‘Ancient Sorceries’ and other chilling tales – by Algernon Blackwood


ANCIENT SORCERIES and other chilling tales
by Algernon Blackwood

Capuchin Classics 2013

I received this book yesterday for my 67th birthday.

***I shall be real-time reviewing it in the comment stream below as and when I happen to read it…***

17 thoughts on “‘Ancient Sorceries’ and other chilling tales – by Algernon Blackwood

  1. The Wendigo
    Pages 13 – 20

    “…no mention in his book on Collective Hallucination for the simple reason (so he confided once to a fellow colleague) that he himself played too intimate a part in it to form a competent judgement of the affair as a whole…”
    …like the real-time reviewer dreamcatching a book’s gestalt via all its leitmotifs – or upon a moose hunt in the blackwoods…sorry, “his first visit to Canadian backwoods”…
    An ill-tantalising glimpse of a scent, this scene-set, a crafted atmospheric rugged place … a well-characterised foursome (plus Punk) of miscegenate political-incorrectness, whereby native guide gives us a tangible sense of fear whither civilised men like us plan to hunt their moose … with a couple of N-words used by the presumedly civilised narrator that would get us evicted from reality TV shows should we use them today!

  2. Pages 21 – 43
    “It seemed as if a million invisible causes had combined just to produce that single visible effect.”
    Down to two as a splinter reconnaissance party, guider and guided. The forest ‘too big’, we shudder at its immensity and what lies there as part of or born from our earth more terrifying than any alien in the distant stars. With. Sweet. Pungent. Odour of lions. And vast leapfrogs from the tent of nightmare betraying the path of the human guider gone awol and ill-envisioned monster: Défago and Wendigo, even these two words resonate together as a smell, also a Crusoe as if crucified by the going, the wending. And the guided, woken, follows from the tent of broken confused sleep these impossible tracks, “and if it were really the case that something was hunting himself down in the same way that he was hunting down another–“

  3. Pages 44 – 70
    “…the entire structure threatened to fly asunder and become – incoherent.”
    Reunited with the rest of the moose-hunting party, our ‘guided’ one tells of the lost ‘guider’ being carried along, according to the tracks, in increasingly fiery footsteps by the down-to-earth cosmic terror of the moss-eater: finally creating two versions of the same man as the hunter itself and the hunted that used to be himself, both entities made to be seen by us with the words becoming semantic footprints as well as being seen for real by those in the story. I claim that this story is the only story ever been written conveying inchoate terror straight into the room where you read this story. You will have ‘seen the Wendigo’. You will have been the Wendigo. When I Die, When I Go. “…the final Loneliness.”

  4. The Insanity of Jones
    (A Study in Reincarnation)
    Pages 71 – 79

    This starts as a fascinating study indeed, of things behind the curtain, as it were, that some of us see, although we don’t overtly study the occult or theosophy, or even believe in such things. Yet there is a preternatural sense of a power that we have not been able to explain before, and we now realise that this may be the power of past lives, and the meaningful settling of accounts, good and bad. This evokes for us, no doubt, the power of the Internet, i.e. a symptom of such a power, as we ‘meet’ people there who may be part of that reincarnative pattern, a feat of settlement now made electronically easier? But that is just speculation on our part, while this story concerns Jones, who works in insurance a number of years ago and he is fated to become assistant to a manager who is significant in such a reincarnative settlement that Jones sees beyond that curtain that few of us see behind. This sense of connections, similar connections to those within such a phenomenon as this or any gestalt real-time review, I guess, is built up intriguingly in this first section of the story.

    “Thus, while the great majority of men and women left him uninfluenced—since he regarded them as so many souls merely passing with him along the great stream of evolution—there were, here and there, individuals with whom he recognised that his smallest intercourse was of the gravest importance. These were persons with whom he knew in every fibre of his being he had accounts to settle, pleasant or otherwise, arising out of dealings in past lives; and into his relations with these few, therefore, he concentrated as it were the efforts that most people spread over their intercourse with a far greater number. By what means he picked out these few individuals only those conversant with the startling processes of the subconscious memory may say, but the point was that Jones believed the main purpose, if not quite the entire purpose, of his present incarnation lay in his faithful and thorough settling of these accounts, and that if he sought to evade the least detail of such settling, no matter how unpleasant, he would have lived in vain, and would return to his next incarnation with this added duty to perform. For according to his beliefs there was no Chance, and could be no ultimate shirking, and to avoid a problem was merely to waste time and lose opportunities for development.”

