Sunday 8 September 2013

John Silence: Psychic Investigator

My second read for Carl's R.I.P. VIII challenge is John Silence: Psychic Investigator by Algernon Blackwood.

Algernon Blackwood was born in 1869 in England. He spent many years working in the USA and Canada before moving back to England in his late thirties. Once here he took up writing ghost stories and became one of the most prolific writers of that genre, not only writing stories but also broadcasting them to a wide audience on TV and radio. He was hugely interested, not only in the occult and mysticism, but also in nature and the great outdoors. Many beautiful regions of the world such the forests of Ontario, Germany and Sweden, feature heavily in his writing. H.P. Lovecraft is one famous author who was a big fan of his stories.

I was lucky, some years ago, before the advent of the internet, I came across two volumes of Blackwood's short stories in a secondhand bookshop in Barnstaple. As far as I can remember though, none of those involved his psychic investigator, John Silence. I don't know where I came across him, but somehow I came across just one story, Secret Worship, enjoyed it, but was unable to find more. Nowadays of course, we have the internet and Amazon and there for the princely sum of £1.36 I found John Silence: Psychic Investigator for my Kindle.

I didn't realise it but Blackwood wrote just six stories about John Silence and his dealings with the supernatural. Sometimes these stories involve an assistant, or sidekick if you like, a chap called Hubbard... a Watson to Silence's Sherlock Holmes. But whereas Holmes' main obsession was crime, Silence is interested only in affairs of the occult.

I've been reading all six stories over the last week or so, some of them are quite long and are almost novellas.

1. A Psychical Invasion. John Silence is called in by the wife of an author specialising in humorous stories. It seems her husband has lost his ability to write humour and rather than suspect writer's block she suspects a malevolent force at work. Her husband seems haunted by something in the house in which they are living. Silence undertakes to spend the night in the house along with his cat and dog, both of which he believes will indicate by their reactions what the force at work is.

2. Ancient Sorceries. A man called Vezin recounts an occurance which happened to him in France. He was on his way home from holiday when he felt compelled to jump off the train to visit a village on the hill. It turns out to be a strange place. Dreamlike, full of cats, and the people, well they're very odd too. They seem to want him to stay there forever...

3. The Nemisis of Fire. Silence and Hubbard are asked to go to the north of England by the owner of a large house. The house borders a large forested plantation, the trees come right to one end of the building in fact. Unexplained fires have been occurring indoors, putting the owner's invalid sister in danger. On arriving, Silence and Hubbard feel an oppressive heat in the house, but instead of the house, Silence feels the root of the problem is out in the forest.

4. Secret Worship. John Silence is on holiday in Germany, a remote mountainous and forested part of that country. Another guest in the small hotel is Harris who apparently went to nearby school run by monks. He declares one evening that he's going to go and pay the monks a visit. This alarms a priest who is also staying, but Harris won't listen and marches off into the forest to pay a night-time visit. He finds the school much changed.

5. The Camp of the Dog. Hubbard is on holiday in Sweden. He and a vicar friend, the vicar's wife, their daughter, and a Canadian pupil of the vicar's are camping on an island a few days travel from Stockholm. Hubbard soon realises that the Canadian chap is in love with the vicar's daughter but it is not reciprocated. Hubbard remarks on how people soon shed their city personnas when camping in the wild like this, but some become wilder than others...

6. A Victim of Higher Space. The Butler announces that a man has come to see John Silence but is clearly uneasy about said man. When questioned he says that the man is there but not there. Moving too quickly for the butler to keep tabs on him. Intrigued, Silence discovers that the man has got so deeply into mathematics and geometry that he may have discovered other dimensions. What to do to save him?

These stories, like all anthologies, vary in quality. Though I must add that none of them are bad and all are beautifully written. Blackwood had a real way with words and especially excelled in descriptions of wilderness and landscape, and atmospheres that were not quite right. My own particular favourite is Camp of the Dog. I like the fact that it's long and time was taken to describe fully the experience of camping on a forested island in the Baltic. I think Blackwood must actually have done this at some stage as I don't see how it could be so minutely described otherwise. Ancient Sorceries is also very strong on atmosphere. I've been to a similar French town on a hill and he's got the sleepy, dreamlike atmosphere down to a tee. Likewise Secret Worship. I've not been to Germany but the forests and mountains felt real to me. Nemisis of Fire is also a very strong story with an explanation I did not expect.

I would say that these are less traditional ghost stories than weird fiction. All of them involve strange goings on, not 'bumps in the night' sort of stories. I liked this aspect of them, they stretch the imagination and indulge my own weirdness a bit. I wish there were more than six stories I have to say, but there aren't so that's that. I thoroughly enjoyed what there are and will definitely reread them at some stage, particularly Camp of the Dog which I thought was fantastic.

I think probably all of these stories are available online. The first three are here on Gutenberg for instance. I'm sure the others are around too, Googling will doubtless produce a result. It's well worth it.



DesLily said...

Once again she reads quicker than I can pick up my next book! lol. It sounds like this was a "gift" for reading on the kindle!! I do like hearing that many of his stories also involve "forests".. you know me and trees! lol...They sound like you enjoy them though and that's what counts! I hope your next read is another good one.

I am more than half way thru A Cast of Killers (true story) and it's holding my interest for sure! lol

Katherine said...

Oh, these sound like fun! Not that I need more to read for R.I.P. *cough*

Peggy Ann said...

Cath, it sounds like great fun! I'm getting the kindle edition too!

Peggy Ann said...

found the complete John Silence Stories on Google books for free!

Cath said...

Pat: I gather Blackwood was really into forests, in fact I think one whole book of his short stories is dedicated to the Canadian Forests.

Glad you're enjoying A Cast of Killers, look forward to hearing about it.

Katherine: I know what you mean, I don't need more books for RIP either but I keep on looking to see what others are reading. Fatal.

Peggy: I just friended you on Goodreads. I hope you realise it's me and not some random stalker. LOL.

Brilliant, I knew they were out there for free, in several places. Stupidly I didn't think to look last year when I bought mine. Never mind, the price hardly broke the bank.

Val said...

and she adds to my list yet again..... (lol)

TracyK said...

Very interesting. I would say this is not my kind of subject, and I don't particularly like short stories, but you have made this sound very attractive.

Also, I will have to point it out to my husband, as he is more into this type of story.

Cath said...

Val: Sorry about that... Heehee

Tracy: If you're not sure it would be easy to check Guttenberg for free and then it wouldn't cost you anything. Free reading is good. :-)

Susan said...

What an excellent review and recap of the short novellas without giving anything away, Cath! You also made me wish I had a kindle so I could get the kindle edition of this, since it's worth looking at, I think. It doesn't always have to be about ghosts, does it? Weirdness counts, too, I think, in RIP.

You are having some fun reading with this challenge, aren't you!

Cath said...

Susan: Not sure but I think Amazon is selling proper book versions of this. No, in fact I may even like weird stories as much as I like ghost stories. Oh yes, I certainly am having huge fun with RIP this year. Hope you are too!