Ghostly Inspirations: A Guest Post by Kate Mosse
Kate Mosse is the author of Labyrinth and, most recently, Sepulchre. She visited Vroman's in April to present her new book. Now back in her native London, she agreed to write a little bit about the inspirations behind Sepulchre, in particular the British writer Algernon Henry Blackwood. Here are her thoughts on this writer and his influence on her work:
One of the ways many novelists research and prepare for writing is, obviously, to read works in a similar vein. Non-fiction, poetry, short stories, novels, everything and anything. My latest novel Sepulchre - set in fin-de-siècle Paris and the Languedoc (southwest France) and the same locations a century later – is part occult tale of revenge, part ghost story. The heroines are a young Parisian girl, Léonie Vernier, in the 19th century and an American academic and biographer, Meredith Martin, in the 21st, in France working on a biography of the composer, Claude Debussy.
Sepulchre was in part inspired by my own (rather gloomy!) teenage reading - the doomed French genius Guy de Maupassant, the chilling poetry of Baudelaire, the disquieting, mercurial Edgar Allan Poe and the brilliant, sometimes under celebrated, ghost stories of Henry James. They are all familiar names to most devotees of 19th century literature and writers whom I cite when asked to nominate my favourite novels (although no list would be complete without Wuthering Heights, not only for the tragic love story or the historical verisimilitude, but for the genius loci, the spirit of place that animates the tale - the lonely house, the window seat, the vast kitchen, above all the wind-scorched moors.
But, missing from this list – and certainly an important literary inspiration for - is someone less familiar to contemporary American readers, the British writer, Algernon Henry Blackwood.
Algernon Blackwood was born in 1869, the eve of the Paris Commune, in Shooter’s Hill, now a part of southeast London, then in the Kent countryside. ‘A strong emotion,’ Blackwood said later, ‘especially if experienced for the first time, leaves a vivid memory of the scene where it occurred.’ It is mere chance that Shooter’s Hill runs alongside Blackheath, where the victims of the Great Plague were interred in mass graves.
Blackwood and his four siblings were brought up with a ‘unique ignorance of life’ in a family of unyielding Christian beliefs. As a teenager he was sent away to school – an austere establishment run by the Moravian Brotherhood in the Black Forest. He described the spirit of that place in his autobiographical Episodes before Thirty, published in 1923: ‘Those leagues of Black Forest rolling over distant mountains, velvet-coloured, leaping to the sky in grey cliffs, or passing quietly like the sea in immense waves, always singing in the winds, haunted by elves and dwarves and peopled by charming legends – those forest glades, deep in moss and covered in springtime with wild lily-of-the-valley.’
Perhaps it was here that Blackwood first felt the stirring of a set of beliefs that he would later call ‘animist’, ascribing a spiritual life to all of creation, including inanimate things. Perhaps it was Christianity, as practised by the Moravian Brothers, that drove him from God and into the arms of the Deity of Nature – always, for Blackwood, with a capital N.
I suppose Algernon Blackwood might have become a botanist or a naturalist or one of the many self-deluding spiritists and other visionaries who exploited a gullible public with a promise of transcendence. But he didn’t. He became an Edwardian English gent with a twist, a spinner of weird tales, both a product of his theosophical times and free to look objectively down upon them. His pose was like that of M R James, another bachelor story teller, his arms behind his back before the fire, weaving occult and spine chilling tales for the amusement of friends and younger relatives. Unlike M R James, the acknowledged father of the modern ghost story, Blackwood is less read and less available.
For me, as a writer, even more than his weird tales of psychic detectives and retributive ghosts and ancient demons being summoned by old words and spells, is the idea that Nature is sentient. It was not a sentimental affectation. He felt that to be unbound within Nature was the only way in which to be free and alive.
Blackwood seems to have been suggestible and yet determined, tolerant but unshakably focused on finding his own path. He was teetotal and wore a strip of blue ribbon signifying membership of Band of Hope. One of five children, he appreciated his father’s depth of faith – ‘genuine, unfaltering, consistent and sincere’ – and rejected it. On the other hand, he developed a lifelong interest in and commitment to Buddhism when he read the work of a Hindu sage, left by accident at his parents’ house. He understood time as a sequence – ‘the present was the result of the past’.
At the age of 20, Blackwood already called himself a Buddhist and had grown to an impressive 6ft 3 in height. ‘My unworldliness, even at 21, was abnormal. Not only had I never smoked tobacco nor touched alcohol of any description, but I had never yet set foot inside a theatre, race course I had never seen, nor held a billiard cue, nor touched a card.’ He took his inexperience and a generous allowance of £100 per annum to Canada. He farmed and hunted moose in the wilderness.
But he saw life. From Canada he moved on to New York. At Mrs Bernstein’s boarding house on East 19th St, he dodged the cockroaches to forge important friendships, roughing it, sharing rooms and beds and finding it quite natural for those in straightened circumstances. He consumed a cheap and cheerful diet of salted chip potatoes and glasses of beer at 5 cents each, strips of spiced liver sausage on small squares of bread. He visited Ikey’s pawn shop on 3rd Avenue. He must have seen sorrow, too: ‘It is the little things that pierce and burn and prick for years to come.’
