Have you read this book?
If John Silence, Physician Extraordinary, the second House of Stratus collection of Algernon Blackwood stories that I’ve read thus far, is any indication of the remaining books in the eight book series, I’m going to be very busy reading early 20th century ghost stories for quite some time to come.
Included in this stylishly produced collection (I love how House of Stratus designs its book covers) are five stories of the supernatural featuring Blackwood’s enigmatic psychic doctor John Silence. My personal favorite — and the darkest tale by far — was “Secret Worship,” a story about an aging English silk merchant on his way home from a business trip through Southern Germany. Being so close to an old, strict, religious school he attended more than 30 years ago fills the man, Harris, with memories of his youth and he decides to revisit the secluded school up in the mountains and perhaps even meet some of the Brothers who teach there. Stopping at an inn nearby for a drink before traveling onward, Harris starts up a conversation with a Catholic priest who warns the aging merchant to stay away from the now abandoned school.
Harris decides that the priest is either demented or prejudice of the school’s Protestant ties, so he continues onward. He reaches the old school as the sun is setting and is greeted at the door by a black robed Brother who, although gracious and happy to meet an old student, is strangely sinister. Harris is brought inside the school where he meets a dozen or so Brothers who are all very excited that Harris has come to the school “unconditionally.” As the evening progresses, Harris begins to realize that these Brothers are in fact undead demon worshippers and when he tries to leave, he finds out that he is going to be the sacrifice for a Dark Mass. I don’t want to spoil any fun, but John Silence shows up in the nick of time and what Harris finds out later about his old religious school is quite surprising indeed!
I also enjoyed “The Camp of the Dog” for its startling, almost romantic, ending. On an extended summer camping trip to a remote island in the Baltic sea, a small group of people — including Reverend Tim Maloney, his wife and his 22-year old daughter Joan — discover what the wild can do to a person’s psyche. Also on the trip is Peter Sangree, an unassuming student of sorts of the Reverend, who is also madly in love with his daughter! After weeks of rejecting and ignoring Peter, a strange dog-like animal begins scratching at Joan’s tent in the middle of the night…
“Ancient Sorceries” was another great story centering around Arthur Vezin, a quiet, unassuming man with an incredible story. While on a train in northern France headed home from a vacation, Vezin has the sudden, uncontrollable urge to get off the train. As he is disembarking, another passenger warns him in French something about sleeping and cats. Vezin disregards the advice and continues on towards a quiet little hill town to find an inn to stay overnight. There is something wrong with the people of the town — with the whole town itself — but Vezin can’t quite figure it out.
After a pleasant night’s sleep, Vezin can’t make himself leave in the morning. Something is inexplicably holding him there. When the proprietress’ beautiful daughter begins to seduce Vezin to stay, he vows to uncover the mysteries of the townspeople — with terrifying results.
If I had one criticism (albeit a small one) it’s the overlapping of stories within the collections. Two stories — “Ancient Sorceries” and “Nemesis of Fire” — appeared in Ancient Sorceries and Other Stories as well as John Silence, Physician Extraordinary. And while this happens all the time in the publishing industry, stories are constantly being repackaged and re-marketed, it’s still one of my pet peeves.
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) has been called the foremost supernatural fictionist of all time, and I’m inclined to agree. Although some of Blackwood’s stories are more than a century old, they easily stand the test of time. It’s a shame that more people don’t know about this brilliant writer.
Paul Goat Allen is the editor of Barnes & Noble’s Explorations science fiction/fantasy book review and is the author of Burning Sticks, Old Winding Way and Warlock Dreams.