The Human Chord by Algernon Blackwood
In his masterful collection of 1912 entitled Pan’s Garden, British author Algernon Blackwood clearly displayed his belief in the sentience and awareness of such facets of Nature as trees, snow, gardens, the wind, subterranean fires, the seas and the deserts, and of their transformative powers for those with the ability to discern them. One facet of Nature not dealt with in Pan’s Garden, however, was sound itself, and now that I have finally experienced Blackwood’s novel of two years earlier, The Human Chord, I believe I know why. The subject of sound, you see, and of its ability to transfigure and create, lies at the very heart of this novel, and is dealt with in a very in-depth manner. A fairly stunning amalgam of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, The Human Chord ultimately reveals itself to be a completely sui generis novel, and indeed, I don’t believe that I’ve ever read another book quite like it.
The novel was Blackwood’s third, and was originally released in 1910 by the London-based publisher Macmillan & Co., which firm would come out with several hardcover reprints; mine is the one from 1928. As far as I can tell, the book would then go OOPs (out of prints) till 2001, and since then has been reissued by no fewer than five publishers: House of Stratus, Wildside Press, CreateSpace, Stark House Press, and Pinnacle Press. So happily, laying your hands on a copy of this book should not pose too much difficulty for you. Blackwood was already 41 at the time of this novel’s release, and had already come out, since 1906, with three story collections (out of an eventual 12), as well as the novels Jimbo: A Fantasy (1909) and The Education of Uncle Paul (also 1909). The author, clearly on a creative roll at this point in his prolific career, would, also in 1910, release the collection The Lost Valley and Other Stories, and by 1934 come out with 11 more novels. The Human Chord deservedly received glowing reviews from the critics of the day, with The Guardian saying, “In his present novel Mr. Blackwood reaches a height not previously attained; he touches on deeper problems, and is perhaps more arresting than he has ever been.” Blackwood’s book is at once mystical, exciting, romantic and frightening, and can be seen as a precursor to the type of cosmic horror tale that H. P. Lovecraft (an admitted fan of Blackwood) specialized in. Personally, I could not read this book quickly enough.
The Human Chord introduces us to a young Londoner with the curious name of Robert Spinrobin, who, as a youth, had been a dreamy child wont to live in fantasy worlds of his own devising. Now an unattached soul at the age of 28, and having wandered from one meaningless and unfulfilling job to the next, Spinrobin decides to answer an ad in the newspaper from an ex-clergyman named Philip Skale. Skale, it seems, is looking for an assistant with a tenor voice, who must be knowledgeable of the Hebrew language, as well as single, courageous and imaginative. After some correspondence with the clergyman, “Spinny” travels to his lonely abode in the hills of Wales and finally meets his employer in person. To his surprise, Skale is not as he had envisioned, but is rather a big, bearded and booming individual, with a powerfully magnetic personality. The timid Spinny also meets the two other members of the household: elderly Mrs. Mawle, the deaf housekeeper with a withered arm, and her niece, Miriam, with whom Spinny falls pretty instantly in love. During his monthlong period of probation in the Skale residence, Spinny is put to several tests by the clergyman, and slowly learns what his employer has in mind for him. And Skale’s programme is a rather audacious one, that almost beggars my poor powers of description. But let’s give it a try.
The good clergyman, it seems, after several decades of study and preparation, has discovered that the intoning of a person’s true name (as opposed to his/her assigned name at birth) can cause that person to have a spiritual awakening of sorts. Skale has also learned that all objects have a true name, and that it is possible to actually transform them materially by chanting their names and interpolating those sounds into their molecules. Moreover, he has learned that to chant someone’s true name is to become as one with that person; to meld with that person, in a way. Thus, his current master project: Skale now hopes to commune with one of the universe’s master powers (I really shouldn’t mention which one here, but given Skale’s former calling, you can probably guess) by intoning His true name. He has somehow, in the course of his investigations, discovered the first syllable of that name, which he hopes his quartet — he being the bass, Spinny the tenor, Mrs. Mawle the alto, and Miriam the soprano — will be able to summon and become as one with. In various wax-walled chambers in his abode, he has actually trapped the various sound segments of that syllable for study, and has now determined that Spinny must undergo some rigorous training in preparation for the main event. A miscalling of the Name fragment, you see, could have dire consequences, invoking unimaginable destruction on a universal scale. And, as the big day approaches, Spinny and Miriam, both of them in full harmonious love with the other, are faced with a terrible decision: Do they participate in Skale’s adventure, and possibly evolve into a new kind of celestial being, or should they be content with their love here on this old mundane Earth?
