By Kenneth Payne
Algernon Blackwood [1869-1951] was a prolific and popular author of tales of the weird and the supernatural, although he resented having become best known as “the ghost man.” He was at pains to clarify that his main interest was not so much in ghosts but rather in what he termed “the Extension of Human Faculty,” in other words (as he put it) in supersensitive “faculties which under exceptional stimulus, register beyond the normal gamut of seeing, hearing, feeling.” Blackwood wrote in an early Edwardian context of growing interest in psychic phenomena and new forms of psychological inquiry. My discussion concerns his story of 1914, The Damned, a complex narrative that raises questions about the reliability (or the unreliability) of his narrating character, who is seemingly stimulated into extreme forms of extra-sensory perception. I argue that the story may justly be recognised as a significant contribution to the early modernist movement.
Keywords: Supernatural, terror, clairvoyance, clairaudience, unreliable (narrator), faculties (human), perception (extra-sensory)
As a popular and very prolific author of ghost stories and tales of the supernatural and the weird, Algernon Blackwood came to lament the fact that “the classification of ghost-stories has stuck to me closer than a brother, and even when the B.B.C. ask for a story it must be, preferably, of the ‘creepy’ kind.” He resented having become known as “the ghost man”(he called it “almost a derogatory classification”) but that sensationalised soubriquet would prove impossible for him to shake off altogether. Writing in 1938 (in his Introduction to a collection titled, Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood) he was at pains to clarify that
this alleged interest in ghosts I should more accurately define as an interest in the Extension of Human Faculty . . . My interest in psychic matters has always been the interest in questions of extended or expanded consciousness. If a ghost is seen, what is it interests me less than what sees it? Do we possess faculties which, under exceptional stimulus, register beyond the normal gamut of seeing, hearing, feeling? That such faculties may exist in the human being and occasionally manifest is where my interest has always lain. (xiv)
Blackwood’s concern with “the Extension of Human Faculty” was not altogether original, of course. As Sausman notes, it was Frederic Myers in his Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903) who had already affirmed that “beyond each end of our conscious spectrum extends a range of faculty and perception, exceeding the known range, but as yet indistinctly guessed.” In many of his stories, as Blackwood put it, “there is usually an average man who, either through a flash of terror or of beauty, becomes stimulated into extra-sensory experience” (xiv). In those circumstances, he insisted, what he called “a common-place mind” may become clairvoyant or “clairaudient” or both, so that seeing things or hearing things (even if only momentarily) may become an expression of a subliminal state of consciousness, an expanded hyper-insight into the deep structure that underlies consciousness and reality itself rather than mere pathological delusion. “And this, I submit,” Blackwood added, “travels a little further than the manufacture of the homespun ‘ghost story’” (xiv). Blackwood wrote at an early Edwardian stage in the development of the ghost story when new interest in psychic phenomena and new forms of psychological inquiry had begun to redirect the genre into narratives involving different forms of hallucination, extrasensory perception, and ambiguities of meaning. In Blackwood’s case, the indeterminacy sometimes extended to the reliability (or the unreliability) of his narrating character. A striking version of this thematic may be found in The Damned, one of Blackwood’s longest short stories, a remarkable and complex tour de force published in 1914.
