Pan’s Garden by Algernon Blackwood
By the time the renowned British writer Algernon Blackwood released his first collection of short stories, The Empty House, in 1906, he was already 37 years old and had led a life as full of adventure and incident as anyone you might possibly name. He had already worked as a dairy farmer and hotel operator in Canada, gone prospecting for gold in Alaska, been a bartender, and worked as a NYC reporter for The Evening Sun, among other things; occupations that would go to make good material for his 1923 autobiography Episodes Before Thirty. As the new century got under way, Blackwood, long interested in Buddhism, philosophy and the supernatural, joined several occult societies, including The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His love of nature compelled him to spend much time in the lonely places of Europe, canoeing down the Danube (the inspiration for his most famous short story, “The Willows”) and hiking around the Swiss Alps. For Blackwood, nature was something truly sublime, practically a living, sentient entity (I refer here not to the fauna to be found in it, but rather to the forests, mountains, rivers, streams and winds themselves) that could be communed with, if only one were able to break through somehow. As he once revealed in an interview:
My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty. So many of my stories, therefore, deal with extension of consciousness; speculative and imaginative treatment of possibilities outside our normal range of consciousness … I believe it possible for our consciousness to change and grow, and that with this change we may become aware of a new universe…
Well, anyone who desires to explore just what Blackwood meant by that statement would be well advised to pick up the truly remarkable collection of his that I have just experienced, entitled Pan’s Garden.
Pan’s Garden was initially released in 1912 by the British publisher Macmillan & Co., which firm would go on to release three more printings of the book; my copy is the fourth-edition hardcover from 1924, and featuring charming illustrations for each of its 15 stories by one W. Graham Robertson. This reader was already a fan of three other collections from this great author: John Silence, Physician Extraordinary (1908); Incredible Adventures (1914), which consisted of three novellas and two short stories, and which has been called, by the respected occult fiction authority S. T. Joshi, “perhaps the greatest weird collection of all time;” and the misleadingly titled Best Ghost Stories, a 1973 anthology from Dover. But Pan’s Garden may just top them all in terms of both size and quality. A big, 530-page affair, it offers up three novellas and 12 short stories, all dealing with one of Blackwood’s favorite themes; indeed, the book’s subtitle is “A Volume of Nature Stories.” The collection was the author’s fifth, and he had also come out with four novels since getting going in 1906. And this, of course, was just the beginning for the more-than-prolific writer, who, before his passing in 1951, at the age of 82, would release 14 novels, seven plays, and over 180 short stories and novellas … in addition to being an English intelligence officer based in Switzerland during WW1, and, later, a beloved radio personality, on which medium the so-called “Ghost Man” would read his shuddery tales to an appreciative audience. The 15 stories gathered in Pan’s Garden all feature protagonists who are vouchsafed a look behind the curtain, as it were, and discern some inner truths about the natural world around us. For some of these characters, the knowledge comes as a wondrous, even lifesaving miracle; for others, a dangerous and hostile precursor that comes close to bringing about their destruction. But all 15 tales are just wonderful, and told employing Blackwood’s lush, lyrical style; almost like prose poetry at times. Personally, I just loved this collection to bits!
As for the stories themselves, the collection kicks off in a very big way with the novella-length “The Man Whom the Trees Loved.” In this remarkable story, we encounter an elderly couple, David Bittacy, a retired employee of the Woods and Forests Service, and his religious wife, Sophia. As her husband becomes more and more enamored of the trees in the local New Forest, in southern Hampshire where they reside, and more and more under their sway, Sophia becomes increasingly distraught. In one lovely section, the tree-loving David speaks of how his arboreal friends “drank the fading sunshine, dreamed in the moonlight, thrilled to the kiss of stars…” You may never look at a woods in the same way again, reader!
Up next is one of the collection’s shortest offerings, “The South Wind,” in which our narrator, possibly Blackwood himself, tells us of the revivifying effects that the first breath of spring has on a small, Swiss Alpine village. More of a mood piece than anything else, this short sketch remains a joy to read by dint of the author’s evocative prose. As in the previous tale, in which the forest trees had been shown to be both sentient and aware, here, the mountain valley and the competing winds of spring and winter are suggested to be mindful, as well.
