reviewers.” 1

And, what is that difference?

As in Blackwood, the natural world plays an important role in Machen’s work. Both men conjure wonder by means of evocative language that could read like poems or hymns to the landscape. Yet, the purpose of each writer and the effect he achieves diverge profoundly. In the following review, Machen labors to clarify these positions by providing a nuanced criticism formed from a careful consideration of his subject.


Among My Books

by

Arthur Machen

Published July 27, 1912 in the Evening News

It is now a long time since I have been wondering “what is the matter” with Mr. Algernon Blackwood.

I may say at once that this attitude of mind constitutes a very high compliment to this singular, original, and sometimes exquisite writer. In the the case of 95 novelists out of 100 I don’t wonder what is the matter with them, because I know the nature of their complaint perfectly well, and the cure, too. The treatment is simple: stop writing novels at once.

But Mr. Blackwood’s case is a very different one. The phrase about inventing a new thrill has been used over-much and too liberally in many cases, but if ever it were deserved it is deserved of Mr. Blackwood’s story, “The Willows,” contained in a book called “The Listener.” 2

It is an amazing and a superb tale, and it stands alone, so far as I know, without father or generation in the pedigree of tales. And there were superb fancies in “John Silence,” 3 though even there I saw faint traces of the mischief that had attacked the author’s imagination.

In “The Human Chord” 4 there was grave disease; “The Centaur” 5 was badly affected; and in “Pan’s Garden” 6 (Macmillan) the condition is about the same.

What is this disease? Here, in a quotation from the story, “The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” is the solution:

And once in the middle of the night she woke at the sound of his voice and heard him—wide awake, not talking in his sleep, but talking towards the window where the shadow of the cedar fell at noon”

O art though sighing for Lebanon,
In the long breeze that streams to thy 
   delicious East? 
Sighing for Lebanon,
Dark cedar;

and when, half charmed, half terrified, she turned and called him by name, he merely said—

My dear, I felt the loneliness—suddenly realised it—the alien desolation of that tree, set here upon our little lawn in England when all her Eastern brothers call here to sleep.”

That passage tells the whole story of Mr. Blackwood’s error, of the gradual declension of his books from a very high standard.

The lines from Tennyson are exquisite, with their suggestion that the sound of the wind in the cedar is, as it were, the sighing of the tree for its native slopes in Lebanon.7

But what was a poetic fancy to the lover in “Maud” 8 is a logical and scientific statement to Mr. Bittacy, “the man whom the trees loved”; he really believes that the cedar on his lawn is a sentient and conscious being, a personality, and that it is actually feeling lonely in England, so far away from its Syrian relations. And in support of his view, Mr. Bittacy quotes an address delivered by Mr. Francis Darwin 9 before the Royal Society; poetry has become logic, it has become science.

Mrs. Bittacy thought her husband’s statements about the cedar “unevangelical.” They may be for all I know, but they are certainly nonsensical.

Well, this fault vitiates most of the stories in “Pan’s Garden.” Again and again a beautiful and poetical fancy, a theme—or rather an emotion—apt for the making of exquisite literature is degraded to this pseudo-scientific, sham-logical level, losing all or almost all of its charm in the process.

So it is with “Temptation of the Clay.” A man succeeds to a wonderful wild corner of unspoiled country, set as an island in the midst of territories that have been ruined prosperity and smug parks and prosperous lawns and mansions.

At first the heir to all this ragged beauty deifies it and makes his estate a personality.

Then china clay is found on the property, and Dick Eliot begins to dig pits and build railways: ruining what he had adored.

Things” happen: unpleasant things, and we are required to believe that the estate expels its owner, having previously prophesied to him, through the possessed lips of a young woman, his niece.

Frankly, I don’t believe that an estate in Sussex has any personality; and I don’t think that haunting and secret and mystic charm of the county is to be rendered or translated or made manifest by the invention of these dendro-morphic deities.

Bright Shame,” by Keighley Snowden10 (Stanley Paul) has a moral, or, to use the author’s word, a rationale illustrating and commenting on the action of the story.

I like the tale; the scene of it is laid on high, breezy lands in Yorkshire; and there is a hearty freshness, and as it were the blowing of big, broad winds in every chapter.

The characters are good, too. The old hunks and curmudgeon, Jacob Tempest, must be an excellent likeness of the unlovelier type of Yorkshireman, and the tender love of his wife for the illegitimate half-nephew Frank, whom the Tempests have brought up as their own child, is very beautifully done. And the boy Frank is good, so is his father Stephen, wastrel and humanist and sculptor.