  5. Pages 80 – 101
    “…to commune with the Invisibles that were the very sources of his real life and being.”
    Despite its intriguing start, this story degenerates into a run-of-the-mill explication-in-contrivance of that antipathy causing reincarnative retribution by Jones the clerk upon his manager, leading, for me, to an unsatisfyingly melodramatic ending. However, this is compensated for by that sense of the quote above not only serendipitously echoing my earlier thoughts on a prefigured Internet, but also in itself a prefigurement of some Machenesque moments when Jones visits the House that threads his audit trail of past lives. And the retributive force aiding Jones from a previous life is named Thorpe – and with some explicit connection to the ‘Essex Shore’ where I live, I suddenly thought of a nearby town called Thorpe-Le-Soken… And there is a ‘covering in blood’ as soaking upon the punished one… Names, you see, as this story explicitly tells us, do sort of sum up and label…if obliquely.

  6. The Land of Green Ginger
    An engagingly short absurdity involving a shop in the byway of an alley, a bald shopkeeper, a customer who is also a writer, plus recurrencies of reflection in a mirror, a mirror that is for sale and entwined with murderous Fate and Death. Only to be fully understood, for me, in the reincarnative light of the previous story where Jones was a insurance clerk, as is this customer also an insurance clerk, or the character he writes about in this story is an insurance clerk very much like Jones. Insane, or what?

  7. I read THE WILLOWS novella many years ago and again in 2011 when I reviewed it here for Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s massive THE WEIRD anthology. (I show the text of that review of the novella below). Furthermore, this Capuchin Classic book was given to me for my birthday as I had recently reviewed here the important novel by Jeff VanderMeer entitled AREA X (The Southern Reach Trilogy) which, I now see, could be classed, at least in part, as a tribute to THE WILLOWS. Even the unimaginative Swede can see that!
    It is also a novella of enormous strength that can be compared usefully to THE WENDIGO. And to THE INSANITY OF JONES where a leaping upon fiery footsteps is cure for Alzheimers as found by being able to keep in touch with one’s own past lives? But that is my own ‘insanity’ or self-deception speaking, I guess, as such factors often do in many of my dreamcatching reviews…

    “Yet what I felt of dread was no ordinary ghostly fear. It was infinitely greater, stranger, and seemed to arise from some dim ancestral sense of terror more profoundly disturbing than anything I had known or dreamed of. We had “strayed”, as the Swede put it, into some region or some set of conditions where the risks were great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lay close about us. It was a spot held by the dwellers in some outer space, a sort of peep-hole whence they could spy upon the earth, themselves unseen, a point where the veil between had worn a little thin. As the final result of too long a sojourn here, we should be carried over the border and deprived of what we called “our lives”, yet by mental, not physical, processes. In that sense, as he said, we should be the victims of our adventure – a sacrifice.”


    The Willows – Algernon Blackwood

    I. “It was an otter, alive, and out on the hunt; yet it had looked exactly like the body of a drowned man…”

    For me, a welcome opportunity to re-read this weird classic after a number of years. Lonely Literature’s ulitmate ‘genius loci’ (gestalt stätte): the boat trip of the narrator with his ‘unimaginative’ companion (the Swede) along the ill-differentiated Danube between land and water, nature and terror. Here we echo the stream of feral beasts or skulls of earlier stories in this book alongside the patternless, human-uncontrolled surge of currencies and debts that pervade our news today, joining a ‘parent river’ then we become another different unexpected parent-in-waiting of children that were misborn years before we were first alive. Here we have willow-prehensile land and water as a herd or swarm instinct – as accentuated by even Unimagination itself now being impeached by frissons and fears – not Three Men in a Boat with jokey bonhomie, but two men alone together in a clumsy Jungian canoe that is you and me… (5 Nov 11)