He earnt $3 a week as a reporter on the New York Evening Sun. The echo of the anti-hero of Maupassant’s Bel Ami was not lost on him. He read Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound at the free library, attended meetings of the Theosophical Society. Then he fell ill and, in his fever, ‘I saw the winds, changing colours as they rose and fell, attached to the trees in tenuous ribands of gold and blue and scarlet.'
The story telling began, not in comfortable Cambridge rooms like M R James, but in the boarding house on East 19th when the absinthe was uninspiring or he and his friends had no dress suits to go out in. ‘I used to tell, strange, wild improbable tales akin to ghost stories, discovered a taste for spinning yarns.’ His friend Angus Hamilton would write them down. ‘Many a story I published fifteen years later had its germ in the apparently dead moments of those wearisome hours, although at the time it never once occurred to me to try and write, not even the desire being in me.’
Back in Europe he explored – hiking, paddling and climbing – in Italy, France, Spain, Austria, the Balkans and Sweden. He visited Egypt. Finally – and I see him as rather like the wind-swept gent in an Edwardian tail coat on a mountaintop on the cover of the classic edition of Thus Spoke Zarathustra – he made a home in Switzerland.
He was not yet a writer: ‘It never occurred to me to write even a description of our picturesque way of living, much less to attempt an essay or a story.’ Nevertheless, much later, the commentator and editor of his work S T Joshi would underline the many biographical elements in his stories – settings, experiences, people he met – how his protagonists are scarcely veiled self portraits. The bizarre and threatening situations he invented for his imaginary world form, in part, a sequence of questions addressed to himself, to his own understanding and experience. ‘I have slept in strange places since – high in the Caucasus, on the shores of the Black Sea, on the Egyptian desert, on the banks of the Danube, in the Black Forest and Hungary.’
But write he did – in all over 200 short stories, 12 novels, plays, poetry, some children’s writing, plus at 54, his early years autobiography Episodes before Thirty. In his fiction he invented herds of magical creatures, reincarnated bloodlines and explored the potential for humans to evolve beyond their current mundane consciousness. He developed a style of writing that relied on suggestion and atmosphere. He understood the power of the intangible. He knew, like Kipling, that ‘it’s smells, more than sights or sounds, that make the heart strings crack.’ His tone if often determined by the cool but sympathetic eye cast on the most outlandish circumstances by his hero, John Silence.
Much of his work is out of print. Tales of innocent campers who pitch their tent in a place where another dimension intersects with our own; the psychological transformation of a diffident aristocrat; a house haunted by the echo of religious intolerance; reincarnation as a path to revenge; the ghastly truth of humanity’s true purpose revealed by a quest inspired by a dream; a beguiling dangerous stranger met by moonlight on a snowy mountainside; a man loved – to his downfall – by trees.
In any life there are areas of shadow and I have never forced myself to research Blackwood as I have the heretic Cathars – whose story is at the heart of my previous novel, Labyrinth - or the development of the Tarot, which plays a significant, albeit secondary, role in Sepulchre. Is it true Blackwood served as an English spy in World War I? It wouldn’t surprise me if he tested his understanding and nerve by visiting haunted houses with charlatans and the honestly credulous. What did he make of the ‘teacher of sacred dances’ Gurdjieff and the guru of the ‘Fourth Way’ Ouspensky? I hope he smiled wryly and moved on.
Blackwood saw all experience as – potentially – spiritual. An understanding of Nature would lead to faith and knowledge of how to live. His vivid engagement with life is reminiscent of Conan Doyle’s Holmes, with whom Blackwood shared the ability to play the violin and a use of morphine. Unlike Holmes, he was not an astute judge of character. He is perhaps well portrayed in The Centaur under the disguise of the protagonist Terence O’Malley, a man bemused at the spite and narrowness of the people who surround him. He is careless of his own property and mortified to taken advantage of but also at committing social gaffes. It is a picture of a ‘too-sensitive’ man. O’Malley allows his friend, a German doctor in New York, to inject him with morphine …
The best of Blackwood’s writing is beautiful – passionate, curiously intense, an interplay of colour and cadence of sentence structure. The worst of it is when, like many of us, the emotion overwhelms the sense. The getting lulled into the lullaby of the words without giving thought to the meaning. As Daudet said, to write about pain convincingly is ‘all but impossible’.
Late in his life, there was a Blackwood revival – or perhaps an intensification and extension of the cult of his admirers. He made his first radio broadcast in the mid-1930s and continued this strand after end of World War II. He was a television pioneer, appearing on the BBC as a storyteller. In 1949 he was awarded the CBE.
Returning to the works of Blackwood in the past few years, while writing Sepulchre, I can see how some of his writings might be considered a little ‘purple’ for modern tastes. Elaborate, occasionally an unhappy union between emotion and intention, brimming with ideas that were current in the early part of the twentieth century but which, now, seem a little idealistic, a little naïve, even, to our modern eyes and ears. But, at his best, Blackwood’s descriptions of the landscapes of Canada and North America equal those of Willa Cather, Jack London and Flannery O’Connor.
In Episodes before Thirty, Blackwood gave this simple explanation as to the inspirations for his writing: ‘I loved the night, the shadows, empty rooms and haunted woods.’
The words serve not only as a wonderful epitaph to Blackwood’s own body of work, but to all of us attempting to follow in his ghostly footsteps.
Kate Mosse’s novel Sepulchre is published by G P Putnam’s Sons @ $25.95