WTD: John Silence

Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.

As I mentioned in my review of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Ones, I have views on Algernon Blackwood. The views in question revolve around the fact that Blackwood’s strength lies in his movement from town to country or, to be more specific, from urban home to foreign exoticism. In this respect, Blackwood is an interesting counterpoint to Lovecraft as while Lovecraft seemed to be suspicious of everyone and everywhere outside of Providence, New England, Blackwood’s fiction embodies a more nuanced attitude. On the one hand, a lot of Blackwood’s most memorable stories revolve around a doughy English person going on a foreign holiday and losing their mind when confronted with the awe-inspiring vastness of nature, that sense of fear is always marbled with feelings of joy and exaltation. One reason for Blackwood being more readily associated with the Weird than conventional horror is that a lot of his stories are about the sublime rather than the horrifying.

Given that I have these views on Blackwood and that these views have only grown stronger the more I have read of his stories that aren’t based on the sublime power of nature, I was intrigued to see how I would respond to Blackwood’s paranormal detective stories. Thankfully, the John Silence stories have been collected and re-printed fairly recently and can be found in a variety of formats including audiobook. So if you are interested in seeing what one of the giants of Weird fiction was able to do with ghost-breaking stories then you shouldn’t have much trouble tracking them down.

John Silence is described as a ‘psychic doctor’ and we are told that he is a wealthy man who trained as a doctor and now devotes himself to healing and helping people who would not otherwise be able to afford professional paranormal assistance. This is a bit of a weird set-up as, having mentioned this premise, Blackwood immediately chucks it in the bin and starts writing stories in which Silence spends his time assisting a bunch of posh people.

This set-up might have allowed Blackwood to write stories about an aristocratic psychic who helps vulnerable people who are being plagued by ghosts but these are clearly not the kinds of stories that Blackwood wanted to write and so Silence refusing to charge money for his services is really more about pushing the idea that he’s some kind of Great Soul who solves paranormal mysteries as a result of a profound spiritual calling rather than out of any desire to make money. Obviously, this set-up is modelled on pre-NHS Victorian medicine where only the incompetent and aristocratically benevolent opened practices in working-class areas but it does suggest that the world of John Silence also contains for-profit psychic investigation and clearly Blackwood wanted his psychic detective to have nothing to do with such shady practices. Ahem.

Silence’s approach to psychic detection is not that of an exorcist but rather that of a healer such as a doctor or a psychotherapist. Silence not only receives referrals from other professionals, he also receives clients in an office that features a narcotic-dispensing armchair that is bolted to the floor because Silence doesn’t like his patients moving about too much. This rather weird observation prompted me to imagine Silence as a fellow-traveller to Dr. Melfi from The Sopranos who was forced to contend with patients whose response to any uncomfortable revelation was to lunge across the room with threats of violence.

Silence’s first client is a professional humourist who has smoked so much weed that he has lost the capacity to be professionally funny. Silence is brought in to investigate this personality change and he concludes that too much cannabis can make you psychic and that becoming psychic runs the risk of drawing attention from nearby spirits. Can confirm: Hydroponic gene-spliced skunk hits hard. Silence solves the problem by urging the humourist to move out of his house and into a house that Silence has rented for him, after which Silence arrives at the house in order to conduct a psychic investigation. However, rather than deploying a K2 meter or a Ouija board, Silence brings over his pet dog and cat who spend the evening wandering around the house reacting to an invisible presence. This section is definitely more weird than frightening but it is a well-observed description of animal behaviour. Having been satisfied that the house is indeed haunted, Silence returns and confronts the ghost resulting in a rather anti-climactic scene in which Silence (being of pure mind and spirit) simply absorbs the energy of the ghost. He then pays for the house to be torn down despite the fact that we are told that the ghost lived in a different house that had been torn down before the construction of the current one so I’m not sure what that was meant to achieve.

One of the recurring issues with the paranormal detective genre is what the investigators are supposed to do with the ghosts once they encounter them. In the case of David Ash, he would simply witness the paranormal phenomenon and write a report. In the case of Karnaki, he would break the ghost using an ancient ritual. The fact that Silence responds to the paranormal by ushering in a cat and then demolishing a house suggests that Blackwood was not entirely clear on this question either. Thankfully, things do improve but it is a bit puzzling how Blackwood positioned Silence as a healer only to have him react to the presence of the supernatural by tearing down someone’s house.