    II. & III. “It was we who were the cause of the disturbance,…”

    Not by (a) ‘our’ disturbing the disturbance into existence, but by (b) creating it at source, from the hands of the head-lease author via the creative narrator towards the even more creative reader? The story’s overt implication is (a), but re-reading this story in my later years I now feel it is (b) and – with the wind, the patterings, the heaviness of soul and the shapes emerging from some gaia – all take on a new meaning as I disturb – or create? – the story’s hidden gestalt. (5 Nov 11 – two and a half hours later)

    IV. & V. “Our thoughts make spirals in their world. We must keep them out of our minds at all costs if possible.”

    The above “them” actually being our thoughts themselves (any or all of our thoughts to be kept from our mind!) or is it THEM: the transcendents that lurk like Old Ones beyond the thinning or “veil” (veil or ‘door’, with the swarm of bees or humming gong sound, a la Stephen King’s Todash?) – or the strange disjointed fragments of phrases that make no sense and may be our thoughts disguised? This is all genuinely frightening to the reader who, as I hinted before, is more than implicated by just reading the story – despite the 3-men-in-a-boat laughter that breaks out at one point. Yet, there are three men here after all, the ego, id and nemo, but which is the Swede (cf: ‘the American’ in the Kubin story or ‘the Russian’ in Blackwood’s ‘The Centaur’ novel), which the equally anonymous narrator and which the anonymous victim ‘otter’? There will hopefully come soon my ‘hole in the toe of my shoe’ moment (rather than my ‘hole in the bottom of my canoe’ moment). A revelation, this re-reading, as I imagine the transcendents’ shapes made up of several animals from another ‘monstrous zoo’.

    “The nemo is an evolutionary force, as necessary as the ego. The ego is certainty, what I am; the nemo is potentiality, what I am not. But instead of utilizing the nemo as we would utilize any other force, we allow ourselves to be terrified by it, as primitive man was terrified by lightning. We run screaming from this mysterious shape in the middle of our town, even though the real terror is not in itself, but in our terror at it.”
    – John Fowles 1964 (from ‘The Necessity of Nemo’ in ‘The Aristos’)
    (5 Nov 11 – another 3 hours later)

    NB: ‘The Willows’ seems to be a treatment of self-deception (and indeed the expression ‘self-deception’ in this sense is used in its text). This is appropriate as I am currently reading an academic book by Robert Trivers about ‘self-deception’. (5 Nov 11 – another 30 minutes later)


  8. The Man Who Lived Backwards
    “…life lay between the book covers; it was present, any portion of it accessible by turning back the pages. Its end was vivid at the moment merely because he, Zeitt, focused attention upon that part, that moment. And so, as was usual with him, he realised that his own life, similarly, existed serially, complete, the whole map there, while he was conscious of himself at the moment…”
    This brief haunting story seems to encapsulate the whole tenor of my gestalt real-time reviewing or dreamcatching books, the retrocausal palimpsest, the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist, the ultimate clinching happiness or serendipity where we would otherwise expect a clinging sadness. It also evokes the mirror conceit (or here ‘pier glass’) of this book’s Land of Green Ginger.

  9. Ancient Sorceries
    Pages 177 – 190

    “To unravel a tangle in the very soul of things – and to release a suffering human soul in the process – was with him a veritable passion. And the knots he untied were, indeed, often passing strange.”
    This famous story is well worth the re-read, now with more life behind me than before me. It is told by another ‘unimaginative Swede’ – here named Arthur Vezin – to John Silence, the psychic doctor. That telling is as the previous story’s moment of complete past seriality. A telling of being flustered by brash holidaying British on a French train, and spontaneously alighting at an unknown town to escape them. The subtly glowing text is a honeyed flow of felineness, but more than that, it has isolated the soul that is ‘me’ as if within a drama being performed just for me, disturbing as well as pleasingly calmative, and conveying my lifetime sense of music…
    “And, presently, as he sat lazily melting into its dream, a sound of horns and strings and wood instruments rose to his ears, and the town band began to play at the far end of the crowded terrace below to the accompaniment of a very soft, deep-throated drum. Vezin was very sensitive to music, knew about it intelligently, and had even ventured, unknown to his friends, upon the composition of quiet melodies with low-running chords which he played to himself with the soft pedal when no one was about. And this music floating up through the trees from an invisible and doubtless very picturesque band of the townspeople wholly charmed him. He recognised nothing that they played, and it sounded as though they were simply improvising without a conductor. No definitely marked time ran through the pieces, which ended and began oddly after the fashion of wind through an Aeolian harp. It was part of the place and scene, just as the dying sunlight and faintly breathing wind were part of the scene and hour, and the mellow notes of old-fashioned plaintive horns, pierced here and there by the sharper strings, all half smothered by the continuous booming of the deep drum, touched his soul with a curiously potent spell that was almost too engrossing to be quite pleasant.”