But the “Rationale”! Mr. Snowden tells us that the cure for all our ills is to follow Nature; to take Nature’s hint. It sounds pretty, but it won’t do.

Jacky takes nature’s hint when he eats nine mince-pies, later the same preceptress urges him to do his Virgil with a crib, still later she points out the advisability of manifest overdoses of alcohol—and of all sorts of actions which are eminently undesirable.

No man ever inclined a more attentive ear to hint of nature than Giovanni Giacomo Casanova,11 of Venice; nobody was more obedient to its promptings. And the result was, well… not successful.

I suppose I am calling for the impossible; but I wish the word nature could be banished from the language. It stands in the path of all of us who try to think and try to write down our thoughts as a perpetual stumbling block and pit of perplexity and fallacy. Only the other day Mr. Balfour 12 had to point out to the Eugenists in council that the word nature meant nothing or next to nothing.

It is quite true to say that nature impels men—some men—to good actions. It is also quite true to say that it impels men—other men—to every kind of mean and cruel and relentless scoundrelism and villainy; and so the word cancels itself out as it were; it amounts to nothing.

The “return to nature” doctrine was at the basis of the idiot-philosophy of the eighteenth century. I am sorry that it can still claim disciples.

Addendum: Excepted from Books For The Autumn (September 5, 1911)

I shall be very interested to see what Mr. Algernon Blackwood’s “The Centaur” is like. His last book, which was called, I think, “The Human Chord,” disappointed me, because it was too technical. The Jewish Kabbalists tell us that all things will be given to him who can pronounce the Great Name of God. This, I take it, is a parable, and a very wonderful one, but Mr. Blackwood took it literally and definitely as the foundation for his story. I hope “The Centaur” will prove to be a return to his earlier methodwhich was admirable.13


NOTES

1 Starrett, Vincent. Born in a Bookshop (Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). Pages 248-9.

2 Blackwood, Algernon, The Listener and Other Stories (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1907). Blackwood’s second story collection includes “The Willows,” a masterful example of the writer’s talent for slowly building tension amid evocative and beautiful imagery. For those interested in exploring Blackwood’s world, this story is the best place to begin.

3 John Silence—Physician Extraordinary (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1909). A popular collection of short stories in the supernatural detective sub-genre.

4 The Human Chord (London: Macmillan, 1910). A novel. For more, see Note 12.

5 The Centaur (London: Macmillan, 1911). A novel.

6 Pan’s Garden: A Volume of Nature Stories (London: Macmillan, 1912). Includes “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” and “The Temptation of the Clay,” which are quoted by Machen in this article.

7 Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was a Victorian poet whose work, including The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854), still retains popularity in Britain today. The imagery of the cedars of Lebanon is a biblical reference.

7 A poem by Tennyson, “Maud” (1855) features a lover of passionate, and perhaps, unstable emotions.

9 The son of Charles, Francis Darwin (1848-1925) followed his father into the natural sciences as a botanist.

10 Mostly forgotten today, Keighley Snowden (1860-1947) was a journalist and novelist from Yorkshire. It is probably no coincidence that Machen chose to review Snowden’s book in conjunction with Blackwood. For different reasons, he fundamentally disagreed with both men on their approach to Nature and its meaning.

11 Machen certainly knew his “Casanova” as he produced the first English translation of the Memoirs in 1894. Though there are inaccuracies in his translation, due to using poor versions from the French and German, it remained the standard up to 1960.

12 Most likely, Machen is referring to Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), the former Prime Minister, who at the time of this article still served a Member of Parliament.

13 Both Blackwood and Machen were initiated into the famous (or perhaps infamous) esoteric society Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the early years of the twentieth-century, and the two men probably studied magic and kabbalah in the society at the same time. In his second volume of memoirs, Things Near and Far (1923), Machen disparaged the experience as foolishness with no substance. Also, later in life, Blackwood echoed this sentiment, yet, after both men had left the order, Blackwood brought forth those studies to drive the narrative in The Human Chord, in which a magician purposes to use the Hebrew alphabet and sound vibrations to gain enlightenment and power. Perhaps more than the average reader, Machen understood these esoteric underpinnings, and so, took the opportunity to critique Backwood for his literal and logical approach to mysticism, as he would later do when considering the latter’s use of poetry in “The Man Whom the Trees Loved.” For Machen, one should approach these concepts symbolically, or hieroglyphically. Here, marks a second significant difference between the two greatest writers of supernatural fiction of their generation.

{Additionally, M. R. James (1862-1936) should be considered for an enlargement to a trio, but that is a different study.}


All original essays, artwork & supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Christopher Tompkins

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