Andrew HamiltonEssays

Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood

by Andrew Hamilton

THE NOVELS and stories of English weird fiction writer Algernon Blackwood display racial consciousness. His two best-known works are the novellas “The Willows” (1907) and the “The Wendigo” (1910).

There is a decidedly Hemingwayesque quality—before Hemingway—about both stories, the first set in the desolate, uninhabited marshes of the Danube River in Hungary, across the border from Austria, the other in the endless Canadian wilderness. The resemblance is not stylistic, though Blackwood’s prose is admirably clear and direct, but aesthetic in its authentic feel for the great outdoors (Blackwood was an energetic outdoorsman), reminiscent of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. The vivid description at the beginning of “The Willows” of a canoe trip by the narrator and his companion, identified only as “the Swede,” from the headwaters of the Danube in Germany’s Black Forest to its mouth in the Black Sea in Eastern Europe is a good example.

In “The Wendigo,” set in the vast, remote Canadian wilderness north of Lake of the Woods, a region Blackwood knew personally,1 the characters are two Scotsmen (an uncle and nephew hunting moose), two guides, one Anglo-Saxon and the other French Canadian, and an Indian.

Of the latter he writes,

He dressed in the worn-out clothes bequeathed to him by former patrons, and, except for his coarse black hair and dark skin, he looked in these city garments no more like a real redskin than a stage Negro looks like a real African. For all that, however, Punk had in him still the instincts of his dying race; his taciturn silence and his endurance survived; also his superstition.

Note the distinction between “a stage Negro” (Denzel Washington? Morgan Freeman?) and “a real African” (Trayvon Martin? Michael Brown?). Also the observation in passing that Indians were a dying race.

Blackwood is sensitively attuned to subracial (ethnic) differences between Whites, as well. The French Canadian is described as being of “Latin type,” small and dark (his forebears, obviously, from southern France). The two Scots are depicted with Scottish temperaments and characteristics, while the Anglo-Saxon Canadian guide swore “like a mad African in a New York nigger saloon.”

The protagonists of the “The Empty Sleeve” (1911), two bachelor2 brother violin collectors who share a London apartment, must contend with a disturbing Jew named Isidore Hyman, who turns out to have supernatural qualities.

Now this Mr. Hyman was a Hebrew, and, like themselves, a connoisseur in violins, but, unlike themselves, who only kept their specimens to look at, he was a skilful and exquisite player. He was the only person they ever permitted to handle their pedigree instruments, to take them from the glass cases where they reposed in silent splendour, and to draw the sound out of their wondrous painted hearts of golden varnish. The brothers loathed to see his fingers touch them, yet loved to hear their singing voices in the room, for the latter confirmed their sound judgment as collectors, and made them certain their money had been well spent. Hyman, however, made no attempt to conceal his contempt and hatred for the mere collector. The atmosphere of the room fairly pulsed with these opposing forces of silent emotion when Hyman played and the Gilmers, alternately writhing and admiring, listened. The occasions, however, were not frequent. The Hebrew only came by invitation, and both brothers made a point of being in. It was a very formal proceeding.

Note that Hyman’s characterization contradicts the familiar Jewish trope that Whites regard Jews as “inferior.” Moreover, Hyman’s Jewishness is viewed as racial in nature, not religious or social. This is true of all Blackwood’s Jewish portraits: he views them as members of a race, not a religion. And, whether praising or criticizing them, he always sees and knows Jews; they are by no means invisible to him as they are to most Gentiles.

John Gilmer

had always disliked this gifted Hebrew, for in his secret heart he knew that he had always feared and distrusted him. Sometimes he had felt half afraid of him; the man’s very forcible personality was too insistent to be pleasant. His type was of the dark and sinister kind, and he possessed a violent will that rarely failed of accomplishing its desire.

Generalized, this is a succinct précis of the race that today holds despotic sway over the entire world.

A Philo-Semitic Streak

The foregoing will doubtless convey the impression that Blackwood was “anti-Semitic.” Unfortunately, Whites are weak reeds when it comes to Jews, and the few Gentiles not born incurably philo-Semitic must remain alert to doleful reality so they don’t get carried away with unjustified enthusiasm.

In his twenties Blackwood moved from England to North America, where he worked in a wide variety of occupations, first in Canada, then in New York City, sometimes living in excruciating poverty. He described these years in a short but compelling autobiography that ends in 1899 when he returned to England, Episodes Before Thirty (1923; reprinted in 1950, just before his death, with new photographs and an Author’s Note).

There he writes, “For Jews I have always had a quick feeling of sympathy, of admiration. I adore their intelligence, subtlety, keen love of beauty, their understanding, their wisdom. In the best of them lies some intuitive grip of ancient values, some artistic discernment, that fascinates me.” (Emphasis added.)