The Damned is a ghost story without a ghost (in the classic definition, at least), without the spectral encounters or any of the other more lurid paranormal trappings commonly found in more conventional ghost stories of the period. In The Damned there is not a poltergeist in sight. Blackwood’s ghosts were usually sensed rather than seen, kept invisibly in the wings or blurred into the background. But, if a ghost-like figure (something not quite ghostly) should be seen, for example, it might come in the ethereal form of something like the silvery and seductive “child of the snow” in The Glamour of the Snow (1912), or the mysterious spirit girl in green who leads the narrator towards the stars into his own death in The Dance of Death (1927) – one of his most impressive studies in atmosphere and in the subject’s “Extension of Human Faculty.” The inspiration for The Damned was clearly autobiographical. In his Episodes Before Thirty , Blackwood describes his father as “a leader in the evangelical movement” who “renounced the world, the flesh, the devil and all their works. … He became a teetotaller and non-smoker, wrote devotional books, spoke in public, and held drawing-room prayer meetings, the Bible always in his pocket, communion with God always in his heart” (8). According to Episodes, it was his discovery of theosophy that freed the young Blackwood from the grip of his father’s evangelical dogma. “Though my father’s beliefs had cut deep enough to influence me for many years to come, their dread, with the terror of a personal Satan and an actual Hell, grew less from that moment” (11). In The Damned, the belief in a personal Satan and an actual Hell are embodied in the looming figure of the late Samuel Franklyn, Esq., the wealthy banker-philanthropist and previous owner of the capacious Sussex countryside mansion to which the narrator and his sister (“a humdrum couple of quasi-artists” and “unbelieving vagabonds”) have been invited by Franklyn’s widow, Mabel. The invitation is apparently merely social, but the invitees soon deduce that Mabel has an ulterior motive involving the interpretation and eradication of oppressive and malign energies still active in the house in the wake of Franklyn’s demise. In that particular sense, The Damned becomes more specifically the narrative of a house (and especially a garden) haunted rather by “dark and ugly” age-old influences or ideologies than by any one individual – although Bill, the narrator, does refer to them collectively as the Shadow. As he puts it, Franklyn had been a renowned revivalist and a spellbinding public orator who had “spoken fervidly of heaven, and terrifyingly of sin, hell and damnation . . . [and who] regarded theaters, ballrooms, and racecourses as the vestibule of that brimstone lake of whose geography he was as positive as of his great banking offices in the City. … [he] bulked large in the world of doing good, a broad and stately stone in the rampart against evil. And his heart was genuinely kind and soft for others – who believed as he did” (136-137). Lest we should still be in any doubt as to Bill’s hostile opinion of Franklyn, he adds that the great man
was as narrow as a telegraph wire and unbending as a church pillar; he was intensely selfish; intolerant as an officer of the Inquisition, his bourgeois soul constructed a revolting scheme of heaven that was reproduced in miniature in all he did and planned. Faith was the sine qua non of salvation, and by ‘faith’ he meant belief in his own particular view of things ‘which faith, except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.’ All the world but his own small, exclusive sect must be damned eternally – a pity, but alas, inevitable. (137)
In Franklyn, Blackwood presents a figure dedicated to a version of religious belief which is essentially coercive, punitive, vindictive, and sadistic.
On a more superficial level, it might be said, the novella plays out an ideological struggle between the oppressive and suffocating force of the late Franklyn’s life-denying evangelical dogma and the narrator’s (we know him only as Bill) “artist’s point of view that a creed, cut to measure and carefully dried, was an ugly thing, and that a dogma to which believers must subscribe or perish everlastingly was a barbarism resting upon cruelty” (135). To that extent, The Damned is an apparently progressive and enlightened text in that the dark residues infecting the house of horror will eventually be detected and expunged (apparently). It should be added that, professionally, the narrator writes and lectures on aesthetics. His present project is the writing of “an absorbing article on Comparative Aesthetic Values in the Blind and Deaf” – a title that will sound ironically apt in view of later events and the ways in which both faculties will come under scrutiny on the grounds of their potential unreliability. And as far as the narrator is concerned, we should note also that he primes himself in anticipation of the uncanny experience that is to follow, preparing himself mentally for a heightened level of reception of the oppressive and enclosing atmosphere and unsettling suggestions which he soon comes to experience. Even before he has dismounted the motor bringing him from the railway station to the mansion, Bill notes how “ivy climbed about the opulent red-brick walls, but climbed neatly and with disfiguring effect, sham as on a prison . . . about the porch it was particularly thick, smothering a seventeenth-century lamp with a contrast that was quite horrible” (146). Inside the house (this is Bill’s second visit), he finds the building “oppressive, silent, still,” and he adds that “great catacombs occurred to me, things beneath the ground, imprisonment and capture” (151). As it turns out, an accurate premonition of the terrifying hallucinations, both visual and auditory – if they really are only hallucinations – that he is shortly to experience. It is surely no accident that Bill uses the term “catacombs,” given its associations with death, entrapment, and entombment. The catacombs have somehow lodged themselves already in Bill’s imagination – and this is before anything of the uncanny or the horrific has been seen, heard, or felt.
