Algernon Blackwood’s supernatural investigator John Silence comes straight out of
the Sherlock Holmes playbook.  Blackwood, almost exactly ten years older than
Arthur Conan Doyle, was hardly the only author of his generation to imitate the
Holmes stories. In the closing years of the nineteenth century, around 800 weekly
periodicals were published in Britain—and  240 of them regularly featured detective
fiction! But Blackwood had a different twist from these others: his protagonist John
Silence wasn’t just an investigator but a mystic and clairvoyant, an adept in esoteric
arts, and master of obscure lore.

Blackwood was reflecting another turn-of-the-century

obsession here. Supernaturalism was a topic of constant
discussion and debate in Victorian England. (One of its
most credulous advocates was Doyle himself; but he kept
his wilder beliefs out of his Holmes stories.) Controversy
raged over the reality of clairvoyance, communication with
the dead, séances, hypnotism and other related phenomena.
When Blackwood published his first John Silence stories, he
drew on these elements, mixing them in with the formulas
of the Holmes-oriented detective story, and created a new
hybrid genre, comprised in almost equal doses of horror,
sci-fi and mystery.

John Silence, a man of independent means, is a medical

doctor. But he is also much  more. In his early life, he
"submitted himself to a long and severe training, at once
physical, mental, and spiritual. What precisely this training
had been, or where undergone, no one seemed to know,—for he never spoke of it." But,
we are told, "it had involved a total disappearance from the world for five years." Here
we have left the familiar terrain of the detective story far behind, and are now more in
the metaphysical landscapes of Aleister Crowley, Helena Blavatsky, G. I. Gurdjieff
and Carlos Castaneda.

Solving the mystery at hand is only the least of Dr. Silence’s achievements; along the

way, he just might release the entrapped spirit of a mummy, cure a werewolf, or
counter the ominous side effects of consuming too much cannabis indica. Silence
can anticipate the contents of a letter by holding it up to his forehead and feeling its
emanations. He can feel the presence of human beings, or disembodied beings for
that matter, without seeing them—merely through a kind of sixth sense. Sometimes
he can even predict the future.

Blackwood eventually published six John Silence stories.

The psychic doctor first appeared in the collection John
Silence—Physician Extraordinary (1908). An additional
story, "A Victim of Higher Space," wasn’t published until
1917, but it now typically included with the other tales.
Most of these approach novella length, clocking in at
roughly twice the word count of a typical Sherlock
Holmes short story.

And here we encounter the chief problem with the John

Silence stories. They feel padded, almost as if the author
needed more words to justify the publication of a book-
length collection. The repetition and laborious elaboration
of inconsequential details starts as a minor annoyance,
but eventually become burdensome to the reader. Even
the baroque prose of H.P. Lovecraft seems taut and focused
by comparison.

The reader gets a taste of Blackwood’s logorrhea in the

opening story, "A Psychical Invasion." Here our author
devotes almost a thousand words to describing John Silence’s dog and cat. In the
longest story, "The Camp of the Dog," a group of vacationers encounter a menacing
beast, half dog and half wolf, while on a sojourn on a remote island; and here the
description of the solitude of the locale goes on for pages. Indeed, Arthur Conan
Doyle or Edgar Allan Poe could tell a whole story in the space Blackwood requires
to 'set the scene'.

As these two examples might suggest, Blackwood has a fixation with household

pets. Another story, “Ancient Sorceries,” involves a visit to a strange city where the
inhabitants turn into cats in order to practice a peculiarly feline type of witchcraft.
While reading it, I couldn’t help wondering whether Haruki Murakami didn’t draw
inspiration from it for his “Town of Cats” interlude in 1Q84. Murakami is an author
who will tell a story at some leisure, but his ‘magical cat’ narrative, a peculiar
digression in a novel that spans almost one thousand pages, seems fast-paced by
comparison with Blackwood’s slow-motion prose.  

Other structural problems mar these stories. In a third of the tales, the character of

John Silence is grafted on to the plot in a clumsy manner. He is not essential to the
narrative, merely a gratuitous add-on—perhaps, once again, to give Blackwood
enough material to fill up a book of John Silence tales. The worst of these stories,
"Secret Worship," involves a silk dealer named Harris who decides to visit his old
school in Germany. Here he encounters some ghastly devil worshippers who want
to turn him into a sacrificial victim. Not only does Blackwood rely on the most clichéd
ending in the history of suspense fiction—a variant on the he-woke-up-and-found-it-
was-all-a-dream—but does so in such a clumsy way that the reader sees it coming
long before the protagonist does. John Silence shows up merely to play the part of
the person who awakens Harris at the climactic moment in the tale.

Yet the most striking shortcoming in these stories comes via the hero himself, who

sadly lives up to the promise of his name. John Silence is, in almost every situation,
taciturn. Unlike Sherlock Holmes who, sooner or later, explains how he solves each
crime, thus allowing the reader to share in the process of analysis and detection,
Silence never explains his techniques. He simply knows the solution to each problem
because of his extraordinary powers of intuition and his personal initiation into
paranormal techniques. The reader may walk away from these stories impressed
with the Psychic Doctor’s abilities, but not with those of author Algernon Blackwood,
who lavishes sentence after sentence on the scenery or pets, but nothing at all on
the process by which his mysteries are solved.

These stories are not without their merits. A Freudian literary critic would find

much to deconstruct in Blackwood’s narratives. “The Camp of the Dog” could be
called a Freudian werewolf story, and the resolution of the plot is ingenious. With
some judicious editing, it might have been a classic. Alas, as it stands, the work is
weighted down by its constant repetitions. The final story, "A Victim of Higher Space,"
starts out with great promise, and Blackwood even introduces a promising minor
character—a meddling butler with psychic intuition—and (for the only time in this
volume) shows that he can write taut dialogue. But the author seems to lose interest
in his plot after a few pages, and mars what could have been a first-rate story with
rushed, clumsy ending.

We cannot deny Blackwood his historical importance. His combination of horror

with elements of mythology and science helped set the stage for the work of H.P.
Lovecraft—a far, far greater talent. And in a few seminal stories not include in the
John Silence collection (notably "The Wendigo" and "The Willows"), he earns our
respect as an influential pioneer of genre fiction. But if you are looking for a heroic
doctor investigator of supernatural phenomenon, put this book aside, and turn
instead to Dr. Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula or even Dr. Louis Creed in
Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Dr. John Silence may be a skilled physician, or even
a  great clairvoyant, but—alas!—he is also an insufferable bore.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.

Publication Date: September 12, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

Week 37
The John Silence Stories
by Algernon Blackwood
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

The Sherlock Holmes of the Occult World
A Look Back at Algernon Blackwood's John Silence Stories
Algernon Blackwood
Essay by Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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