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 annus horribilis. 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