I have said that The Damned is a ghost story without a ghost. But that is not altogether true. Blackwood was a master at subtly blurring boundaries between the natural and the supernatural (as he does most skilfully in The Willows , which remains probably his best-known story). The same strategy operates in The Damned. Franklyn may have ascended to his personal Heaven, but he remains an oppressive if invisible presence, almost tangibly in occupation of the mansion, and has left signs of the grimly fanatical ideology he promoted when alive. There is, for example, the dominating portrait of Franklyn in which he looked like “some pompous Heavenly Butler who denied to all the world, and to us in particular, the right of entry without presentation cards signed by his hand as proof that we belonged to his own exclusive set. The majority, to his deep grief, and in spite of all his prayers on their behalf, must burn and ‘perish everlastingly’” (154). Ten days into his visit, Bill has come closer to an understanding and an explanation of what he describes as “the prison feeling the place breathed out.” The portrait of Franklyn in the dining room “stalked everywhere,” he says,
hid behind every tree, peered down upon me from the peaked ugliness of the bourgeois towers, and left the impress of its powerful hand upon every bed of flowers. ‘You must not do this, you must not do that,’ went past me through the air. ‘You must not leave these narrow paths,’ said the rigid iron railings of black. ‘You shall not walk here,’ was written on the lawns. ‘Keep to the steps,’ ‘Don’t pick the flowers; make no noise of laughter, singing, dancing,’ was placarded all over the rose-garden, and ‘Trespassers will be – not prosecuted but – destroyed’ hung from the crest of monkey tree and holly. Guarding the ends of each artificial terrace stood gaunt, implacable policemen, warders, jailers. ‘Come with us,’ they chanted, ‘or be damned eternally.’ (165)
Bill is nothing if not exceptionally impressionable and acutely receptive when it comes to the malign spirit of place alive in The Towers [as the mansion is known]. We notice how often at different points in the narrative he feels “bewilderment,” has odd “fancies” (“the deepening shadows entered the room, I fancied, from the grounds below”), experiences what he calls “curious flashes” of insight into the existence of the Shadow, denies the evidence of his own senses, or, in broad daylight, finds himself suddenly in what he calls nightmarish “reverie” – including a waking vision in which he “sees” himself and his sister swimming through the water of the overbearing Shadow (“a manifestation of hate”) in order to save his hostess from drowning (actually a clairvoyant preview of a climactic moment of high drama later in the narrative in which Mabel is very near being lured down into the depths by the odious housekeeper, Mrs Marsh) (163). At one early point Bill admits that he “had been but a short hour in the house – big, comfortable, luxurious house – but had experienced this sense of being unsettled, unfixed, fluctuating – a kind of impermanence that transient lodgers in hotels must feel, but that a guest in a friend’s home ought not to feel . . . ” (150). In the same context, more dramatically, he experiences “a curious sharp desire to leave, to escape” (151). With his finely tuned sensitivity to impression and to atmosphere, and with his seemingly level-headed and sceptical attitude toward the possible sources of the unsettling feeling of “pain and strife and terror” that he finds to permeate the mansion, it seems only appropriate that he should take on the role of investigator and [depending on what he is able to discover] exorcist (159). In the process, I will suggest, the focus of the narrative will shift to questions around the issues of narratorial perception and reliability. Bill will find himself cast as a very unlikely modern/ist figure, increasingly flustered and bewildered, in that his own sense of self will be (permanently) undermined and disrupted by the events that follow.
The opening stage of Bill’s investigations takes him outside the mansion and into the garden, where, first, he experiences a disturbing distortion of what might be called his normal physiological powers of sight. “Not that facts had changed,” he attempts to explain,
or natural details altered in the grounds – this was impossible – but that I noticed for the first time various aspects I had not noticed before – trivial enough, yet for me, just then, significant. Some I remembered from previous days; others I saw now as I wandered to and fro, uneasy, uncomfortable, – almost, it seemed, watched by someone who took note of my impressions. The details were so foolish, the total result so formidable. I was half aware that others tried hard to make me see. It was deliberate. (178)
The references in this passage to a watching “someone” and to “others” attempting to influence his perception offer the first indications of Bill’s dawning recognition that he is now personally subject to and threatened by sinister energies, unseen but intrusive and very much felt. Also (as per Blackwood’s remarks regarding his specific interest in “the Extension of Human Faculty”), Bill is stimulated into what amounts to a form of “extra-sensory experience” (in particular, what Blackwood refers to as a “clairaudient” capacity) whereby he will shortly hear – or says he hears – a sound of “a great volume, roaring and booming thunderously, far away, and below me” (186). The subsequent passage confirms both that disconcerting awareness and also the disturbance (or adjustment) apparently undergone by Bill’s optical powers:
I saw, as with the eyes of a child, what I can only call a goblin garden – house, grounds, trees, and flowers belonged to a goblin world that children enter through the pages of their fairy tales. And what made me first aware of it was the whisper of the wind behind me, so that I turned with a sudden start, feeling that something had moved closer. An old ash tree, ugly and ungainly, had been artificially trained to form an arbor at one end of the terrace that was a tennis lawn, and the leaves of it now went rustling together, swishing as they rose and fell. I looked at the ash tree, and felt as though I had passed that moment between doors into this goblin garden that crouched behind the real one . . .” (179)
