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An Extraordinary Life

by Mike Ashley

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-7867-0928-6

British Mammoth anthologist Ashley (The Mammoth Book of Fantasy, p. 1252, etc.) resurrects the wildly creative Algernon Blackwood, a master of dread and the spine-shudder.

Now forgotten, Blackwood (1869–1952) was roundly hailed in his day as a genius of horror and supernatural fiction. Ashley brings him back to prominence by giving close and intelligent readings of his work, focusing on such classic stories as “The Wendigo,” “The Willows,” and “The Man Whom the Trees Loved.” Much of that work was produced on the fly while Blackwood, an incessant traveler, was traipsing around Europe, America, and Canada. Ashley follows in his footsteps, exploring the gradual unfurling of Blackwood's communion with nature, his exploration of haunted houses, his fascination with esoteric beliefs. Blackwood’s associates at any given time, Ashley suggests, had a fascinating impact on what he was writing. His sense of the wider world can be gleaned from his dealings with various theosophical societies and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a group intrigued by Western hermeticism, Hebrew magic, and the Kabbala, introduced to him by W.B. Yeats. Ashley also conveys Blackwood’s perception of how his stories acted on the imagination with well-chosen quotes: “My idea,” the author declared in 1915, “has been to describe the sense of Wonder which, beginning with Fancy, leads on to bigger wonder which is Spiritual; and, incidentally, to show the wonder of common things.” Though his work was never a great success in the theater, radio and television were natural venues for Blackwood, whose bass voice worked wonders with the often macabre and always otherworldly nature of his stories.

Blackwood comes across as a breath of fresh—if bizarre and spooky—air, an unfettered character that Ashley captures well but thankfully doesn't tether.