Algernon Blackwood was an English writer born in 1869 who ended up as a broadcaster on the radio and TV.
His writing was very well received at this time and critics loved him. Even the great American author of weird tales HP Lovecraft cited Blackwood is one of the masters of the craft.
Blackwood came from a well-to-do family and was privately educated despite that he was quite an adventurous man. He was interested in Hinduism as a young boy and his career was varied. For example, he ran a dairy farm in Canada and also hotel in the country. It became a newspaper reporter in New York City and was also a bartender and a model and also a violin teacher!
All of this time, though he was always writing. He liked being outdoors and his stories often feature the outdoors. He was also interested in the occult and was a member of the hermetic order of the Golden Dawn along with such other characters is Arthur Machen and WB Yeats and Alisteir Crowley.
I chose this story The Kitbag because it fitted in with the Christmas period we are approaching but the kitbag is not Blackwoods most famous story. His two most famous stories are The Willows which features a trip down the River Danube in central Europe and The Wendigo which is set obviously in North America.
The Kitbag is a simple story in terms of its structure. In this case rather than the protagonist being the victim of his own wickedness as is often the case in horror stories Johnson here is a complete innocent. His only crime is to have partaken in the trial of a notorious murderer. Blackwood portrays Johnson as a likeable if somewhat naive chap who has been shocked by the horrible things he has heard. He has a good relationship with his boss whom he asks to lend him his kitbag when he plans a very innocent and refreshing Christmas break in the Alps skiing in the bright frosty air and dancing with red cheeked girls in the apres-ski.
By an unfortunate error Johnson’s boss has sent the wrong kitbag and instead of the fine new one, he is given the exhibit that the murderer cut up the victim and stuffed them into. Johnson ends up with this stained monstrosity, which he only seems to find dirty and odd after he has long packed his socks and skates.
It seems that the spirit of the murderer comes with the kitbag. We find out at the end that the supernatural happenings only occurred after the murderer. unbeknownst to Johnson, killed himself.
The story is very simple but what Blackwood does very well is ratchet up the mounting tension of the old monster in the house scenario. We hear, and we become aware that something threatening is there but we never quite get a glimpse of it until the very end.
The great ghost writer MR James ,who was also an admirer of Algernon Blackwood, talked about the importance of subtlety in ghost stories. James is very much against being too blatant and showing too much. I think we see this still in modern horror stories and I’m aware that the movie alien use this to great effect at the beginning and a different part of that movie series where by the monstrous alien is suspected and heard but not directly seen.
I recently watched a film called The Ritual set in a forest in Norway and again until quite late in the film we went we didn’t see the monster. When the monster is just in your imagination it is far more terrifying than when it is portrayed on the screen.
That’s it for this week. More Christmas ghosts to come.