Appendix N Archaeology: Algernon Blackwood
By Bradley K. McDevitt
Contrary to what his name suggests he was, English author Algernon Henry Blackwood (1869-1951) was neither an escapee from a Charles Dickens novel nor a member of the faculty of Hogwarts. What Blackwood was, in fact, was one of the most admired writers of the early twentieth century. H.P. Lovecraft, one of the cornerstone authors of Appendix N, had this to say about one of Blackwood’s stories: “The Willows is the finest weird story I have ever read.”
Strong praise from a writer who took great pride in the breadth of his literary scholarship. However, Lovecraft also made this comment about Blackwood in one of his thousands of pages of correspondence to friends: “It is safe to say that Blackwood is the greatest living weirdest despite unevenness and a poor prose style.”
The source of those criticisms has a simple explanation. In addition to being so admired, Blackwood was possibly one of the most prolific authors working at the time, turning out no less than fourteen novels, ten anthologies, and numerous children’s books and plays. To whit, due to the tight deadlines, he was regularly given by his newspaper clients like the Westminster Gazette, Blackwell himself ended up unsure how many stories he did complete during his long career.
All, however, were of exemplary quality, with some shared themes that arose from Blackwood’s love of the travel and the outdoors. Unlike some authors who set their stories in exotic locales (like many of Ashton-Smith’s tales, set everywhere from medieval France, to the Amazon, to Mars), Blackwood delighted in setting his most chilling stories in the banalest of locales, then turning everything ninety degrees to sheer terror.
As a simple example, The Occupant of the Room takes place in a small hotel suite rented by a teacher on a walking tour of the Alps while on holiday. Compared to R.E. Howard’s The Black Stone, with its setting of a decayed hamlet deep in a floridly described version of Germany’s Black Forest, the town where The Occupant of the Room is set is reassuringly mundane until the narrator descends into paranoia and meets the other occupant of his little suite.
Blackwood shows great skill in wringing terror in other situations, always building from locations so typical and relatable to most readers that he doesn’t feel the need, unlike Lovecraft, to go into exacting detail. A foggy London street is nothing so unusual as to need longitude or latitude, but that makes it no less terrifying to the shell-shocked protagonist of Confession. Such is Blackwood’s skill that the reader feels disoriented and lost in the fog just like the narrator.
Even slightly more exotic locations like the endless swath of foliage that make up the setting of The Willows or the Canadian woods of The Wendigo are still normal enough lull the reader into a sense of security that Blackwood takes great pains not to violate until it is too late for the characters… or the reader.
Adapting Blackwood to a gaming environment is tricky, but could end up being very satisfying for all involved. His writing is a master class in establishing a mood of suspense and dread from the simplest details. While it is easier to accomplish in a “realistic” game where the players are all familiar with the general rules of a location, with a bit more effort, the game master can generate the same mood in a fantasy setting.
A carefully detailed and populated town, used as more than just a supply depot before the characters scamper off to the local dungeon, could be a source of many sessions of good role-playing, while also slowly cranking up the tension. Cribbing details like the fog from Confession or the log cabin from The Haunted Island would be the easy part; mimicking Blackwood’s penchant for paranoia and dread would take a commitment on the parts of both game-masters and players not to break the mood with the typical clowning around that happens at almost every gaming table.
After all, the point of gaming is to establish an immersive experience; to allow the players to feel they have been transported at least temporarily to a different reality. Portraying that is the task of the game-master, and, if emulating the writing of Algernon Blackwood, drawing out a mood of suspense and terror from the game setting’s mere reality.
For those intrigued by this article, a normal trip to the local library will turn up numerous examples of his work. Even during his lifetime, Blackwood was widely anthologized in any number of collections of horror stories (in one such anthology of vampires stories is how I discovered him). A list of collections of just his works is too large to reprint in this article. Wikipedia has a good accounting of them starting all the way back in 1906, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algernon_Blackwood, though Tales of the Uncanny and the Supernatural is an excellent introduction to the many volumes for such a prolific writer. Another valuable online resource may be found at http://www.algernonblackwood.org/ , which has downloadable copies of a handful of his most famous stories.
For those who just want a few career highlights, one cannot go wrong with The Willows, or his other most famous classic The Wendigo, the antagonist of which would be borrowed to become Ithaqua, a popular Elder God in the Cthulhu Mythos. My personal favorite, however, remains The Occupant of the Room for its tight focus on twisting a simple hotel room from mundane reality to a source of terror.