Perhaps the rarest collection of Blackwood, in truth, it remains one of several never officially reprinted.
First published in 1921, a re-reading today uncovers certain forgotten facts.
Overall, the collection is uneven. Of the fifteen tales, the first four are shamelessly derivative of past glories, re-treading plot and country from ‘The Listeners and Other Stories’ (1907) and ‘The Lost Valley’ (1910).
But, stay with them. ‘The Tarn of Sacrifice’ has an ex-soldier, back from the Front, and intent on a walking tour of the
Lake District. His clear loneliness for company is served when he all too willingly falls in with a windswept young woman and her father, disturbed by their own past, who welcome him in to their obsessive world of ritual.
‘Egyptian Sorcery’ subconsciously links Blackwood to Alistair Crowley and their membership of The Golden Dawn as thought transference becomes the means to pull a man’s beloved sister through a life-saving operation that might otherwise have killed her. Some intriguing – and, perhaps, unintentionally amusing – gender bending ensues.
‘Confession’ is a favourite, and one of the most satisfying tales in its subjective fear and unrelenting build to the climax. A Canadian soldier, suffering agoraphobia, has to face the fog of
for the first time, en route to a final week of convalescence in London Brighton. Losing his way, he is also on the point of losing control, when a strange woman - only half-conscious of him - draws him into following her. What follows is the kind of blind circuitous route no one would wish to take.
The penultimate tale, ‘The Lane That Ran East and West,’ is another gem; as earthily romantic in rural setting and character as the best of D. H. Lawrence. Running through all his work, Blackwood’s signature ability to deftly meld ‘real’ events with the dream state is, here, depicted at its best.
A woman who spends her life watching various entrances and exits come and go beside the long country road she lives by, one day meets a mysterious passer-by who stops to hand her – and her alone - a fern leaf as a gift for payment she will one day pay to herself. What comes-to-pass many years later, in a time and place she could never have predicted, reminds her tellingly of this day.
That good stories have been hiding amongst those already considered inferior isn’t the only forgotten fact about this book. