Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Glamour of the Snow

I was re-reading this Blackwood story the other week, and it struck me that it's a perfect example of the author's greatest strengths and weaknesses. If you don't know it, it's here.

The plot is simple. An Englishman called Hibbert who's a bit of a loner, and sensitive to nature in that way Blackwood's characters often are, goes to an Alpine ski resort. He enjoys himself, but always feels a certain detachment both from his fellow skiers and skaters, and the locals.

His nature was too “multiple” to subscribe to the set of shibboleths of any one class. And, since all liked him, and felt that somehow he seemed outside of them—spectator, looker-on—all sought to claim him.

Typical outsider, of a sort very familiar from many ghostly tales. But it's fair to say that Blackwood set the template, here. M.R. James' characters are often loners, too, but they sometimes seem a little dates in their bachelor-scholar status. Blackwood's protagonists seem more complex and 'modern', in some ways.

But to return to TGotS. Hibbert goes skating late at night - another manifestation of his oddball status - and encounters a lovely young lady. This is a clever bit, as the girl is obviously muffled up with gloves, scarves etcetera, so Hibbert doesn't know what she looks like and doesn't touch her hand as they skate. She is of course an entrancing creature:

And she was delicious to skate with —supple, sure, and light, fast as a man yet with the freedom of a child, sinuous and steady at the same time. Her flexibility made him wonder, and when he asked where she had learned she murmured —-he caught the breath against his ear and recalled later that it was singularly cold—that she could hardly tell, for she had been accustomed to the ice ever since she could remember.

I think we all know where this is going. Blackwood as usual deluges us with long sentences, dashes all over the place, and a lot of numinous and sometimes well-crafted prose about the wonders of nature. I can take it or leave it. It's like sinking into a deep, overstuffed comfy chair then finding that want to get up and get a drink. Then, having sunk down again, you want to turn the wireless off. And so on. After a while you begin to wish for something a little more utilitarian.

But some passages remain powerful. When Hibbert sneaks out for a rendezvous at midnight, the beauty of the winter mountains is very well evoked.

“Give me your hand,” he cried, “I’m coming . . . !”

“A little farther on, a little higher,” came her delicious answer. “Here it is too near the village—and the church.”

And the words seemed wholly right and natural; he did not dream of questioning them; he understood that, with this little touch of civilisation in sight, the familiarity he suggested was impossible. Once out upon the open mountains, ’mid the freedom of huge slopes and towering peaks, the stars and moon to witness and the wilderness of snow to watch, they could taste an innocence of happy intercourse free from the dead conventions that imprison literal minds.

Fortunately there are some literal minds about the place to rescue Hibbert when the 'glamour' of the snow - in the old fashioned sense of the term - nearly does for him.

Throughout the story there is a sense of wonder, but never one of menace. The stranger who tempts Hibbert to what may be his death is not, we feel, evil. She is presumably some kind of spirit of nature, a sort of dryad of the snows, perhaps seeking a mate. The only suggestion of something dodgy is when she shows an aversion to church bells. But Blackwood (who had a horrendous Christian upbringing) never really puts his heart into the old 'religion good, pagan bad' dichotomy. Anyone who's read 'Ancient Sorceries' or even 'Secret Worship', in which a fallen angel appears, might struggle to find a sense of spiritual evil.

So, Algernon Blackwood - not a horror writer as such. But his best stories, 'The Wendigo' and 'The Willows', are all the better for being devoid of conventional gimmickry and ideas. It's a pity but not surprising that, Blackwood having chosen a difficult path to travel, most of us are unable to accompany him very far into the woods.

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