  10. Pages 190 – 202
    I think I may now have stumbled upon a discovery about ‘Ancient Sorceries’ (1908). The scene in this French town’s establishment where Vezin is staying, the eating, the sudden obsession with a fleeting sense of another ‘odour of lions’ (here, they are cats), a ‘strange perfume’, as in the Wendigo, leading here to a pervasiveness of an attractive girl with whom he seems to become obsessed, is a strong reminder of a similar ambiance of eating and staying in a hostel (sanatorium) in Thomas Mann’s famous novel ‘The Magic Mountain’ (1924), where the girl with whom Hans Castorp is similarly obsessed is named Clawdia Chauchat !!
    Hans Castorp also felt Vezin’s fear that “he could not leave!”
    How can any of this have been missed before? Or has it?
    A sense of Robert Aickman’s ‘The Hospice’ story (1975) is also strongly felt here, with which I have compared Mann’s Magic Mountain in a review of the latter some while ago.
    With Vezin’s fancy of “a great curtain”, there is a sense of the Insanity of Jones ‘curtain’, arguably creating a reincarnative thread here, too.
    “The people did nothing directly. They behaved obliquely.”

  11. “Scarcely daring to venture, but following an inner compulsion, he passed behind the statuary, and through the double row of columns beyond. The bronze door of the sanctuary stood open, and the poor soul’s knees all but gave way beneath him at the sight within. Two grey old women, witchlike, with hanging breasts and dugs of fingerlength, were busy there, between flaming braziers, most horribly. They were dismembering a child. In dreadful silence they tore it apart with their bare hands—Hans Castorp saw the bright hair blood-smeared—and cracked the tender bones between their jaws, their dreadful lips dripped blood. An icy coldness held him. He would have covered his eyes and fled, but could not. They at their gory business had already seen him, they shook their reeking fists and uttered curses—soundlessly, most vilely, with the last obscenity, and in the dialect of Hans Castorp’s native Hamburg. It made him sick, sick as never before. He tried desperately to escape; knocked into a column with his shoulder—and found himself, with the sound of that dreadful whispered brawling still in his ears,…” — From THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN by Thomas Mann

    Pages 203 – 232
    “And though the thought of leaving presented itself again and again to his mind, it was each time with less insistence, so that he stayed on from day to day, becoming more and more a part of the sleepy life of this dreamy mediaeval town, losing more and more of his recognisable personality. Soon, he felt, the Curtain within would roll up with an awful rush, and he would find himself suddenly admitted into the secret purposes of the hidden life that lay behind it all. Only, by that time, he would have become transformed into an entirely different being.”
    And so, in this way, ANCIENT SORCERIES brings this whole book to a neat end as a gestalt, as I simply knew it would. Yet some of the Satanic implications, the girl like a ‘guide’ in the lands of the Wendigo, the over the top concupiscent passion and ‘evil’ that ensues, and the later over-neat speculations by Silence bring this separate story in itself to a merely workmanlike conclusion. Yet I am ever haunted by ‘the call of the old’ like a dead monument to once ancient hope, by the Lovecraftian Cats of Ulthar type vision across the rooftops (that ‘unholy exodus’ or reincarnative diaspora), by the reference to ‘inmates’ at this French town’s inn (bringing John Cowper Powys into this web of fiction, as well as Mann and Aickman), and by those who ‘leaped like human beings’ but ‘dropped like animals.’


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