Chris's Reviews > Ancient Sorceries and Other Stories

Ancient Sorceries and Other Stories by Algernon Blackwood
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Feb 24, 08

Recommended to Chris by: amazon.com's fine base of readers
Recommended for: Sherlock Holmes addicts seeking an ersatz fix
Read in February, 2008

I got this off some really keen recommendations at Amazon, the majority of which I’m sure were penned by social pariahs living in their folks’ basements, which they’ve befouled with gallons of spilled ginger ale, near-beer, and aqua-lube. And seeing as I bought the book based on their sound praises, I obviously have faith in their judgment; how the hell can you question the literary tastes of faceless, ostracized fiends relentlessly choking their chocobos to ridiculously-proportioned female action figures and skinning their shrivelfigs to blue-haired/purple-eyed anime darlings? You can’t. I consider it folly to disregard someone’s opinion on the flimsy suspicion that they have nocturnal emissions involving Hermione Granger. (This doesn’t always mean that they’re always completely correct in their opinions of what is commendable, I vaguely recall images of 300-nincompoop-long queues shirking responsibility and salivating shamelessly to see a piece of regrettable garbage titled The Phantom Menace on opening night…..good call, clowns.)

Anyway, now for something that might involve Algernon Blackwood or this collection of six of his stories. In almost all of the aforementioned reviews on Amazon, the formidable name of HP Lovecraft is invoked, and this alone piqued my interest. Let me warn any other simpletons so easily swayed: Blackwood does not write like Lovecraft, and while it may be true that HPL was a self-professed acolyte of his predecessor, ‘Woody’, I am personally much fonder of every element of Lovecraft’s writing. If HPL is indebted to Woody as a major influence, the result is something akin to Coldplay opening for U2 and completely blowing them off the stage (I personally don’t like either band, but figured they’d make for a good comparison). Blackwood isn’t without his own influences either; two of the stories within shamelessly emulate Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, without being nearly as good. While this sounds like negative criticism, it’s not supposed to be; there is no shame in falling short of HPL or ACD, this is just my way of alerting other fine readers that they will see a lot of references out there to both of these other fine authors but that Blackwood just isn’t on the same level with either.

The six stories in this volume can be easily broken into two general groups, the first four are simply ‘ghost’ stories (these would be the ones which would be Lovecraftian) and the last two stories are his tales of Dr. John Silence, master of supernatural investigation and detection (naturally, these are the Sherlock Holmes rip-offs, and yes, Conan Doyle does precede Woody by almost 20 years). And since it seems that there are various publishers grouping different Blackwood stories in similarly-titled collections, let me spell out exactly what is within (as I was led to believe that “The Willows” and "The Wendigo” were in this volume).

“The Empty House” – A ghost story in which Jim Shorthouse (who will make a later appearance) and his aunt embark on a familiar quest; to spend the night in a haunted house that many have tried to chill in for the duration of one night and failed. After reading this story, I didn’t have such high hopes for the rest of the book.

“A Haunted Island” – The narrator has a lot of ‘reading/studying’ to do (this is also a recurring theme) and stays behind on a remote island in a Canadian lake after his friends all return to Montreal, in the hopes that the serenity afforded by being isolated from the hustle and bustle of humanity will aide in his concentrated efforts. As the titular island is apparently haunted, this naturally results in being a piss-poor decision by this young scholar.

“Keeping His Promise” – ‘Fourth-Year’ man Marriott also has a lot of reading to do, so he coops himself up in his dorm with the intentions of keeping his presumably hard-partying pals away so that he can study in peace. This peace is shattered when an old friend, looking haggard and world-weary, appears at his door and begins eating the guy out of house and home, chomping away like possessed and not saying a word, looking like a junkie. And then…it gets creeeepy.

“A Case of Eavesdropping” – Jim Shorthouse returns, and this time his tale is being reiterated by someone whom he has spoken to concerning the ‘psychical’ events he always seems to wander into like a bear trap. I assume that this story takes place prior to the tale of the Empty House, as it appears he is over forty by the time the story is being told, but the events occur when he was a young man just having landed his first job. He gets himself a place to live, rooming at some crazy lady’s place, and through the paper-thin partitions he can hear a father and soon conversing and arguing in German in the room next door every few nights sometime around 2AM. This isn’t appreciated, and soon he learns that something dastardly is a-brewing in the adjoining room.

“Ancient Sorceries” – The first of the two Dr. Silence stories. Identical to the Sherlock Holmes stories, they are narrated by Silence’s confidant and lackey, Mr. Hubbard, a man completely lacking in the unusually heightened gifts possessed by the good Doctor. These stories are extremely like the Holmes tales; make no doubt, with the word ‘singular’ appearing on every other page and the way in which the stories unfold with a troubled client coming to Dr. Silence seeking his professional assistance, which he quickly formulates and answer to with his superior skills of psychic reasoning while his sidekick/scribe struggles to wrap his head around the situation. The only difference is that Silence is basically the polar opposite of Holmes in his methods; he states something to the effect that the correct way to go about solving the mysteries he is presented with is to abandon all logic and work off of feelings. In this story, a boringly ordinary and unexceptional little dude named Vezin can’t seem to deal with crowd of people, and while on a train ride through France, being stuck in the train car with a bunch of puds is too much for him to handles, and he gets off the train at a small town and decides to wait for the next one coming by. Bad call, brother, as this town doesn’t offer much but maniacal Pagan shapeshifters with a goal too terrifying to believe!

“The Nemesis of Fire” – I thought this was easily the best story in the book. Hell, this story was actually very good, and probably because it is the most like a Holmes story, whereas Ancient Sorceries is a Dr. Silence story but basically the recounting of a supernatural tale. ‘Nemesis’ has Dr. Silence and his loyal Hubbard going on-site to discover what forces are causing the discomfort of a badass war vet, Colonel Wragge. This dude has inherited a large chunk of land from his deceased brother, and lives on it with his invalid sister, and recently, some inexplicable and weird shit has been going down; the ever-present and suffocating feel of heat pervades the place, fires are breaking out, and the Colonel has to admit that he’s only effective when he can see his enemy and fire a piece of field artillery at it, he’s out of his depths here. Thankfully, he’s been referred to ‘the man’ to handle this situation; Dr. John Silence. And the good Doctor knows that this case is going to get ugly.

So, if you’ve got nothing on your agenda of any significance, and feel like reading something to suit the occasion, this book it is. While publisher House of Stratus claims that Blackwood ‘turned the ghost story into a legitimate and respected literary form’, I have to disagree; I think that they are quite cheesy and uninspiring. His Dr. Silence stories are far more solid, but only because they slavishly adhere to the successful form of Doyle’s earlier contributions
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