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[#1 is here and #2 is here. Your eyes are not playing tricks on you – the series has been extended to avoid some excessively savage editing. Ed.]

Our last instalment identified the popular story “Lord Dufferin’s Ghost” and E. F. Benson’s “The Bus-Conductor” as classic premonitory tales. The heroes of these stories are warned away from death by ghostly premonitions, but only as part of flashy and audacious stunts which seem to be perpetrated by the intervening forces chiefly in order to demonstrate their own power. Many Edwardian authors regarded the ghost story as a sort of literary parlour game – an enjoyable creative exercise with straightforward and commonly understood rules – and as a distinctive subgenre to the ghost story, the premonitory tale was even more of a lark, in inviting authors to construct increasingly playful and elaborate premonitory scenarios, whilst still adhering to the basic structure of “Lord Dufferin’s Ghost.”

Whilst, as far as I am aware, he never wrote a premonitory tale, this subgenre would come to concur with, or to even take heart from, English literature’s foremost champion of practical jokes, Saki (Hector Hugh Monro), whose mission was apparently to prove that literary fiction could and should be a lot more fun than it had ever been before. Whilst it is uncertain whether he invented a new kind of short story, or merely refined the models which had fallen into his hands, Saki essentially relaunched the short story as a brief, deft anecdote with the gripping appeal and the punchy ending of a good joke.

It is difficult to imagine Saki and Algernon Blackwood ever seeing eye to eye on anything. I can find no record of the two men ever meeting, nor even alluding to each other’s existences, but they would have made the perfect archenemies: Saki was cynical, frivolous, and he wrote with a brutal efficiency; whilst Blackwood was an enthusiastic mystic, who would never be content with one word when the same thing could be said with five hundred. If Saki famously cherished a hatred of aunts for upholding bourgeois propriety, Blackwood appears to arrive at an entirely contrary position even on this question, with the hero of his early ghost story “The Empty House” (1906) being accompanied on his vigil by his Aunt Julia in the place of a more conventional sweetheart. Saki seems to train his gun on somebody like Blackwood in his story “The She-Wolf,” (1912) which concerns itself with “one of those people who have failed to find this world attractive or interesting, and who have sought compensation in an “unseen world” of their own experience or imagination – or invention.” “Bilsiter” was carried “beyond the customary platitudes of the drawing-room visionary” after a spell in the Urals, whilst Blackwood had a year before published his visionary novel The Centaur after returning from Georgia. The poor Bilsiter is twitted mercilessly.

Blackwood had probably heard the one about Lord Dufferin’s ghost and he could always be relied upon for a good ghost story. He had picked up and retold such tales around the campfires of his youth, whilst in his later years he would narrate ghost stories at high society house parties and eventually in BBC broadcasts. But although there are several accounts of premonitions within Blackwood’s fiction, one hesitates to include him in our potted canon. He may have regaled campers with “Lord Dufferin’s Ghost,” but Blackwood had more serious ambitions for the literary ghost story than the joking and tomfoolery which were esteemed by authors such as Saki. Moreover, the philosophical assumptions which underpin Blackwood’s fiction go some way to frustrate the smooth administration of a ghostly warning.

The narrator of Blackwood’s early tale “A Haunted Island,” (1899), for example, witnesses a vision of himself being scalped by Indians, but it is uncertain whether this is the spectral re-enactment of his death in a previous life or the premonition of his future death at the hands of the Indians whom he glimpses at the end of the story. The narrator is warned away from the island, leaving any possible premonition unfulfilled, but the story is ultimately more concerned with the sensory richness of his experience, than with making any sort of sense out of it. One may be exasperated by the conclusion of Blackwood’s “The Willows” (1907), in which the besieged travellers, who have been apparently teetering on the brink of disaster throughout the story, realise that they had seen a vision of the Willows’ required “victim” at the very start of their adventure, and, henceforth, that their fate was determined before they had even set foot on the island. Blackwood had assumed that the concept of time was an exclusively human creation, and one which was unlikely to trouble higher powers such as the Willows.

Blackwood actually wrote a sort of premonitory novel, The Wave (1916), in which the vision of a looming wave runs through the hero Tommy’s successive lives like a motif in a stick of rock: “…the top of the wave, owing to its curve, was reflected in the under part. Its end, that is, was foretold in its beginning.” A son of Calvinists, Blackwood’s later mysticism retained a definite belief in an elect, and at times one can almost trace the shadow of a belief in predestination, but the “forgotten warning” represented by “the wave” demands resolving a conflict which is leftover from a previous life.

