Classic Review: Incredible Adventures

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It’s impossible to say anything about Algernon Blackwood’s Incredible Adventures without contending with S.T. Joshi’s claim that it is “the premiere weird collection of this or any other century.” If I wouldn’t hazard praise as bold as Joshi’s, I certainly sympathize with his enthusiasm. It’s one of those collections, like Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco, that compels devotion–if I’m ever asked to list my favorite weird fiction, Incredible Adventures is one of the first to come to mind.

I imagine Blackwood writing with an uncommonly steady hand. A serene orderliness pervades his work. Each piece unfolds unhurriedly, which is more than simply a testimony to Blackwood’s confidence in his abilities. The veil concealing his other-world is best drawn slowly, and what is seen in these tantalizing glimpses is enough to haunt the reader, much as it haunts each story’s protagonists (it is often implied) well past the confines of the tale itself. But the curtain is always thrown back into place at the last moment, and we’re wrenched, like Lord Ernie (“The Regeneration of Lord Ernie”), from certain dissolution into Dionysian forces that thrive beneath the natural order.

It’s true that, among the five tales collected here, two of Blackwood’s most celebrated pieces, “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” are absent. This should be no cause for worry, since Blackwood’s efforts here are similarly strong and thematically related. As always, “evil” is supernatural and never fully explained. It resides in the time-worn arenas of the Dark Romantics: in mountains, desolate landscapes, and ancient ruins. The Burkean sublime is always at hand, waiting to overpower the senses; in this way Blackwood is closely related to Lord Byron and Mary Shelley.

But Blackwood, like the best of folk horror authors, is a guardian of thresholds rather than a tourist of limit experiences. The work of Blackwood, like Arthur Machen, acknowledges the terrible lure of what I’ll call the “numinal”–there is the possibility of death, as we discover in “The Sacrifice,” but there is also great promise, as Lord Ernie finds in his brief but dazzling career following his close escape from the mountain fire worshippers. That the citizens of the town lower in the mountain in “The Regeneration of Lord Ernie” compare unfavorably to the fire worshippers above–they are dissolute, passionless, empty human husks–suggests something vital to life even in the elements the stories posit as the loci of horror. A faint glow limns the darkness beyond, but we must never imagine that we have the power to control it.

Blackwood’s cosmos is decidedly not an empty, mechanical thing set blindly on its steady decline. His characters, unlike Ligotti’s puppet-humans (but equally microcosmic reflections of the artist’s imaginal universe), are consequently flesh, blood, and full of mystery themselves, driven by desires they can’t begin to articulate even as these inner disturbances usurp the instinct of self-preservation. We can look in horror at Geroge Isely’s psychological deterioration (“A Descent into Egypt”), but we can’t deny the allure of Blackwood’s masterfully rendered Egypt.

Blackwood’s stories tend to be long, thorough, and, as I’ve stated already, magnificently unhurried. Don’t mistake these characteristics as warnings of a plodding read ahead–he never retreats from descriptions of strangeness. One comes to see that when Blackwood does retreat to the normal world, he does so out of a deep respect for the mysteries he’s suggested; there’s something utterly serious, almost reverent, in Incredible Adventures. This reverence is fitting for a writer who, perhaps more than anyone except Machen, has come to represent a unique strain of the weird predicated by Nathaniel Hawthorne (particularly his folk horror tales, such as “The Maypole of Merry Mount”). Also like Machen’s best work, nothing in Incredible Adventures feels derivative; Blackwood’s deeply reverent, imaginative, and otherworldly collection is bound to provide readers with chills for some time yet.

Verdict: Read it again!

by Justin A. Burnett

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