The second John Silence story is considerably better and a good deal more recognisably Blackwood’s work. The story revolves around a British man who was travelling across France by train when he suddenly felt compelled to get off and visit some random village despite warning from his fellow passengers.

One of the ways in which Blackwood adds emotional nuance to his Holibob Freakout stories is by drawing a contrast between the vast alien landscapes of not-Britain and the sense of comfort and joy you get from coming in out of the cold and enjoying the hospitality of a local tavern full of roaring fires and delicious foreign foods. The early sections of the second story are long on the pleasures of foreign travel though the observations are laced with a series of weird references to cats. I suspect that the intent here was to slide a few cat-based observations in under the radar and allow them to build until both character and reader realises that the town turns people into cats. Unfortunately, wandering around a picturesque French village and thinking everything and everyone looks like a cat is not something that normal people do… I mean, I fucking love cats and I don’t spend my time looking at people and thinking that they remind me of cats, unlike the protagonist of this story:

She was a large woman whose hands, feet, and features seemed to swim towards him out of a sea of person. They emerged, so to speak. But she had great dark, vivacious eyes that countered the bulk of her body, and betrayed the fact that in reality she was both vigorous and alert. When he first caught sight of her she was knitting in a low chair against the sunlight of the wall, and something at once made him see her as a great tabby cat, dozing, yet awake, heavily sleepy, and yet at the same time prepared for instantaneous action. A great mouser on the watch occurred to him.

The fact that the character is constantly reminded of cats is so jarringly weird that it immediately smacks of the supernatural and so the story kind of shoots its load in the back of the cab. In fairness to Blackwood, I get the impression that he was aware that the story didn’t quite work as there’s a load of stuff about the character falling in love with one of the women at the inn and while that explains the fact that he doesn’t immediately leave, it doesn’t exactly ring dramatically true and so the story kind of peters out.

If you’re wandering where John Silence was in all of this then you are very much like me. John Silence, it turns out, is the person to whom the cat village visitor was telling his tale. Silence listens to the story and explains that the entire thing was some weird race memory thing based upon the fact that the visitor’s family were originally from the village. This doesn’t really work either but it is interesting to note that while Blackwood had evidently decided to develop Silence as an on-going character, he still preferred to write stories about tubby middle-class Englishmen visiting the continent. Having Silence turn up at the end to explain everything was evidently a bridge between the stories that Blackwood felt comfortable writing and the stories he thought he could sell.

The third John Silence story is a more conventional occult detective story and it feels very much like a paranormal riff on Sherlock Holmes. This time, Silence and his Watsonian companion Hubbard are invited down to the country to assist a retired Colonel who believes his house may be haunted. Here we see Silence less as a compassionate spiritual healer and more as a conventionally worldly detective who rolls his eyes at the suggestion he equip himself with a gun. There is some lovely character and descriptive work in the early sections of the story as Blackwood draws a line between the mysteriously over-heated interior of the Colonel’s house and the stultifying home-life that he enjoys with his bed-ridden sister.

The Holmesian vibes continue in a rather neat section where Silence and Hubbard chase an invisible presence through a wood only to be confronted with the unexpected sight of the Colonel’s bed-ridden sister shrieking and running across a nearby field. While Silence is never what you’d call a man of action, Blackwood uses this uncharacteristically physical scene to re-iterate his vision of Silence as a Great Soul only here it is manifest not as calmness or mystical power but as a kind of yogic physicality that allows him to vault fallen trees while poor old Hubbard wheezes along behind.

As with the previous two stories, the conclusion works fairly well in isolation but lacks dramatic heft as the group spend an afternoon running around the countryside before Silence announces that the invisible presence is a fire elemental whose presence is down to the Colonel’s brother having stolen an Egyptian mummy leaving Silence to identify and repair the trespass in an effort to broker a peace between the human and the spiritual.