Momentarily, the “goblin garden” seems to have become menacingly sentient, the smaller vegetable growth now “impish, half-malicious.” It is now “a monstrous garden,” in Bill’s words. We are also introduced to Bill’s emerging conviction that the upper surface conceals what he describes as “a deeper layer perhaps” which his artist sister had already entered when her garden sketches [which had usually featured a “pagan liberty and joy”] had been strangely tainted and deformed into something “adulterated” and “vile” and “un-pure” – and also most likely obscene (although that is left only suggested, discretely) (170). It had been his sister, in fact, who had earlier maintained that Franklyn’s oppressive influence was only the most recent and that there were other influences in the “deeper layers …. underneath,” which struggled to dominate the rest (172). Presented with his sister’s preposterous sounding interpretation, the eminently sceptical, rationalistic, and denying Bill had been eager “to shoot the entire business into the rubbish heap where ignorance and superstition discharge their poisonous weeds” (173). Superstition or not, Bill nevertheless confesses to his own sensation of the “prison atmosphere” and his strong impulse “to explain, discover, get it out of me somehow, and so get rid of it” (176). Bill’s garden stroll becomes increasingly traumatic, leaving him perplexed and uncertain as to the accuracy of his own perceptions and his state of mind. He says:
life everywhere appeared to me as blocked from the full delivery of its sweet and lovely message … that trees and flowers and other natural details should share the same deficiency perplexed my logical soul, and even dismayed it . . . I stood and stared, then moved about, and stood and stared again. Everywhere was this mockery of a sinister, unfinished aspect. I sought in vain to recover my normal point of view. My mind had found this goblin garden and wandered to and fro in it, unable to escape . . . The place grimaced at me. (180)
Disoriented and intimidated, our hitherto common-sensical and reasonable narrator (although certainly impressionable, too) finds himself deprived of his “normal point of view” (visual and intellectual), now supplanted by a darker and distorting ocular perception.
Sooner or later, I think, some questions will have to be asked: exactly how are we meant to interpret the many passages like this in a story like this, which veers constantly between the natural and the apparently supernatural until the borderline that usually demarcates them becomes indistinct? Are Bill’s unsettling experiences objectively and literally “true” and so to be taken at face value, or are they only the product of a form of hysteria perhaps, or a brief lapse from objective to subjective perception? Or could Bill be hallucinating? Or is Bill perhaps just not always to be trusted? The same questions will have to be asked about two or three later episodes, in one of which, for example, Bill will actually seem to be contradicting himself as to the terrible sounds he has just heard and which he describes so vividly as being “not actually heard at all” and “felt rather than definitely heard” (186). In other words, Bill has felt but not heard the sounds. Shortly after this, in another episode in the garden, he describes how “a large black bird swooped down in front of me,” but moments later will admit that “actually there had been no bird at all . . . but my mood of apprehension and dismay had formed the vivid picture in my thoughts” (191). He would seem to be doubting the evidence of his own ears and eyes. In which case hearing is apparently not believing. Bill recalls the close encounter with the bird in some detail, how it “dropped from overhead, swerved abruptly to one side as it caught sight of me, and flapped heavily towards the shrubberies on the left of the terraces, where it disappeared into the gloom. It flew very low, very close” (189). But in his next breath, Bill questions whether there had actually been anything at all – “I am inclined to think now that the large dark thing I saw, riding the dusk, probably bird of prey, was in some sense a symbol of it [the Shadow] in my mind” (191). More particularly, what are we to make of Bill’s bizarre envisioning of the goblin garden itself, in which the extremities of the trees (to his child’s eye) “all drooped and achieved this hint of goblin distortion – in the growth, that is, of the last few years. What ought to have been fairy, joyful, natural, was instead unhomely to the verge of the grotesque. Spontaneous expression was arrested. My mind perceived a goblin garden, and was caught in it” (180). Inasmuch as Bill is simply re-viewing aspects of the garden which he says he has noted before (but not taken notice of or attached any particular significance to), it would appear that he is neither hallucinating nor experiencing a dream-vision (for want of a less ambiguous term) and that this is in reality a case of his perceiving optical fact rather than optical illusion. If so, then Blackwood is asking us to suspend enough belief to allow us to imagine that the drooping and distorted trees have been directly deformed and thwarted as the result of the late Franklyn’s unnatural and joyless influence (the distortion of the garden growth had set in, we are told, in the previous few years following Franklyn’s demise) that has persisted after his passing. This is assuredly not the most satisfying explanation of Bill’s unsettling experience, but Blackwood was never prepared (in the texts themselves, at any rate) to offer restricting and categorical (and credible) explanations of such highly subjective and indefinable mental phenomena. If the Gothic often generates indeterminacy and is characterized by hauntedness, disruption and excess, then in its own way The Damned must stand as a prime example of the genre. But I would maintain, nevertheless, that Bill does serve here as something close to Blackwood’s “average man” (to quote Blackwood again) jolted on this occasion by “a flash of terror” into “extra-sensory experience” outside “the normal gamut of seeing, hearing, feeling” (Best Ghost Stories xiv). All of these faculties in Bill will undergo a magnification and amplification in the course of what ensues.
