The Centaur: Another masterwork from Algernon Blackwood

The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Centaur by Algernon Blackwood

The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsEnglish author Algernon Blackwood was always one to make good use of his wide-ranging travels in the 14 novels and over 180 short stories and novellas that he would ultimately give to the world. For example, his early 1890s sojourn in Canada, where he worked as a dairy farmer and hotel operator, would, upon his return to England, provide the inspirational setting for one of his greatest novellas, “The Wendigo” (1910). Canoeing trips down the Danube during the summers of 1900 and 1901 would compel him to pen one of his most famous tales, “The Willows,” in 1907. After Blackwood settled in Switzerland after 1908, the beautiful Alpine scenery there became the backdrop for many of the stories in his remarkable collection Pan’s Garden (1912), and a visit to Egypt in 1912 likewise moved him to create not only two of his key stories, “Sand” (1912) and “A Descent Into Egypt” (1914), but also his 1916 novel The Wave. And then there was Blackwood’s trip to the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, in the summer of 1910, which affected the author so much, apparently, that it spurred him to write the novel that he would later call his personal favorite of all his many creations; namely, The Centaur.

The Centaur was released the year after that Caucasus journey, in 1911, as a hardcover volume by the British publisher Macmillan & Co. It was Blackwood’s fourth novel, released when he was already 42. Almost a dozen editions have been released since, the two most recent being a 2016 volume from Stark House Press (a particularly nice deal, as this edition also includes Blackwood’s third novel, 1910’s The Human Chord, which I just loved, in the same volume) and a 2022 release from Wildside Press. The edition that I was fortunate enough to acquire is the vintage Macmillan hardcover, but not a first edition, or even the second from 1912, but only the third from 1916; a nice solid copy regardless, and featuring some beautiful interior artwork by Walford Graham Robertson. And, to my great delight, the book has turned out to be an absolute masterwork from an author who never seems to let me down. A stunning amalgamation of travelogue, mysticism and cosmic awe, The Centaur may even prove a life-altering experience for those susceptible enough to its compelling claims, and indeed, you might never look at the natural world – and the cosmos – the same way again after experiencing it.

The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Centaur, essentially, is the story of an Irishman named Terence O’Malley, told to us by his close friend, a nameless narrator who we’d like to think is Blackwood himself, but who is patently not. (Blackwood, besides those two occupations mentioned up top, was also a gold prospector, a bartender, a journalist, a secretary, a model, an Intelligence officer … but never, as far as I know, a worker in an insurance office in London – although he did work in an insurance office, for three months, in Canada – as our narrator is here.) When we first encounter the 30-year-old O’Malley, he is feeling more lonely and out of place than ever, after a lifetime of sensing that modern-day civilization is just not for him. A man of decidedly mystical bent, the Irishman only feels at ease when he is walking in the woods or mountains, and ceaselessly attempts to draw himself closer to the Earth, which he deems a living, conscious entity; as our narrator tells us, O’Malley felt that “objects, landscapes, humans, and the rest, were verily aspects of the collective consciousness of the Earth, moods of her spirit, phases of her being, expressions of her deep, pure, passionate ‘heart’ – projections of herself.” In pursuance of a wish to get even closer to Nature (“nature” is always spelled with a capital “N” in Blackwood), he boards a ship at Marseille and begins a cruise that will take him through Greece, the Black Sea and, ultimately, to the Caucasus. And once aboard that ship he encounters two very unusual personages: a large man (who seemingly appears even larger when looked at obliquely) who everyone deems to be Russian, and a boy who the passengers assume to be his son. This pair, neither of whom speaks barely a word of English, has a profound effect on O’Malley, who sees visions in their presence and feels a tremendous affinity with them. The kindly but mysteriously motivated ship’s doctor, Heinrich Stahl, cautions the Irishman regarding this pair, calling them Cosmic Beings and survivors of the Urwelt (primeval world). “He is not a human being at all,” the German doctor says of the Russian. He is “a little bit, a fragment, of the Soul of the World, and in that sense a survival – a survival of her youth.” But as the transit progresses, O’Malley becomes more and more drawn to the strange pair, and his visions continue apace, especially as the ship enters the waters of ancient Greece. The Irishman can almost see the legendary gods in the sky.

Once docked at the Black Sea port of Batumi, in Georgia, O’Malley becomes separated from the Russian (significantly, we never learn his name, or that of the boy … if indeed they ever had any!), and sets off to commune in the lonely mountainous region accompanied only by a local guide. But after a month of wandering, the Irishman indeed finds his Russian friend, and the two set off together, to delve into the “Cosmic Consciousness of the Earth Mother.” And, in an extended, lyrical and borderline hallucinogenic sequence, they do, seemingly transforming into semihuman, hooved creatures in the process. (What manner of equine creature they become is only revealed by the book’s title.) O’Malley spends what seems to be many weeks in this sublime state, in contact with the Earth Mother, and vaguely sensing other figures who may just be the ancient gods of myth, and who are in an even deeper level of communing than himself. But all wonderful things must come to an end, and O’Malley thus finds, when he returns to his old self, that many surprises and disappointments are lying in wait when he arrives back in civilization…The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