Blackwood described with amused sympathy the (now utterly familiar) manner in which, long before WWI, New York Jews meticulously organized to physically attack an anti-Jewish speaker from Germany at the Cooper Union in order to prevent him from being heard. Their victim was Reichstag deputy Hermann Ahlwardt. The “law,” of course, did nothing, and the Jews, as always, got their way.

Most instructive of all is Blackwood’s lengthy description of his intimate friendship, or rather discipleship, with a mentally ill bum named Alfred H. Louis, an English Jew of formerly high status. In typically Aryan fashion Blackwood regarded this dwarf with reverential awe, as if he were a semi-divine being. The “old tramp” was

a dignified, venerable and mysterious being, man of the world, lawyer, musician, scholar, poet, but above all, exile. Incidentally, he was madman too. What unkindly tricks fate had played with his fine brain, I never learned with accuracy. It was but the ruin of a great mind I knew. Pain and suffering of no unusual order, as I soon discovered, had, at any rate, left his heart as wise and sweet and gentle as any I have ever known. His voice, his eyes, his smile, his very gestures, even, had in them all the misery and all the goodness of the world. . . . He was a Jew, he was very small, his feet were tiny, his hands, I took in, were beautiful. I thought of Moses, of Abraham, some Biblical prophet come to life, of some storied being like the Wandering Jew. . . . He reached barely to my shoulder, his face upturned to mine, yet the feeling came that it was I who looked up into his eyes. The dignity and power the frail outline conveyed were astonishing. He was a Presence. And his voice the same instant increased the air of greatness, almost I had said of majesty, that he wore so naturally. It was not merely cultured, deep and musical, it vibrated with a peculiar resonance that conveyed authority beyond anything I have known in any other human voice.

And so on. And on. Blackwood even mystically refers to Louis as “the Old Man of Visions.”

Jews cast a weird psychological-emotional spell over Gentiles, including Aryans, of which this is a perfect example. It is a universal if exceedingly strange phenomenon, originating, evidently, deep within the Gentile’s soul or psyche, but requiring the presence of the Jew in order to activate it.

This is the Aryan disease.

You can see the intractable problem we’re confronted with. What is to be done with such minds? Worse, Blackwood—unlike 97 percent of Whites—was capable of actually criticizing and disliking Jews.

There is raw material for the psychologist, amateur or professional, in the two chapters on Alfred H. Louis and frequent references to the man throughout the remainder of the book.

Algernon Blackwood, The Bright Messenger (1921)

Blackwood regarded his German Jewish landlady, from whom he rented a filthy room with two others while living in grinding poverty, with some fondness. Even so, the familiar love-hate relationship warred within his breast: Mrs. Bernstein, with her “fat, kindly, perspiring, dirty” face, “denying her blood, won our affection by charging eight dollars only.” “The slovenly, emotional, fat Jewess, with her greasy locks, jewellery, and tawdry finery, had something motherly about her that appealed.”

An affectionate peck accompanied by a stinging slap.

Blackwood rose from destitution to become a reporter for New York tabloids, and ultimately the New York Times.

A big fire was a thrilling experience, a metal badge pinned to the coat allowing the reporter to go as near as he liked and to run what risks he pleased. . . . Arson, too, being very frequent, especially among the Jews of the East side. Even in those days the story of the two Jews was a “chestnut”: “I’m thorry your blace of business got burnt down last Tuesday,” says Ikey. To which Moses replies: “Hush! It’s next Tuesday!”

Bizarre. Non-Jews would be treated as having committed a grave crime causing enormous property damage and endangering and at times killing civilians and firefighters if they behaved in such a manner. But law and society suddenly look upon it as a lighthearted joke when Jews do it on a large scale to fleece Gentiles out of their hard-earned money. What gives?

As a crime reporter Blackwood interviewed prisoners, including inmates like Lizzie Borden (ultimately acquitted), “who took all her clothes off, lest the stains of blood betray her, before killing her father and mother in their sleep.”

Some of the cases made a lasting and horrible impression; some even terrified. The behaviour of individuals, especially of different races, when sentence was given also left vivid memories; negroes, appealing hysterically to God and using the most extraordinary, invented words, the longer the better; the stolid, unemotional Chinamen; the voluble Italian; the white man, as a rule, quiet, controlled, insisting merely in a brief sentence that he was innocent. In a story, years later (“Max Hensig, Bacteriologist and Murderer” [1907]), the facts were taken direct from life.