One seemingly encounters an example of a proper premonitory tale in  Blackwood’s “The Wood of the Dead” (1906), although this is actually not as straightforward as it initially appears. The narrator of this story is wandering the West country with his knapsack, and he drops in at a rural inn to enjoy a “foaming pewter” and the “simple country loveliness” of the inn-keeper’s daughter. In this instance, the forewarning apparition is the identifiable ghost of an old farmer, who is conveniently established on a sofa by the bow window. This ghost is as sunny and as pleasant as an English country garden, but his sad “purpose” is to “call away… someone who is not quite ready to come, but who is needed elsewhere for a worthier purpose.” This ghost is effectively a banshee, whose job is to collect the dead and to accompany them on their way. So far, the only other character in this story is the landlord’s daughter, and it transpires that she is the one for the chop.

The spiritual beauties of the old man cause the nameless girl to become “almost ugly” – “How dull her eyes, how thin her voice, how vapid her smile, and insipid her whole presentment” – and whilst this may merely teach the narrator about the worthlessness of worldly appearances, it also warns him away from loving somebody who is about to die. The girl’s betrothed is not so lucky and his heart is broken. As in Dickens’ “The Signalman,” the premonition will fail to reach the doomed party: the girl lacks the ability to converse with the ghostly herald, in not numbering amongst the elect; but the narrator’s report of the ghost leaves her “strangely moved and interested.”

Unlike with “The Signalman,” however, the premonition is portrayed as being of no great use. The abruptness of the narrator’s departure from the inn after the premonition, and his unreflecting acceptance of this “strange summer vision,” indicates that he had decided against warning the girl away from the sun. The girl’s life, it seems, was not worth the candle: she was “needed elsewhere for a worthier purpose,” and in the narrator’s vision she comes “willingly” to the old man’s “breast.” Ultimately, however, the narrator has benefited more from this premonition than its actual subject. Although he casts himself as a tourist who is accidentally caught up in all the pageantry of the approaching death, and who has been fortunate enough to have witnessed a rare local display of spiritual powers, the narrator has learned the truth that “the past and the future exist actually side by side in one immense Present… it was I who moved to and fro among shifting, protean appearances.” “The Wood of the Dead” is therefore only deceptively a premonitory tale and it is really the story of the narrator’s own Enlightenment.

As with “The Wood of the Dead,” both “Special Delivery” (1910) and “Accessory Before the Fact” (1911) recount the adventures of travellers on walking tours. We have previously analysed fictional premonitions of disasters which befall trains, steam elevators, and city buses, but it is testament to Blackwood’s love of nature that his own equivalents of premonitory tales only narrate the experiences of those out walking in the country. In the first story, the curate Meiklejohn is holidaying in the Jura mountains, where he engages a room at an inn which gradually comes to fill him with an uncanny sense of repugnance. He is repeatedly troubled in the night by a ghostly presence who seems to be suggesting that Meiklejohn should follow him, until the curate finally capitulates and he abandons his inn for the night air.

Immediately after his departure, a huge chunk of the cliff which overhangs the inn detaches, and Meiklejohn observes that whilst the inn is almost entirely spared, a “single block of limestone, about the size of a grand piano… smashed its way through my bedroom.” Blackwood remarks that the otherworldly intervention possessed “some sense, even logic” because it saved what turned out to be a “life the world had need of,” although this seems to be rather hard on the landlord’s daughter in “The Wood of the Dead.”

The intervening forces in “Special Delivery” may strike us as being singularly generous – unlike with “Lord Dufferin’s Ghost,” not only is a “man of value to the best order of things” a la Dufferin saved, but everybody else at the inn are spared too. Perhaps like Dufferin’s tale, this is merely a display of otherworldly power, in which a disaster is respectively contrived and then averted, rather as a conjurer smashes a wristwatch, in a sort of flaunting of the marvellous. Yet Meiklejohn himself associates his salvation with the “grandeur” and “awe” of the Jura mountains, and his escape from death could be construed as a sort of strategic investment on the part of these “towering precipices,” because Meiklejohn is subsequently inspired to “transfer their peace and power to the hearts of suffering thousands of men and women and children.”

