First Book Review: Algernon Blackwood

‘The Empty House and other Ghost stories’ by the British author Algernon Blackwood was published in 1906 and stands as one of the finest collections of ghost stories I have ever read. From first to last it is a joy to read. Blackwood is well-respected as one of the finest ghost story writers and having read these stories I can understand why. These stories, I feel, would be best read in the middle of winter in front of a roaring log fire in your favourite chair. They have that quaint, timeless quality about them which is very hard to find.

The first story in this collection is ‘The Empty House’ a haunted house story.  In it Shorthouse, the main character in the story, goes to visit his Aunt Julia and gets more than he bargained for.  She tells him upon arrival that she has the keys for entry into a haunted house.  The story about the house is that about a century before a jealous stable hand had conducted an affair with a servant girl and sought revenge on her after she threw him over.  He hid himself in the house’s cellar and tracked the girl down in the middle of the night.  He chased the unfortunate girl and pushed her over a banister on the upper floor, where the servant’s quarters were housed, and she fell to her death.  The stable hand was subsequently caught and hanged for the murder.

The author creates a wonderful atmosphere of suspense as soon as Shorthouse and his aunt enter the house.  They hear strange noises as they move around the house.  Then a door to one room is found closed when previously it had been open.  Shorthouse receives a severe shock to his system on coming across a man’s face which peers at him malevolently and then disappears from view.  At another point he turns to look at his aunt only to find not a woman of middle-aged years staring back at him but the face of a girl.  Moments later he looks at her again to find she is back to her normal self.

As they move up to the upper regions of the house they hear footsteps.  First they are soft and then they are of a heavier tread.  They realize this is the servant girl being chased by the stable hand.  The sound of a struggle can be heard followed soon after by the sound of only one set of footsteps and moments later a terrible thudding sound on the stone floor below.

These events are described in a wonderfully descriptive and thrilling fashion which cannot help but enthral the reader.  As I read each succeeding page I felt a sense of unease take a grip of you.  When this happens, you know you are in the hands of a master craftsmen.

In this opening story and the ones to follow I found myself being taken over by the spell Algernon Blackwood had cast on me.  These stories made me feel the amazing sensation of reading but not thinking I was reading at all but that I was part of what was going on within the stories.

Subsequent stories in the collection include one where the main character is a student at Edinburgh University.  This story is entitled ‘Keeping his promise.’ Marriott, the student in question, receives an unexpected call one night from an old school friend by the name of Field who looks drawn and weak.  He invites him in and offers him something to eat.  He settles him down and gives him some whisky to go with his food.  Later his friend seems tired, so he lays him down in his bed so he can rest.  He barely notices that throughout their time together in his rooms his friend had not uttered a word.  He leaves him in his bedroom and hears his breathing, believing him to be in a deep sleep.  He has some papers to go over so leaves him for the moment.  Later he checks on him and notices again the breathing.  However, when he moves close to the bed he discovers the human shape which had lain there before was no longer there and when he removes the bed clothes he discovers there is no friend to be found there!

A short time later he tells a fellow student of his experiences and it is then that he discovers the food and drink he gave to his friend had remained untouched.  His fellow student then asks him about a red mark he notices on his arm, thinking it is a recent scratch mark, but he tells him this is not so.  When they had been at school together they had taken it into their heads to sign a boyhood compact with one another.  They each cut their arm and let the blood seep into the other’s arm.  This was done so that in the event of one of them dying he would appear to his friend shortly afterwards.

Marriott writes to his sister to ask about his school friend Field.  She tells him Field had been turned out of his house by his father whereupon he had killed himself.  He did so by starving himself to death in the family’s cellar.  His body was found on the 14th of the month, but it was discovered he died the day before which just so happened to be the same day he visited Marriott in his rooms.

This story sent chills through my body as I read it.  The thought of being visited by an old friend unexpectedly and, finding him in a weakened state, offering him food and drink and a bed to rest his weary bones is one thing.  But then to later discover he was a ghost and he had died that very day would be enough to drive anyone crazy.  Yes, a top story by a top writer.

These, then, are descriptions of two of the best stories in this gripping collection but there are many others.  Altogether it is a remarkably consistent grouping of high-quality ghost stories which would satisfy the appetite of any horror connoisseur.

Each story is inventive in the extreme. The locations vary also. They are not all based in Britain. A couple are set in Canada and one is in New York. This latter story involves a young man of business who is sent to the home of a recluse. It turns out this recluse is not all he seems which the young man discovers when he is asked to spend the night there.

It is always a pleasure to read stories with a flowing narrative and the author achieves this perfectly. His writing style is well-suited for the telling of ghost stories. He is able to invest each tale with an atmosphere and a mood which draws the reader into his world. It says much for this collection that I felt great sadness when I came to the conclusion of the book. I wish the experience could have gone on forever.



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