"He Used to Wear a Veil": Pursuing the Other in Algernon Blackwood's "The Listener"

Article excerpt

Perchance first enjoyed around flickering campfires in the preliterate times of the oral tradition, tales of mysterious doubles have thrilled and enthralled since the beginnings of storytelling, for they seek, through means subtle or overt, to illumine "the troubled and divided soul of man" (Herdman 161). When the written word was developed, these primeval narratives migrated into the stone, clay, and paper literature of almost all cultures. Variform incarnations of the strange and ghostly double-goer grew to be especially popular in western lore and legend where, according to Robert Rogers in The Double in Literature, "Despite occasional surface" differences, the phantasmal other "is always, in some basic way, an opposing self" (62). In nineteenth-century fiction--a genre "in which doubles roam in abundance" (Herdman xi)--there are many memorable renderings of the doppelganger theme and "the seductive power of psychological fragmentation" that it represents (Skarda and Jaffe, Introduction xx). For instance, Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson" tells of a troubled Englishman who manages to stab himself to death while attempting to dispatch his eldritch reflection who has, for years on end, shadowed him to the very brink of madness. One of Joseph Conrad's most widely admired short stories, "The Secret Sharer," offers a similar theme about one man's obsession with his inscrutable double-goer. Henry James, throughout his entire career, was intrigued by the siren trope of what Millicent Bell describes as "the rival reality of the unlived life" (27); and in several of James's best known works, conflicted protagonists obsess over that "unlived life," that beckoning and unrealized alternative destiny. In "The Jolly Corner," for example, an expatriate American returns to his native New York City after an unbroken absence of three decades only to become preoccupied with the ghostly manifestation of the man he would have become had he remained in Manhattan for those many missing years. James also addresses the theme of the mysterious other self in the frequently anthologized "Sir Edmund Orme," which, of course, has a somewhat less than subtle doppelganger pun in the title character's surname: "Or Me." Edith Wharton's last published story, "All Souls," is a wonderfully dark narrative about a self-satisfied female protagonist's jarring Halloween encounter with a muffled and disguised other who brings terror and insecurity to an isolated New England manor house. Surely the most famous treatment of the double theme in the western canon is Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. In this nightmare-inspired novella, "the duality of good and evil is so carefully drawn that the characters have become familiar abbreviations for the divided self," literary shorthand for the eternal human struggle between darkness and light (Skarda and Jaffe, Note 329). In like fashion, "Markheim," one of Stevenson's most popular tales, supernatural or otherwise, is revered as among the foremost renderings of the "universal and inevitable" theme of the double-goer, that ghostly and diaphanous other who dwells in the dim netherworld just beyond the ken of mortal senses (329).

Celebrated as one of the most prolific and erudite authors of his generation, Algernon Blackwood, a "writer of great subtlety and skill," composed short stories, novels, poems, plays, a well-received autobiography (Episodes Before Thirty), several children's books, and even early radio and television scripts (Keiting 51). But despite the depth and breadth of his accomplishments, it is for his many original and memorable supernatural tales that Blackwood--"particularly successful at conveying the mystery and terror of a strange world" (Wise and Fraser 785)--has achieved a lasting literary cachet. Rare indeed is the anthology of the spectral that does not include at least one of his tales, usually "The Willows," "The Wendigo," or "The Empty House." According to E. …


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