In “The Sea Fit,” five men sit in a cabin on the shore of south Dorset and listen to the improbable tales being told by their host, an ex-sailor by the name of Capt. Erricson. Erricson, it seems, is a big believer in the ancient gods of the sea, and in the possibility of these gods being conjured into existence by the use of certain rites. While his guests debate this notion and generally come to the conclusion that their host is some kind of a crackpot, Blackwood expertly ratchets up the tension in this claustrophobic setting, culminating in one tragic conclusion, indeed. Or … is that ending so very tragic, after all?
“The Attic” is another tale set in the mountains of Switzerland that Blackwood loved so well. More of a straightforward ghost story than anything else, this one finds our narrator, a man named Pan (!), visiting his sister in her creepy old abode, in which a usurer had hung himself, in that titular attic, a century earlier. Pan’s sister had lost her own son shortly before, and now, on the anniversary of that young lad’s passing, the ghost of the hanged man in the attic begins to clamor for attention. This is a chilling little story, to be sure, and one that actually grows quite lovely by its end.
In “The Heath Fire,” a heat wave has seemingly resulted in an outbreak of conflagrations in Surrey. But an artist named O’Hara believes that something else might be to blame, and goes to investigate. And as it turns out, O’Hara is partially correct in his surmise. The living fires of the subterranean Earth, it seems, are being drawn to their parent sun as if by instinct. As O’Hara later thinks of the burned heathland, “The sun had loved it. The fires below had risen up and answered…” So yes, it’s not just trees, winds, mountains and the seas that are animate beings for Blackwood, but elemental fires, as well!
“The Messenger,” still another short mood piece, tells of a man (our narrator, probably Blackwood himself again) who awakens one morning with the feeling that something is amiss; that something momentous is about to occur. He hurriedly leaves his room and climbs up the forest-covered slopes above his Alpine village to see just what is afoot… Into this short tale Blackwood gives the reader as charming a look at the transformative powers of Nature — and specifically, the dawn — as might be imagined.
My favorite short story in this lengthy collection, “The Glamour of the Snow,” gives us the strange experience of a young man named Hibbert, on holiday in the Swiss Alps. While ice-skating by himself one night, Hibbert chances to meet a mysterious beauty dressed all in gray, and ice cold to the touch. At their next meeting, sometime later, this strange woman compels Hibbert to ascend the mountain peaks surrounding the valley, in the dead of freezing night. In this tale, we learn that the deadly snow and ice are also very much sentient and aware; treacherous though beautiful to behold. So, does Hibbert manage to survive his nighttime climb with this icy maiden? I would never dream of telling!
Just as a man learns to appreciate the beauty of Nature by gazing at the dawn in “The Messenger,” in “The Return,” a man who’s insensitive to all kinds of beauty finally has his eyes opened while peering out at the London night. This man, whose name we never learn, had been feeling jittery and tense all evening, as if — again — something of importance were about to happen. Ultimately, we learn that our leading character’s newfound appreciation for the natural world is tied in with a deceased friend of his … an artist and lover of all forms of beauty. A charming tale, this, conflating the ghost story with Blackwood’s main preoccupation: the transformative power of Nature, for those with the ability to see.
In the absolutely astounding, novella-length “Sand,” the reader encounters Felix Henriot, an artist and adventurer who has come to Helwan, outside Cairo, both for a holiday and to delve into the mystery of ancient Egypt. Henriot soon meets a strange pair, Lady Statham and her nephew, Richard Vance, who are trying to raise the “Group-Soul” ka spirit of ancient Egypt using occult rites and incantations. Felix is persuaded to attend this mystical rite and to draw any manifestations he might observe, in this wonderfully atmospheric outing … and one that is capped by a great twist ending. Blackwood had paid a visit to Egypt in 1911, and his descriptions of the desert area are most convincing in this splendid tale that almost serves as a companion piece to the novella “A Descent Into Egypt” from Incredible Adventures. An absolute masterwork, this one, marred only by Blackwood’s referring to the famous Egyptology reference work Book of the Master as House of the Master.
