One of my greatest adolescent loves was the late-Victorian horror story. Some might break in here to say not all late-Victorian horror was trash (there’s even a freshmen seminar dedicated to the subject), but I personally only loved the borderline garbage. M.R James and H.P. Lovecraft might entertain sophisticates, but I am devoted to Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood was a travel writer by trade. He traveled all around Europe by train, horse, canoe, and ski, and wrote about his exploits for such quaint periodicals as Country Life. But he moon-lighted as a writer of spine-tinglers of very mixed quality, many of which were published in Blackwood’s Magazine. Yes, I know what that sounds like, but to Blackwood’s credit they were not self-published.
All of the stories are entertaining, even if some of them aren’t good. They check every box for late-Victorian horror: Not a lot of ghosts, but lots of fits of “vague dread,” and unknown horrors from “primitive” pagan times. That was the industry standard at the time. But Blackwood has a pet theme I always felt quite odd for a professional traveler: some perversion of the natural world is almost always the killer. His most famous story, and probably his best, is “The Wendigo,” the monster drives men mad and makes their feet burn. It is really just creepily personified exposure, which makes men loose their way and wander in the woods, before they freeze to death, their extremities burning and tingling with the cold. Oh, and the Wendigo can fly. I don’t know how that fits in but I’m certain it does.
I went on a trip into the woods recently and I thought about Blackwood. Being alone in the woods can certainly be frightening. Indeed, the very word “panic” originally referred only to that indistinct, creepy feeling people tend to get when alone out in the wild. But the way Blackwood portrays nature in his stories, as this intelligent monolithic evil that wills all humans ill, still seems out of proportion. After the Fall, nature isn’t always our friend, but it isn’t an enemy either. Disease, hunger, and natural disasters rack us, but nature is still a creation formed by God and only slightly corrupted by us. As St. Francis said “Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,/who sustains us and governs us and who produces/varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.” Nature, to the Christian, is something to praise in and not to fear, even if it is occasionally something to mourn over.
So why was Blackwood always so afraid? I think he was expressing some uniquely modern hysteria. A fear of nature rooted in the fact that despite all of our efforts to understand and to dominate her, nature is still unknowable and uncontrollable. Modern man hates what he can’t know, and he really hates what he can’t control. So he hates the woods, the rivers, the plains, and especially death. Those mysteries which filled St. Francis with joy fill men like Blackwood up with dread, and fill people like me up with a mixture of the two. I think very few people, even few Christians, can honestly sing with St. Francis: “Praised be You, my Lord,/ through our Sister Bodily Death,/ from whom no living man can escape.”
Tess Fitzsimmons ’19 is a History & Literature and Religion joint concentrator in Lowell House.