During the course of The Centaur, our narrator mentions that O’Malley’s notebooks could in no way express the grandeur of his verbal testimony, and admits that his own book regarding the Irishman’s experiences cannot do them justice either. Similarly, my own description above of the story’s bare outlines cannot convey to you the magical feeling of transport that Blackwood manages to achieve in his book. The Centaur was clearly a labor of love for the author; a novel in which he got to set forth his belief in the sentience of Nature so passionately that the reader cannot help being moved … and convinced. To bolster his credo here, Blackwood quotes liberally from any number of sources that he had read, most particularly the German philosopher/mystic Novalis, the German philosopher/psychologist Gustav Fechner, and the American philosopher/psychologist William James. This is largely a book of very profound ideas and is filled with any number of intelligent and fascinating discussions, particularly between O’Malley and the strangely sympathetic Dr. Stahl aboard the steamship, and between O’Malley and our narrator back home in London. And yet, Blackwood still manages to give his readers three scenes that should provide the requisite chills and wonder. In one, O’Malley spies upon the big Russian and his “son” aboard the ship at night, as something vague and large emerges from the sea to commune with them! In another, the boy seems to commit suicide by jumping overboard; O’Malley sees his spirit (?) hurl itself into the sea, and finds the boy’s lifeless body at his feet. And that third wonderful sequence, of course, must be O’Malley’s transformed experience, as he canters over the mountainsides with a troop of other hooved beings and is brought close to the consciousness of the living Earth.

The Centaur is a book best read slowly, I feel, so as to better appreciate the many ideas that Blackwood lays out (although our narrator tells us that he “could not pretend more than a vague sympathetic understanding with such descriptions of a mystical experience,” this reader, perhaps wrongly, felt he had a little more comprehension), as well as to savor the endlessly gorgeous language that he employs here. Make no mistake: This is a remarkably beautifully written book, with one stunning passage after another over the course of its entire 347-page length. Thus, this throwaway line about the weather in Marseille: “The mistral made the land unbearable, but herds of white horses ran galloping over the bay beneath a sky of childhood’s blue.” And this description of Greece by night:The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

…And so, at last, the darkness came, a starry darkness of soft blue shadows and phosphorescent sea out of which the hills of the Cyclades rose faint as pictures of floating smoke a wind might waft away like flowers to the sky. The plains of Marathon lay far astern, blushing faintly with their scarlet tamarisk blossoms. The strange purple glow of sunset over Hymettus had long since faded. A hush grew over the sea, now a marvellous cobalt blue. The earth, gently sleeping, manifested dreamily. Into the subconscious state passed one half of her huge, gentle life…

The entire book is like that, boasting exquisite language and creating a hypnotic and sustained mood over its entire duration. And very few authors, of course, were better than Blackwood at sustaining a mood of cosmic awe and atmospheric wonder. This is a book whose very special aura may linger with you for days after you turn its final page.

And, oh, as to that final page, it features an ending that in any other book would have to be deemed tragic, but is hardly so here. The only real tragedy to be found in O’Malley’s history, actually, is the difficulty he has of convincing others as to what he experienced, and the fact that enlisting others in his “back to Nature” cause seems to be a foredoomed impossibility. It would seem that all the folks O’Malley attempts to convince are more than happy to remain in the dirty, loud and overcrowded cities with which they are familiar. And this fact apparently dumbfounded Blackwood, who himself, in his 1923 autobiography Episodes Before Thirty, called NYC “monstrous, non-human, almost unearthly … a scab on the skin of the planet.”

For the rest of it, The Centaur also operates as a wonderful travelogue of sorts, and I guarantee that you’ll feel compelled to take a Mediterranean cruise yourself after you’ve finished reading it, and then explore those wild highlands of the Caucasus. And really, when was the last time you read a book that was set in the Lipari Islands, the Cyclades, Trebizond and Batumi? Actually, I have not one quibble to raise against Blackwood’s impeccable and flawless performance here. Yes, it’s a bit odd that there’s not a single female character of note to be found, but that’s just the way the story worked out, I suppose. And sure, some readers might complain that the novel is too slow moving, too dry, too caught up with its arguments and too lacking in exciting action sequences. But not me. This is a very special novel, I feel, and I promise that you’ve never read anything quite like it … except, perhaps, in another Blackwood book! It is still another wonderfully controlled exhibition of craft by this great master of supernatural literature, and comes with my very highest recommendation. During the course of writing the novel, Blackwood apparently sent a letter to his friend saying “The theme, of course, is far beyond my powers, but it flames in me with such pain that I must get it out as best I can…” No worries, Mr. Blackwood … this reader says you did an extraordinary job, indeed!

Published in 1911. This exquisitely-written tale of horror strikes a spiritual chord, haunting us to make us feel in peril for our soul.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for the great article. Talk of Centaurs recalls for me the greatnopening of Anthony Powell’s novel A Question of Upbringing:

    “The day was drawing in. For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world – legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea – scattered, unco-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined.”

  2. Thanks for the great article. Talk of Centaurs recalls for me the great opening of Anthony Powell’s novel A Question of Upbringing:

    “The day was drawing in. For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world – legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea – scattered, unco-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined.”

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Oh, my pleasure, Jay! And the Powell novel sounds very interesting!

  3. Blackwood is one of the most interesting early 20th century writers in the fantastical field. Thanks for reviewing this story for us!

  4. I’m sure it was.

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