Eventually the “horror of New York” crept into Blackwood’s blood:

I seemed covered with sore and tender places into which New York rubbed salt and acid every hour of the day. It wounded, not alone because I felt unhappy, but of itself. It hit me where it pleased. The awful city, with its torrential, headlong life, held for me something of the monstrous. Everything about it was exaggerated. Its racing speed, its roofs amid the clouds with the canyon gulfs below, its gaudy avenues dripping gold that ran almost arm in arm with streets little better than sewers of human decay and misery, its frantic noise, both of voices and mechanism, its lavishly organized charity and boastful splendour, and its deep corruption in the grip of a heartless and degraded Tammany—it was all this that painted the horror into my imagination as of something monstrous, nonhuman, almost unearthly. It became, for me, a scab on the skin of the planet, brilliant with the hues of fever, moving all over with its teeming microbes.

The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York” (1906)

This novelette, like “The Empty Sleeve,” gives expression to Blackwood’s attitudes toward Jews. Unlike that story, where the Jew is the antagonist, here he is merely a secondary character.

With English composer Sir Edward Elgar, right, studying the latter’s score for Blackwood’s and Violet Pearn’s play The Starlight Express (1915), based upon his novel A Prisoner in Fairyland (1913).

Jim Shorthouse, who appears in several Blackwood stories, is the private secretary in question. His employer, Jonas B. Sidebotham, is a wealthy New York businessman with a questionable past.

Like Shorthouse, described as a “Kentish man,”3 Blackwood was from Kent, England, where he came from a distinguished family. The places in Kent where he was born and died have since been legally incorporated into the city of London, which has formally annexed more and more northwestern Kent territory.

Shorthouse, a courageous man of action, is assigned the task of delivering some important papers to Sidebotham’s former partner at his isolated house in a desolate, storm-swept region of Long Island. Sidebotham, handing his secretary a Smith and Wesson revolver, cryptically warns the young man that his ex-partner may be mentally unstable and dangerous.

When Shorthouse arrives at Joel Garvey’s strange, decaying house, the door is cautiously opened by the manservant, Marx, the only other occupant, “an undersized man of middle age with brilliant, shifting eyes, a curling black beard, and a nose that at once proclaimed him a Jew. His shoulders were bent, and he wore a peculiar black gown like a priest’s cassock reaching to the feet.”

The “Jew’s ugly face” bore “an air of obsequious insolence that was very offensive.” “He never once raised his eyes above the level of the visitor’s waistcoat.”

Jews know more than we do,” Garvey confides to Shorthouse.

The jarring note in the story is the Jewish character’s occupation: manservant to the major antagonist. “He’s been with me for nearly twenty years,” Garvey says. “Cook, valet, housemaid, and butler all in one. In the old days he was a clerk in our office in Chicago.

It’s easy enough to swallow a werewolf; but a longtime Jewish servitor stretches credulity to the breaking point, even in weird fiction.

A fascinating sidelight concerns the private secretary position. Blackwood’s last job in New York City before returning to England prior to his thirtieth birthday was that of private secretary to Jewish Wall Street financier James Speyer, head of Speyer & Co.

James was also head of the Speyer family, a Rothschild-like international banking clan whose members operated branches in New York, London, and Frankfurt—enormously wealthy and powerful, but little-known to the public then or now because media, muckrakers, and historians focus attention on Gentiles like the Morgans while shielding Jewish members of the industry from negative publicity.

Blackwood related in his autobiography that he was hired “at a salary of $2,000 a year for a morning job, from 8 till 2 o’clock daily, with a general supervision during the day of his town and country houses, horses, servants, charities, and numerous other interests.”

He obtained the position, which he held for two years (c. 1897-1899), through the auspices of William E. Dodge, Jr., a controlling partner in the Phelps Dodge Corporation, one of the largest copper mining firms in the U.S. Dodge had visited Blackwood’s parents’ home in England when Blackwood was younger.

Although this article is not an exercise in literary criticism, I should add that Algernon Blackwood’s weird fiction is exceptionally well-written.


1 As a young man Blackwood lived in Canada and New York City. Following his death at age 82 in 1951 his nephew scattered his ashes in the Saanenmöser Pass in the Swiss Alps, where the author loved to climb.

2 Blackwood, who never married, frequently utilized bachelors as protagonists. The lead character in “Ancient Sorceries” (1908), for example, though excessively timid and shy, provides insights into bachelor psychology, as do many other characters in his fiction. “Ancient Sorceries” also differentiates between good and evil; Blackwood, interestingly, is not on the side of evil.

3 This seemingly simple, straightforward designation, which the reader naturally assumes he understands, actually has a more precise denotation: “Kentish man” and “man of Kent” have different meanings. Blackwood’s Kentish awareness is another sign of his discriminating sense of place and people, ethnic and racial differentiation, which he seamlessly incorporated into the characters in his novels and stories.

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Source: Author

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