Eventually, Bill is able to conclude (although it is not explained exactly how) that “house and grounds were not haunted merely; they were the arena of past thinking and feeling, perhaps of terrible, impure beliefs, each striving to suppress the others, yet no one of them achieving supremacy because no one of them was strong enough, no one of them was true” (192). Bill gropes his way toward a deeper realisation of the meaning of this new perception of “the strife of frustrate impulse, ugly, hateful, sinful” energized beneath the layer next below the goblin (190). In a state of near hysteria, he says, “in some part of me where Reason lost her hold, there rose upon me then another and a darker thing that caught me by the throat and made me shrink with a sense of revulsion that touched actual loathing” (183). Realising that “if I lingered I should be caught,” Bill is able momentarily to “glimpse” into this deeper stratum. We are given no details as to what he sees. It is suggested, rather. But it is without doubt horrible, “vile” and “hideous” (183). He refers to “the redness in my thoughts [having] transferred itself to colour my surroundings thickly and appallingly – with blood. This lurid aspect drenched the garden, smeared the terraces, lent to the very soil a tinge as of sacrificial rites, that choked the breath in me, while it seemed to fix me to the earth my feet so longed to leave” (183). This is clearly a critical moment. Although now apparently captured in spite of himself, Bill feels at the same time
a dreadful curiosity as of fascination – I wished to stay. Between these contrary impulses I think I actually reeled a moment, transfixed by a fascination of the Awful. Through the lighter goblin veil I felt myself sinking down, down, down into this turgid layer that was so much more violent and so much more ancient. The upper layer, indeed, seemed fairy by comparison with this terror born of the lust for blood, thick with the anguish of human sacrificial victims. (183)
In a passage such as this, Bill acts as a witness, someone who, at the very least, now finds himself able to describe something of what is on the other side of the threshold. Attempting to account for his shocking attraction to the Awful, Bill can only attribute it to some “atavistic strain, hidden deep within me, [that] had been touched into vile response, giving this flash of intuitive comprehension” which easily overpowers “the coatings laid on by civilization” and which are “probably thin enough in all of us,” Bill adds (184). It was by no means exceptional for a Blackwood protagonist like Bill (modern, enlightened, and “having no so-called religious beliefs”) to respond to an almost overpowering urge imaginatively to enter into and witness some bloody and occult ancient ritual activated or re-energized by human agency. All the more shocking and unexpected, then, when the ghastly scenes momentarily “seen” by Bill are linked to and embedded in the picturesque and manicured garden landscape of a rural Sussex mansion most recently occupied by a modern Christian cult. In this scene, I would suggest, we find Blackwood’s (close to) “average man” becoming “stimulated into extra-sensory experience” by “a flash of terror” (184). It is important to note that Blackwood’s Extension of Human Faculty is not always to illuminate the beautiful but sometimes to uncover the horrible. Almost immediately after the revelation, the sun and wind return and “something very atrocious surged back into the depths, carrying with it a thought of tangled woods, of big stones standing in a circle, motionless, white figures, the one form bound with ropes, and the ghastly gleam of the knife. Like smoke upon a battlefield, it rolled away…” (184). The circle of stones, the “white figures,” and the gleaming knife speak for themselves, of course (Frances will explain later that the site on which the modern house is built had been Druid in ancient times). Brief though his horrific glimpse into the heart of darkness (those “depths of fire and blood”) has been, Bill has been left deeply and permanently marked by it nevertheless. For him “the common world” will be “ominous now for ever . . . for the knowledge of what its past had built upon. In street, in theatre, in the festivities of friends, in music-room or playing field, even indeed in church – how could the memory of what I had seen and felt not leave its hideous trace? The very structure of my Thought, it seemed to me, was stained” (184). So much, it would seem then, for what he had earlier ridiculed as merely “ignorance and superstition?” I would suggest that such a passage is actually subversive, for one thing, in the way it contradicts and invalidates the fatuity of belief in any complacent and comfortable assumptions about “the common world” of modern civilization and its purported values. In as much as The Damned is a decidedly Gothic text in its bloody excavations and violent narrative extremes, this passage reveals an unstable superstructure as the foundations [of modern civilization] are exposed in Bill’s ghastly vision. Of course, Bill would certainly not be alone among other modern/ist fictional protagonists to have experienced such a jolting shock of recognition and felt the horror, the horror.
