I’ve heard a lot of praise heaped on Algernon Blackwood’s 1908 collection John Silence–Physician Extraordinary over the years. In his review of Blackwood’s 1914 collection Incredible Adventures, Ryan Harvey wrote:
Of all the practitioners of the classic “weird tale,” which flourished in the early twentieth century before morphing into the more easily discerned genres of fantasy and horror, none entrances me more than Algernon Blackwood. Looking at the stable of the foundational authors of horror — luminaries like Poe, James, le Fanu, Machen, Lovecraft — it is Blackwood who has the strongest effect on me. Of all his lofty company, he is the one who seems to achieve the most numinous “weird” of all…
In my view, Blackwood achieved his finest work in his earlier collections The Listener and Other Stories (1907), John Silence — Physician Extraordinary (1908), and The Lost Valley and Other Stories (1910), where he combined his weird adventures with aspects of horror and fear. These earlier classics are supernatural horror, but are also superb works of mood.
Josh Reynolds discussed the collection in detail as part of his occult detective series The Nightmare Men here at Black Gate.
It his methods in regards to these cases which truly set Silence apart; less a doctor than a holistic shaman and more spiritualist than surgeon, he possesses a keen insight into human nature and an almost empathic grasp of his patient’s ailment, whether it’s ensorcellment or ectoplasmic manifestations. It is these two traits which form the basic tools that Silence employs.
Where other occult detectives make use of science or magic to battle back the darkness, Silence employs only the power of the mind, whether channelled through the combination of a sensitive cat and protective dog as in “A Psychical Invasion,” or through the ‘good feelings’ of his occasional assistant, the ever-hapless Mr. Hubbard, as in “The Nemesis of Fire.”
This is not to say that Silence doesn’t confronts malicious psychic forces face-to-face; in both “A Psychical Invasion” and “Secret Worship,” Silence places himself in harm’s way to stare down respectively the ghost of a witch and the earthly manifestation of a fallen angel.
In all cases, however, Silence achieves his aims not through superior force, but through an almost Zen-like understanding which unravels the complexities facing him and reduces them to but the merest scraps of ill-feeling. For Silence, knowledge is indeed power and he employs his vast arsenal of the former with the deft touch of a scalpel, illuminating the darkness with the power of raw thought.
There have been a number of reprints of this 1908 collection over the years, including a 2001 edition from House of Stratus and a 2009 paperback from Dodo Press, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find in an economical format. So I was happy to see Stark Press is re-issuing it as part of their Supernatural Classics library, paired with Blackwood’s 1916 Egyptian fantasy, The Wave: An Egyptian Aftermath.
In his introduction to this volume, Stefan Dziemianowicz writes:
The Wave, which was first published in 1916, is Blackwood’s eighth published novel and one of the most ambitious works of fiction that he ever attempted… it can be read as one of Blackwood’s last attempts to capture the visionary gleam that empowered his best fiction.
Stark House has returned over a dozen of Blackwood’s novels and collections to print under the Supernatural Classics banner, two books per volume, all in attractive trade paperback format. They include:
Julius LeVallon/The Bright Messenger (July 31, 2005) — introduction by Mike Ashley
The Lost Valley/The Wolves of God (March 13, 2006) — introduction by Simon Clark
Pan’s Garden/Incredible Adventures (March 27, 2007) — introductions by Mike Ashley & Tim Lebbon
Jimbo/The Education of Uncle Paul (February 20, 2007) — introduction by Mike Ashley
Ten Minute Stories/Day and Night Stories (June 27, 2013) — introduction by Mike Ashley
The Empty House & Other Ghost Stories/The Listener & Other Stories (February 24, 2014) — introduction by Storm Constantine
The Face of the Earth & Other Imaginings (March 31, 2015) — introduction by Mike Ashley
The Human Chord/The Centaur (March 31, 2015) — introduction by Richard Gavin
Our previous coverage of Algernon Blackwood includes:
The Incredible Adventures of Algernon Blackwood by Ryan Harvey
The Nightmare Men: “Physician Extraordinary” by Josh Reynolds
Closing out Halloween with Algernon Blackwood: The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by Ryan Harvey
Vintage Treasures: The Dance of Death
Poetic Witchery and the Strangeness in Ordinary Things: Algernon Blackwood’s The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by William I. Lengeman III
Haunted Bushes, Serial Killers, and Mysterious Strangers: Algernon Blackwood’s The Listener and Other Stories by William I. Lengeman III
The Human Chord/The Centaur
John Silence–Physician Extraordinary / The Wave will be published by Stark House Press on October 13, 2017. It is 488 pages, priced at $21.95 in trade paperback. The cover is by C.B. Williams.
See all of our coverage of the best in upcoming fantasy here.