Yet the events of the tale qualify Meiklejohn’s lofty and “windswept” ambitions for the masses, as they gently rebuke him for his snobbishness towards the men of the mountains. Meiklejohn disliked the “dirty and slightly malodorous” peasants in the inn; he went off to bed whilst they remained drinking in the bar; and his separation from the peasants is oddly underlined by the fact that his room is the only one in the inn to be destroyed by the “special delivery.” This may be a characteristic dig on Blackwood’s part at his Calvinist father’s fervent teetotalism. If the inn is named “Le Guillaume Tell” after the popular folk hero, then Meiklejohn is spared not only from death, but from acquiring the hated and rejected authority of Tell’s adversary Gessler. Whilst Meiklejohn’s deliverance affirms the importance of his calling, the original disaster warns him against becoming isolated from the “weak-kneed folk” whom he is trying to save. From the reported success of the “famous Meiklejohn Institutes,” it sounds as if he got the message.

“Accessory Before the Fact” describes a premonition which is experienced by another traveller – Martin, an “accountant on a holiday,” who is rambling across some unspecified moors. Arriving at a set of “moorland cross-roads,” Martin suddenly realises that he can make no sense of his map, and blundering off down an “inviting” path, he finds himself trapped inside a claustrophobic vision in which he has his throat cut by two Germans, who are unconvincingly disguised as “tramps.” He revives back at the cross-roads, to discover that his map is now “quite clear.” Martin is soon safely at his inn, where, unlike Meiklejohn, he takes “pleasure” in “an after-supper pipe and chat with the natives.” The dastardly Germans from his vision presently materialise, apparently as “tourists,” and this time they are the ones who do not fit in at the bar, talking amongst themselves and sitting with their backs to the room. Martin is soon acquainted with the intended victim of the Germans, and whilst he makes a perfunctory attempt to accompany this stranger across the moors, his efforts prove ineffective and the stranger is subsequently found with his throat cut.

Whereas in “Special Delivery,” the disaster “had been known” or “might have been accurately calculated” since “the beginning of time,” the murder on the moors is not portrayed as a preordained fate, but as one which Martin is obliged to prevent. But even if Martin is convinced that the stranger will die as a result of his own “feebleness” and “cowardice,” the reader may take an altogether kindlier view of the affair. The murdered man is an “elderly” tourist who, according to the newspapers, “carried in a belt about his person a large sum of money.” We may attribute a little of the stranger’s death to his stupidity in walking the lonely moors with all his savings. If the newspaper explanation of money being a motivation for the crime was planted by the security services, then the British state bears responsibility for leaving one of their “elderly” agents to be exposed to murder. The unarmed Martin would only injure himself if he tried to fight two cutthroat Germans, and, in any case, he was unable to deter the stranger from his mission or to impress his company upon him. The vision of the stranger walking to his death is almost as unresponsive and unpreventable as Martin’s original premonition.

Blackwood’s biographer Mike Ashley notes in relation to this story that the prospect of German invasion was a “subject that had been occupying the press for some years,” but Blackwood has not wholly succeeded in appropriating the premonitory tale to deliver an unpleasant piece of anti-German propaganda. For one thing, Martin is ostensibly damned as an “accessory” due to his exquisitely English sense of propriety: “…he had intruded into someone else’s scenery, and was trespassing upon another’s map of life…” and “it was not with himself they had to do, these men… he had no right in the world to interfere… even to save life.” Tortured with indecision, Martin pitifully demands, “How could he act upon knowledge gained by eavesdropping?” This tale is as much an indictment of the quintessentially English stuffiness and insistence upon proper conduct, as it is of the effrontery of the Hun.

But “Accessory Before the Fact” seems to ultimately observe an individual who, however pathetic his character, remains helpless before a predestined fate. The landlord’s daughter of “The Wood of the Dead” was called away because she was “needed elsewhere for a worthier purpose,” whilst Meiklejohn was spared only because he was “a man of value,” and one applying such criteria to Martin’s story may conclude that the game was simply up for the elderly tourist/spy. Blackwood occasionally resorted to the premonitory tale because it was part of any popular writer’s repertoire, but the awkwardness and the sheer oddity of tales such as “Accessory Before the Fact” render them a unique contribution to our canon.

[Next instalment: E. F. Benson. Tychy‘s running series on Algernon Blackwood can be browsed here. Ed.]