Saturday, June 7, 2014

Bad Trips

Of Algernon Blackwood, Lovecraft wrote:  “Above all others he understands how fully some sensitive minds dwell forever on the borderland of dream, and how relatively slight is the distinction betwixt those images formed from actual objects and those excited by the play of the imagination.”  In his Supernatural Horror In Literature (1927), Lovecraft praised Blackwood’s skill and subtlety in the use of details to move his characters from realistic perceptions of their surroundings to an experience of the supernatural.

This talent can be seen in Blackwood’s The Occupant of the Room (1917).  This is essentially a ghost story, though one could argue it primarily involves psychic clairvoyance.  It is also an example of travel horror—short stories that seem to say “You won’t believe what happened on my trip to—”.   Their chief consolation is that the frightening events they depict take place far away from home.

Examples include E.F. Benson’s Caterpillars (1912)—in which a hotel is found to be haunted by spectral insect larvae; Robert E. Howard’s Rattle of Bones (1929)—in which Solomon Kane encounters a treacherous traveling companion, a murderous innkeeper, and a fellow guest who has been chained to the floor for a while; and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Picture In the House (1921)—in which the narrator comes in out of the rain to discover that his host is an illiterate, hungry cannibal.  Readers can probably identify many other examples of stories like these.

In Blackwood’s The Occupant of the Room, a man named Minturn is vacationing somewhere in the Swiss Alps, but has initial trouble finding a room—the inn is already filled with guests.  He is directed to a house down the road, where less reputable innkeepers offer him a place to spend the night.  The room is already taken, but the occupant, a solitary English woman, has not returned for several days from a recent expedition in the nearby mountains.  He may have the room, but must be prepared to vacate immediately when she returns.  Perhaps another room will open up in the meantime.

Minturn is uneasy about this, and feels increasingly uncomfortable in the room, which really belongs to someone else.  He is trespassing.  The woman's clothes and personal items are still here, even a trace of her perfume.  More ominously, he begins to feel overpowered by deep feelings of cynicism and depression—a sort of Ecclesiastes moment, (“I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”).  Presumably he is experiencing some of the psychic residue of the woman with whom he is sharing this room.  Minturn avoids even looking at “that big, ugly cupboard” that contains the her clothing and accessories.  Readers will suspect that this closet must eventually be opened.

Algernon Blackwood wrote numerous ghost stories, for which he was primarily known in his heyday.  As a young man, he was especially interested in hypnotism, supernatural phenomena, eastern philosophies, and occultism.  Though he wrote a couple of early stories in the very late1800s, he began to publish regularly after 1906, and had a long and successful career as an author.   He created a series of stories featuring a psychic detective named John Silence, who was a contemporary of William Hope Hodgson’s charactor, Carnacki, the occult investigator.  Today Blackwood is probably best known for one of his earlier stories, The Willows (1907), often found in older anthologies of weird fiction or horror.  It should be considered required reading.


Here are a few examples of “travel horror” discussed in earlier posts:

1. E.F. Benson’s Entomophobia and P.Y.F. (Caterpillars, by E.R. Benson)

Cleft Skull Tavern—Not Recommended (Rattle of Bones, by Robert E. Howard)

H.P. Lovecraft’s Celebrity Collaboration (Under the Pyramids, with Harry Houdini, a.k.a. Imprisoned with the Pharaohs)

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