As if Bill’s fleeting glimpse down into the “depths of fire and blood” has not been disconcerting enough, what follows immediately elevates the tone and tempo of the narrative beyond the merely odd or bizarre. As he turns from the garden towards the house, he becomes aware behind him
of a tumultuous, awful rush . . . The ugliness, the pain, the striving to escape the whole negative and suppressed agony that was the Place, focused that second into a concentrated effort to produce a result. It was a tempest of long-frustrate desire that heaved at me, surging appallingly behind me like an anguished mob. I was in the act of crossing the frontier into my normal self again, when it came, catching fearfully at my skirts. I might use an entire dictionary of descriptive adjectives yet come no nearer to it than this – the conception of a huge assemblage determined to escape with me, or to snatch me back among themselves. My legs trembled for an instant, and I caught my breath – then turned and ran as fast as possible up the ugly terraces. (185)
It is important to recognise the significance of this moment (which is an instance of Blackwood’s “flash of terror” having induced the Extension of Human Faculty and not the “flash of beauty,” needless to say). In terms of plot, for one thing, Bill is now able to identify himself as what he calls “the combining link” through which it (the “huge assemblage determined to escape with me”) is desperately seeking release from the depths, presumably through Bill’s sympathetic intervention. The “huge assemblage,” of course, are the Damned themselves, as Bill now deduces (he thinks the beginning of what he calls “an awful thing,” the first two words of the unfinished phrase being ‘The Damned!’). For Bill now to reach this conclusion amounts to an admission that what he had earlier dismissed so confidently as “the rubbish heap where ignorance and superstition discharge their poisonous weeds” will no longer quite do as a description or definition of whatever it is that lies beneath and beyond (173). For with whatever it is that does lie in the depths, Bill now finds himself on the very edge of that rubbish heap, metaphorically, an underworld founded on and shaped by the darkness of ignorance and the violent terrors of superstition. He may not actually see the Damned (but in the contrary and shifting dynamics between the real and the illusory that informs the narrative, how can we really be so sure?); the nearest he will come soon after is when he imagines their “beseeching faces that fought to press themselves upon my vision, yearning yet hopeless eyes, lips scorched and dry, mouths that opened to implore but found no craved delivery in actual words …” (207). But he certainly does sense and feel their clamouring presence in a powerfully immediate and near-physical way – immediate enough for him to feel their desperate clutching at his clothing and to put him to flight, literally. Bill’s account is so vivid that we too as good as see the hopeless and terrified faces like those other sufferers depicted in Breugel’s The Triumph of Death, for example.
At this point in the narrative, with his protagonist fleeing in terror as if for his life, Blackwood intensifies the range of Bill’s Extended Human Faculty. Bill acquires a form of clairaudience, so that he can declare that “there was sound in it,” referring to the wild and frantic rushing that he senses behind him (186). “I know full well it was subjective,” he admits,
yet somehow sound was in it – a great volume, roaring and booming thunderously, far away, and below me . . . it drove behind me like a hurricane as I ran towards the house, and the sound of it I can only liken to those terrible undertones you may hear standing beside Niagara. They lie behind the mere crash of the falling flood, within it somehow, not audible to all – felt rather than definitely heard. (186)
Bill struggles for a satisfactory definition of a complex auditory experience which seems to defy classification – an experience in which sound is more felt than heard. But there can be no doubt that the source of the sound is subterranean, for Bill adds
it seemed to echo back from the surface of those sagging terraces as I flew across their sloping ends, for it was somehow underneath them. It was in the rustle of the wind that stirred the skirts of the drooping wellingtonias. The beds of formal flowers passed it on to the creepers, red as blood, that crept over the unsightly building. (186)
In a narrative revolving so significantly around a series of ambiguities and prevarications, involving repeated qualifications and evasive rephrasings as to what has or has not literally been heard, this is as definitive as we could expect. What is also certain is that Bill arrives on the veranda to join his sister and his hostess “shaken in my soul,” as he confesses. If Bill expects confirmation and corroboration as to the source of the mysterious noise (and also, therefore, of his own balanced state of mind) Blackwood leaves him frustrated, as all three take part in a form of group denial and collective amnesia, as they cast around for plausible explanations and rationalisations. Bill himself says it must have been the wind, his sister suggests distant thunder, and Bill once again “big guns at sea … forts or cruisers practising.” It is left to Mabel, their hostess (who has heard the noise before, as has his sister, Bill becomes sure) to liken it to the sound of “huge doors closing . . . enormous metal doors shutting against a mass of people clamouring to get out” (188). In other words, exactly Bill’s own description during his traumatic experience moments before. With this image Mabel also echoes Bill’s reference to “the clanging of an iron gate” which had earlier seemed to cut short the unfinished phrase as he fled the garden in terror (185).