I must admit that I enjoyed “The Nemesis of Fire” a good deal more than I enjoyed either “A Psychical Invasion” or “Ancient Sorceries”. I think this may well be down to the fact that, having decided to write a series of stories with a shared protagonist, the first two stories feel more like attempts by Blackwood to shoehorn existing story ideas into the Paranormal Detective genre. This third story works because Blackwood actually commits to the form and a number of associated tropes. Where he departs from the norm, he does so in a manner that is both intelligent and true to the ideas established in the earlier stories. I particularly like the new-found physicality of Silence as well as his refusal to use weapons and his desire to mend the relationship between the living and the dead rather than destroying or containing the ghost. Unfortunately, having taken three stories to hit on a decent formula, Blackwood immediately returns to his comfort zone.

The fourth John Silence story is another tale of tubby Englishmen going on holiday to the continent. This time, it is about a man who returns as an adult to a German religious school he attended as a child. This is a very Blackwood work as the story’s emotional fulcrum turns on Blackwood’s furious ambivalence to foreign holidays: On the one hand, we have lavish descriptions of meals made up of foreign-seeming dark breads and smoked meats and the sense of companionship you get from spending time with strangers when you’re away from home. It’s all voices raised in song and heavily-accented jokes terminating with manly back-patting. It’s really very good and well-rendered but it’s also somewhat off…

The interesting thing about this story is that while the protagonist so enjoys the time he spends with the monks that he seems reluctant to leave, his descriptions of life at the school are amazingly bleak and suggest that while he might very well be enjoying his holiday, the monks made this man’s childhood a living nightmare. Blackwood really leans into this sense of ambivalence and draws out how nostalgia blunts the edges of traumatic memories and blinds people to the reality of what is happening. Hail fellow, well met and please pay no attention to the fact that we haven’t allowed you to leave.

Much like “Ancient Sorceries”, “Secret Worship” keeps Silence’s presence a secret right up until the end of the story when it transpires that the story’s protagonist had been describing events directly to Silence who doesn’t really do anything except provide a supernatural explanation for what just happened.

Having slid back into his old habits, Blackwood’s fifth John Silence story is an interesting combination of the two modes in which the Silence stories have thus-far been written. At the beginning, the story is about British people going on holiday and freaking out. At the end, John Silence turns up to deal with the paranormal abnormality.

The story is set on an island in the Baltic Sea where Silence’s long-term companion Hubbard has decided to camp out for the summer. The opening half of the story is all about the pleasures of camping, the joys of sleeping out in the open air and the sense of comradeship you get from the strangers who happen to be sharing your holiday. Blackwood lays it on thick and the setting is very reminiscent of “The Wendigo” including the vividly-rendered descriptions of the campers and the relationships that spring up between them.  In amongst these relationships is the fact that a Canadian lad is absolutely smitten with a British clergyman’s daughter. While the young woman rebuts the Canadian’s advances, the sexual tension between the two characters is so palpable that it starts to dominate the story, at which point things start to get weird.

One night, the daughter reports that she heard scratching and howling outside of her tent but the rest of the party dismiss these claims on the grounds that their chosen island is too small and too remote to support the presence of a dog let alone a wolf. However, as time passes, the animal’s presence gets harder and harder to ignore and the group starts to get more and more frightened until Hubbard sees the animal and concludes that it is supernatural in nature. With the assistance of the Canadian, he travels back to the nearest port where he discovers a letter from Silence informing him that he just happens to be in town. Delighted, the two companions meet up and return to the island.

Like the very best of Blackwood’s writing, “The Camp of the Dog” is all about emotions which, though tightly controlled in civilised lands, start to unwind the second humans set foot in nature. As ever, Blackwood adopts a nuanced position by stressing the way that nature makes people feel freer and more relaxed but to relax means to drop one’s defences and dropped defences are prone to vulnerabilities. The root of this story’s vulnerability lies in the fact that the island is deemed to be dead:

“There’s no life here. These islands are mere dead rocks pushed up from below the sea—not living land; and there’s nothing really alive on them. Even the sea, this tideless, brackish sea, neither salt water nor fresh, is dead. It’s all a pretty image of life without the real heart and soul of life. To a man with too strong desires who came here and lived close to nature, strange things might happen.”

