Algernon Sequitur

In my previous post, I noted Stephen King’s indebtedness in Pet Sematary to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” King’s novel, though, is not the first work of horror to borrow from Blackwood’s narrative (August Derleth transforms the Wendigo into an eldritch deity in the stories “The Thing that Walked on the Wind” and “Ithaqua”); nor is it the most overt. That distinction goes to Laird Barron’s harrowing 2011 novelette, “Blackwood’s Baby.”

Barron announces his genre heritage and acknowledges a literary forefather in the very title of his piece. Within the narrative itself, “Blackwood’s Baby” refers to a “monstrous stag,” the allegedly diabolic offspring of the occultist Ephraim Blackwood and “the Old Man of the Wood, who assumed the form of a doe” to enable the sacrilegious tryst. Both “The Wendigo” and “Blackwood’s Baby” feature a hunters-become-the-hunted motif, as respective expeditions venture too far beyond civilization and too deep into reputedly cursed woods. Overmatched men run afoul of a fiendish adversary, an uncannily anthropomorphic animal (Blackwood’s leonine-stenched Wendigo and Barron’s satanic stag).

Algernon Blackwood (apropos of someone with such an atmospheric surname) was a preeminent writer of outdoor horror, and Barron clearly follows his lead here in sending characters off the beaten path and into forest darkness. While Blackwood’s weird tale speaks to the wilderness’s cruel unconcern (“the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man”), Barron invests his sylvan setting (a stretch of Washington woods dubbed “Wolfvale”) with even more savagery. “Mother Nature is more of a killer than we humans ever will be,” Barron’s protagonist Luke Honey asserts. “She wants our blood, our bones, our goddamned guts.” Further echoing Blackwood, Barron hints at sinister sentience, as the wary Honey is plagued by “a sense of inimical awareness that emanated from the depths of the forest.” The perception of eeriness is a logical byproduct of finding oneself in such lonesome surround, but both Blackwood and Barron endeavor to show that there really is something terribly unnatural about these particular wilderness scenes. The northern woods in “The Wendigo” are the stomping ground of a creature out of Native American myth, and the hunting area beyond the Black Ram lodge in “Blackwood’s Baby” proves to be “the devil’s preserve.” Spectral cries ring out in Blackwood’s story, and the Wendigo-touched wretch Defago raves about an invisible menace before his death: “people with broken faces all on fire are coming in a most awful, awful pace towards the camp.” Likewise, near the climax of Barron’s narrative, Luke Honey hears the ghostly sounds of the hunters bedeviled in this pagan place: “The shrieks of the mastiffs came and went all day, and so too the phantom bellows of men, the muffled blasts of their weapons.”

At one point, Barron’s haunted protagonist is described as an “avid reader” of such legendary writers of supernatural horror as Robert Louis Stevenson, M.R. James, and Ambrose Bierce. The same is no doubt true of the author himself, and based on the evidence of this novelette, the name of Algernon Blackwood can be readily added to that esteemed list.

 

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