Significantly, all three characters admit to having heard the Noise at various times. Bill’s sister tells him that it was “like thunder. At first I thought it was thunder. But a minute later it came again – from underground. It’s appalling” (198). “We said foolish, obvious things,” says Bill, “that neither of us believed in for a second. The roof had fallen in, there were burglars downstairs, the safes had been blown open. It was to comfort each other as children do that we said these things . . . ” (198). Bill certainly seems in no doubt that the Noise was real enough. As he returns soon after from investigating the lower level of the house from which the sound seems to have emanated, he says
the great dim thunder caught me, pouring up with prodigious volume so that it seemed to roll out from another world. It shook the very bowels of the building . . . There was strength and hardness in it, as of metal reverberation […] ‘That is the Noise,’ my thought ran stupidly, and I think I whispered it aloud; ‘the Doors are closing.’ The wind outside against the windows was audible, so it cannot have been really loud, yet to me it was the biggest, deepest sound I have ever heard, but so far away, with such awful remoteness in it, that I had to doubt my own ears at the same time. It seemed underground – the rumbling of earthquake gates that shut remorselessly within the rocky Earth – stupendous ultimate thunder. They were shut off from help again. The doors had closed. (210)
But, moments later, the protective Bill reassures his anxious sister with a necessary lie: “‘All is quiet and undisturbed downstairs,’ he tells her. ‘May God forgive me!’” (211). More self-contradiction, more discrete denial.
Bill might turn out to be a less than fully reliable narrator but he makes no attempt to hide his own utter confusion when faced with his sister’s near-hysterical description of the Noise as she claims to have heard it moments earlier (but which, on this occasion, in the middle of the night, Bill has not heard). Overcome with horror at her description, Bill says, “I believe I clapped both hands upon her mouth, though when I realised things clearly again, I found they were covering my own ears instead. It was a moment of unutterable horror. The revulsion I felt was actually physical” (200). From this point in the narrative, Bill becomes aware of more sounds which contribute to his fear and apprehension in what he calls “the horrid tumult” now surrounding him. Sensing the close presence of the Damned (or the Others, as she calls them), Mabel gnashes her teeth in terror, producing “a hard and horrible sound” (201). Bill refers to the “dreadful little sound” that now accompanies him on his way down to the lower floor.
“I believe my own teeth chattered,” he continues. “It seemed all over the house […] in the empty halls that opened into the long passages towards the music-room, and even in the grounds outside the building. From the lawns and barren garden, from the ugly terraces themselves, it rose into the night, and behind it came a curious driving sound, incomplete, unfinished, as of wailing for deliverance, the wailing of desperate souls in anguish, the dull and dry beseeching of hopeless spirits in prison” (202).
Bill relates the dreadful scene with a convincing and near credible precision. And yet, no sooner has he ended his description than he is able to account for the sound in entirely logical and reasonable terms as nothing more than the product of his agitation. “That I could have taken the little sound from the bedroom where I actually heard it, and spread it thus over the entire house and grounds, is evidence, perhaps, of the state my nerves were in. The wailing assuredly was in my mind alone” (202). In other words, it had all been in his head. He had only been hearing things, then. Bill’s explanation is plausible enough, but the “could have” and “perhaps” are worth noting. They would seem to suggest something less than complete certainty.
