Sunday, July 1, 2012
John Silence is the creation of Algernon Blackwood, a British writer, stalwart creator of ghostly tales and a primary influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft considered Blackwood's short story "The Willows" to be the finest weird story of all time. Having recently read it myself, I have to agree it's a masterpiece of subtle horror.
Blackwood made himself a tidy living as a writer, and gained more than a bit of popularity when his "Psychical Doctor" first hit the bookshelves in 1908. Dr. John Silence is a literary investigator with more than a dash of Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes in his make up.
His stories are related to us by his colleague Mr. Hubbard who finds Silence a formidable personality and is constantly impressed, if not necessarily surprised by his always adroit talents. Silence always seems to divine what the nut of the problem is, but not unlike Doc Savage by Lester Dent and others will often withhold his insights from his compatriots.
It seems Silence gained his special knowledge during a mysterious five year sabbatical in or around the Himalayas. In Silence stories, unlike the work of Doyle the supernatural is a real possibility, though Silence merely suggests that what folks think is "supernatural" is merely an imperfect or limited understanding of the full range of what is natural. Silence himself is possessed of psychic abilities which are never doubted in the context of the tales.
So these stories are not Scooby Doo-style debunking tales in which the mystery is revealed to be merely a prosaic domestic crime, but are actually truly weird, though oddly the atmosphere of quiet reason seems never to be sacrificed.
The Complete John Silence Stories available from Dover Books contains the whole canon of six Silence yarns. The first five were published together near the turn of the last century and were an immediate hit with readers. The sixth story was published in 1917.
"A Psychical Invasion" is about a man who seeks to unlock his artistic creativity with a bit of cannabis and unleashes a bit more than he and his family can withstand. John Silence comes to his rescue.
"Ancient Sorceries" is a story mostly related to Silence about a humble man who finds himself drawn to a strange French village in which all the people seem to share a dangerous nocturnal secret. The movie Val Lewton's Cat People was inspired by this one, though you will have no trouble with spoilers since the movie only touches on the elements of the story tangentially.
"The Nemesis of Fire" is a straightforward adventure about a man and his sister and and peculiar heats and flames which afflict the family now and in the past. Silence helps unlock the grisly secret which powers this menace.
"Secret Worship" is another tale told to Silence, and again it concerns a man drawn to a European village, but this time his connection is that once upon a time he went to school there. But it seems what he remembers and what was real are two different things indeed.
"The Camp of the Dog" offers up a closer look at Mr. Hubbard who while on a camping trip in European countryside with some friends is forced to call in Silence when a seemingly feral visitor troubles the group and one woman in particular.
"A Victim of Higher Space" is the only story not in the original collection and offers up a story with a somewhat different tone as a beleaguered and unassuming man seems to have trouble staying physically in the moment. The story is shorter than the rest and seems almost self-mocking in its delivery. (This one made me think of those plum Steve Ditko sci-fi micro-epics during the 50's.)
All of these are diverting tales and I highly recommend them. If you've not sampled John Silence, or just read "Ancient Sorceries" or "Secret Worship" you owe it to yourself to try the others in which he plays a more central and active role. "Nemesis of Fire" and "The Camp of the Dog" both offer up real action for someone looking for a bit of pulp energy.
Dover editions are always cheap, and that makes The Complete John Silence Stories a real bargain in entertainment. Or if you want to taste these classics for free, check out this great link.