The Human Chord, in several ways, brings to mind Blackwood’s remarkable novella “Sand,” which would appear two years later in that Pan’s Garden collection (a collection foreshadowed by the author telling us, of Spinny, “Out of doors the flutes of Pan cried to him to dance…”). In “Sand,” Felix Henriot is reluctantly drawn into the schemes of an aunt-and-nephew team who are trying to conjure up the ka spirit of ancient Egypt. Henriot, though hugely curious to see the end results of the experiment, is yet ambivalent due to natural concerns for his very life. And in the 1910 novel, we find young Spinrobin facing a similar dilemma, although in his case, it is not so much his neck that he is worried about, but rather, the prospect of losing his lady love. In “Sand,” Blackwood makes repeated use of the desert sands as both symbol and metaphor, whereas in The Human Chord, he uses sound and music in much the same way. Spinny, thus, when describing his first sight of Miriam, says he “vibrated like music, like a string; as though when I passed her she had taken a bow and drawn it across the strings of my inmost being to make them sing.” Miriam’s name (not her real name, mind you, but “Miriam” itself) “continued on in his thoughts like a melody.” Blackwood tells us that Spinny and Miriam’s “two natures ran out to meet each other as naturally as two notes of music run to take their places in a chord,” and that Spinny “thought of her as the melody to which he was the accompaniment.” It should not come as a surprise to anyone, actually, that this is a beautifully written book, with any number of quotable lines that I was tempted to highlight (not that I’d ever dream of doing so, especially to a 1928 hardcover!), such as this one: “And life itself is not unlike some mighty telegram that seeks vainly to express, between the extremes of silence and excess, all that the soul would say…”
Blackwood, it will be remembered, had been brought up in a strictly religious home and later strayed from that upbringing by studying Buddhism and by joining several occult societies. The Human Chord demonstrates that its author was not only very well versed in his Bible — both Old and New Testaments — but in mysticism, the Kabbalah and other esoteric lore. Not only does he break the Second Commandment by taking God’s name in vain, but by using that infraction as the basic hinge in his story line. His main characters — actually, pretty much the only characters in this book, other than Spinny’s sister, who disappears after page 3 — make for a fascinating quartet, particularly Skale, who may or may not be a blasphemous seeker after forbidden knowledge, as he attempts to scale the heights via his musical scales. Spinny and Miriam make for a cute and impossibly sweet couple, while the revelation of the cause of Mrs. Mawle’s afflictions is surely one that will startle the reader. Blackwood peppers his novel with any number of remarkable scenes (not for nothing does Spinny, when thinking early on of the household in which he finds himself, conclude “It was astonishing. It was delightful. It was incredible!”), most notably a demonstration during which Sarah Mawle’s real name is intoned, causing the old woman to change in form as her soul/essence is brought to the surface; the scene in which Spinrobin hears his own actual name intoned and has a transformative, spiritual experience; and the final, jaw-dropping sequence, as Skale conducts his audacious experiment. But perhaps best of all, and fully justifying Blackwood’s being called the greatest British writer of supernatural fiction of the 20th century, is the two-part scene in which Spinny awakens in his bed at night, and notices several objects in his room stretching and morphing as he gazes upon them. Immediately after, a cat-sized something begins scurrying around his room and on top of his blankets, beneath which Spinny lies quaking in fright. It is a marvelous, bravura segment, brilliantly brought off by the author in a hugely atmospheric and outré manner. And things grow even wilder, if possible, in poor Spinny’s bedroom after that, vindicating his earlier feeling that “it all seemed so romantic, mystical and absurd…”
Literate, spellbinding and more than a little mind-blowing, The Human Chord finds Blackwood in peak form, indeed. As the author himself writes at one point, “it strain[s] the possibilities of belief and the resources of the imagination,” and yes, much of what Blackwood asks us to accept as possible here does seem rather far-fetched at first blush. But such is the author’s descriptive skill, not to mention his clearly laid-out explanations, that even his most outrageous conceits come across with a patina of believability. To be succinct, this really is some very impressive work. As The Daily Telegraph said at the time, “The author has had, one may say, a stupendous idea, and he has carried it out with all the zeal and all the talent which is in him…” This reader could not agree more.
This is the type of story H. P. Lovecraft would tell with deformed inbred humans in a decayed landscape, but Blackwood imagines it as more robust, well-intentioned people in the great outdoors. The plot is suited to either writer’s oeuvre, but the atmosphere and characterizations are what differs.
Not that there’s anything wrong with “deformed inbred humans,” of course! 😂
This sounds great! Thanks for your in-depth review, Sandy.
Always my pleasure, Brad!