“The Transfer” is the outlier selection in this volume, giving us as it does a female narrator for a change. Here, Miss Gould, the governess at the home of a wealthy family, observes a most unusual struggle. As 7-year-old Jamie tells her, the barren patch of lawn in the mansion’s gardens is dying for want of food. But when Jamie’s millionaire uncle, Frene — a businessman apt to suck the life energies out of everyone he comes in contact with; a sort of psychic vampire — gets too close to the accursed plot of ground, a battle of energies ensues. So it’s the hungry patch of lawn, with all of Nature behind it, versus old Uncle Frene … anyone care to make a wager as to who the winner is here?
“Clairvoyance,” as it turns out, is a fairly straightforward ghost story … or is it? Here, an elderly man with a “well-known interest in psychical things” is given the haunted bedroom by his hostess … a young and childless newlywed married to a much older man. During his memorable night spent in the room, our protagonist seems to see the hands of hundreds of unborn babies reaching out to him, and hears their beseeching voices. As it turns out, the old guest is also childless, and gifted with second sight, thus enabling him to have a transformative experience for his own betterment in the haunted room.
In “The Golden Fly,” a suicidal man enters the New Forest with the express intention of putting a bullet through his head, but is given a new lease on life after witnessing the beauty of the natural setting around him. He comes to realize how small and insignificant his problems are when compared to the grand scope of the universe, and is even made aware of the gravity of his crime of killing the tiny insect of the title. This is a beautifully written story that will surely pick up anyone who is feeling depressed or having a lousy day; a life-affirming tale that once more demonstrates the transformative power of Nature.
“Special Delivery” gives us the macabre story of Meiklejohn the curate, a hiker who stops one evening at a lonely hotel in a desolate Swiss valley. During the night, weird knockings are heard on the curate’s door, and a strangely beckoning figure seems to try to lure him outdoors. Messages of warning begin to drum into his mind, and a formless, spinning entity suddenly appears in his chamber. This is still another solid winner of a story, one that would have made for a perfect Twilight Zone episode, telling as it does how the good curate just barely managed to escape a calamitous disaster.
In “The Destruction of Smith,” the only story in this collection set in the United States — the Arizona desert, to be specific — a group of hunters, that includes our narrator, is startled one night when the millionaire oilman Ezekiel B. Smith barges into their camp. Smith is distraught about visions that he has been having concerning Smithville, which lies hundreds of miles distant and yet which its founder believes to now be in flaming ruins. This is another genuinely eerie story that demonstrates the accuracy of Smith’s words: “Nature is all made of a piece like, [and] places too have this dooplicate appearance of theirselves that gits loose when they go under…”
Pan’s Garden concludes with one of its finest entries, the novella-length offering entitled “Temptation of the Clay.” This tale brilliantly encapsulates, once again, the author’s belief in the sentience of all trees and wooded areas. It introduces the reader to another adventurer and outdoorsman, Dick Eliot, who settles down on several hundred acres of inherited land, in southern England, with his new American Indian wife. Twelve years later, Eliot is a widower, and has promised his late wife to care for the land that both of them had loved. Some years further on, Dick is compelled to adopt his 14-year-old niece, Manya, an even bigger worshipper of Nature than he himself. All goes well, until Dick decides to develop his 200 pristine acres so as to provide for Manya’s future well-being, causing the land itself to revolt! In one of the book’s most chilling sequences, the very spirit of Nature possesses the young girl, in order to deliver a stern warning to Eliot. By turns lovely, endearing, spooky and cosmic, the novella really is a splendid way to bring this stunning collection to a close.
For modern readers, Pan’s Garden is, happily, easily obtainable today. Indeed, Stark House Press has an edition right now that pairs it with Incredible Adventures in a single volume, to make for one terrific bargain. But caveat emptor: The Stark House stand-alone edition of Incredible Adventures was the most typo-plagued book that I have ever read, so I would advise alternate sources. But I cannot recommend Pan’s Garden to you strongly enough; it truly is a magical affair. As for me, having experienced four of Blackwood’s collections, I think I’m finally ready now to tackle one of his novels. Fortunately, his 1910 novel The Human Chord has been waiting patiently on my bookshelf for some years now, and that is where this reader will be heading next. Stay tuned…