Silence concludes that the animal raiding the camp is a werewolf and he explains that werewolves are a psychic manifestation of a man’s unspoken desires. By virtue of being young, horny and camped out on a lifeless rock in the Baltic Sea, the Canadian’s desires had awoken and taken physical form in the hope of devouring the clergyman’s daughter. Rather than killing the beast or remonstrating with its owner, Silence assumes the role of the psychotherapist and endeavours to dissolve the werewolf by encouraging its desires to re-integrate with the rest of the Canadian’s psyche. By bringing his desires into the open and addressing them head-on, Silence hopes to deal with the sexual tension once and for all… either the young people hook up or the Canadian’s advances are rebuffed allowing him to move on.

This is another John Silence story that works really well. This John Silence is a lot less physical than the one in the third case but a lot more attention is paid to the psycho-therapeutic nature of his talents. There’s something very modern and post-Buffy about a story in which a young man’s desires manifest themselves as a wolf but I love the fact that Silence’s instinct is always to heal and resolve rather than destroy.

The Final John Silence story heralds another change of form. This time, we get John Silence in the thick of the action but all the action takes place inside his office. The story opens with Silence talking to a newly-employed servant who may have psychic gifts of his own and moves quite rapidly to an encounter with a man who, having experimented with higher mathematics, acquired the capacity to see into other dimensions and so had become so psychically well-endowed that life had essentially become unbearable. Silence calms the man down, provides him with a theoretically framework through which to understand his new powers and trains him how to control his levels of sensitivity.

Though not exactly dramatically hefty, the final story is quite tightly written and it gives Blackwood the opportunity to engage in a spot of speculation that serves to flesh out the ‘magic system’ that had been lurking in the background of the earlier stories. This might have given Blackwood a framework for further exploration but I get the impression that no further Silence stories were written after this one.

All the talk of higher dimensions rather put me in mind of Lovecraft’s 1933 short story “The Dreams in the Witch House” in that both are attempts to suggest that magic is one of the potential outputs of pure mathematics, except of that while Lovecraft paints this output as terrifying, sanity-bending, and morally questionable Blackwood presents it as awesome, but ultimately wonderful despite its associated dangers. A similar set of similarities are at work between Lovecraft’s 1936 story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries” from nearly thirty years earlier. In both cases, a traveller alights in a town full of weird people and cannot leave despite the fact that staying too long in the town means running the risk of losing one’s humanity through a set of ancient magics. Again, what Lovecraft presents as terrifying, sanity-bending and morally questionable, Blackwood presents as awesome but ultimately wonderful despite its associated dangers.

On the whole, I think I like the John Silence stories less than I like the rest of Blackwood’s work. Blackwood evidently felt constricted by the need to keep a single protagonist from story to story and almost every single story Blackwood wrote with the character can be read as an attempt to have his cake in the form of a marketable on-going protagonist and eat it by having the characters be driven insane by the awe-inspiring things they experience on their travels.

Reading the John Silence stories also deepened my appreciation of the Holmes stories as while Blackwood messed about with the tone, the character, and the story-form he used in the John Silence stories, Sherlock Holmes appeared more-or-less fully formed. Setting aside the weird anti-Mormon Western stuff in “A Study in Scarlet”, the only thing that really changed in the Holmes stories was the exact placement of Dr. Watson’s war wound and the fact that a writer as endlessly imaginative and talented as Blackwood struggled to find a formula really makes you appreciate the work of authors who did.

If I had to take something away from the John Silence stories it’s the fact that you can build an occult detective story along therapeutic lines. The most effective John Silence stories are the ones in which he encounters people with paranormal problems, talks to them, and resolves the problem in a way that prevents any further harm. It’s also interesting to note that while all of the problems Silence contends with have a psychological basis, none of them turn out to be that profound. Indeed, you can imagine a literary occult detective story that would play out a bit like Kate Summerscale’s The Haunting of Alma Fielding but Blackwood shows that a well-conceived metaphor can cover for psychological depth. In truth, I suspect that psychological depth is precisely what’s missing from a lot of these stories as it would have been nice to see Silence engage with his clients and be forced to extract hidden truths that could then be used to resolve paranormal challenges but a tiny bit of psychological heft does seem to go a long way.

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