In the closing stages of the story some of the unresolved issues raised by the narrative are addressed. One of them, of course, concerns the Noise – which all three characters have confirmed that they heard but have offered plausible if unlikely “natural” explanations as to the source, as I have earlier referred to. This is a critical matter, not least because it has a close bearing on Bill’s balance of mind, his psychological condition, and his grip (or lack of) on reality. On a more technical level, it also has to do with his reliability as witness as well as narrator. He adamantly rejects the idea that he may simply have been delusional (not only about the Noise but also about several other incidents – such as the uncanny arrival and disappearance of the black bird and the subsequent sudden appearance of the woman in black, the ominous Mrs. Marsh, the housekeeper, at the very spot in the garden where the bird had just vanished in the undergrowth). Bill declares that
the entire adventure seemed so incredible, here, in this twentieth century – but yet delusion, that feeble word, did not occur once in the comments my mind suggested though did not utter. I remembered that forbidding Shadow too; my sister’s water-colours; the vanished personality of our hostess; the inexplicable thundering Noise … I shivered in spite of my own ‘emancipated’ cast of mind. (213)
Listening to his sister’s “incredible” assertion that Mabel has “lost her soul” and is “seeking” it below, with the clamouring throng of the Damned, Bill insists in exasperation that Mabel’s terror “cannot be transferable to us …. It certainly is not convertible into feelings, sights and – even sounds!” (214). Frances offers a clearly supernatural explanation. If anything, she sounds more delusional than brother Bill (when judged by his “emancipated” twentieth-century standards). In Frances’ narrative he finds “so odd a mixture of possible truth and incredible, unacceptable explanation in it all: so much confirmed, yet so much left darker than before” (215). But, he says, “a moment’s common-sense returned to me. I faced her” (216). What then follows is a confrontation of sorts, in which the frustrated Bill attempts to corner his sister into an admission that the Noise was the one thing that was indisputably real (after all, it had been Frances herself, “deathly pale” and distraught, who had roused her sleeping brother in the night to listen to the Noise which had woken her but which he had not heard). “And the Noise?” Bill asks her, “the roar of the closing doors? We have all heard that! Is that subjective too?” Bill’s questions come as a plea for confirmation of what has already been collectively agreed on in any case, but Frances does not give him the confirmation he had asked for: “What noise?” she answers, “What closing doors?” (216).
To the very end of The Damned, the narrator continues to swerve between overwhelming flashes of terror (to return to Blackwood’s phrase) and banal explanation. Usually, Bill settles for the reasonable and common-sense option, albeit half-heartedly and with misgivings. In this case, as he helps his sister physically to drag Mabel away from the beckoning figure of the dreadful Mrs March waiting to lead her down to the catacombs, Bill will later normalize the “horrible scene” as merely a nightmare vision. He says, “[t]hings that happen in the night always seem exaggerated and distorted when the sun shines brightly next morning; no one can reconstruct the terror of a nightmare afterwards, nor comprehend why it seemed so overwhelming at the time” (220). True, up to a point, and all very comforting. But, nightmare or not, Blackwood’s enigmatic narrative actually derives its energy from those traumatising moments of terror in which Bill comes face to face with the Damned, is pursued by them, and is witness to their intolerable suffering (which Bill is never really able to explain away convincingly with logic or reason, try as he may). As mundane life in what he calls “this house of the damned” returns immediately to normality (without reflection, discussion, or debate) and as the “horrible scene” is never referred to again in another conspiracy of group denial or deliberate amnesia, Bill confesses that “some protective barrier had fallen into ruins round me, so that Terror stalked behind the general collapse, feeling for me through all the gaping fissures” (222). This is a quintessentially Gothic metaphor, it might be said. As far as Blackwood’s narrator is concerned, the “Extension of Human Faculty” has confirmed Terror (for Bill, at least) as a permanent if more often suppressed condition of social reality and of existence itself.
*This work was Supported by Kuwait University Research Grant No. [AE02/13]
Introduction to the 1938 edition of Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood published by Secker and Warburg, London (pp. 3-18). The Introduction is reprinted in the Dover Publications 1973 edition under the same title. Page references to the story are given parenthetically.
 See Justin Sausman, “From Vibratory Occultism to Vibratory Modernism: Blackwood, Lawrence, Woolf,” in Vibratory Modernism (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp 30-52).
 The text of Episodes Before Thirty is available online at algernonblackwood.org.
Blackwood, Algernon. Introduction to Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood.
Secker and Warburg, 1938: 3-18.
—. Episodes Before Thirty. E. P. Dutton and Company, 1924. Reprinted in
— . The Damned. Incredible Adventures. Macmillan and Co. Ltd, 1914: 131-238.
Sausman, Justin. “From Vibratory Occultism to Vibratory Modernism: Blackwood,
Lawrence, Woolf.” Vibratory Modernism. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013: 30-52.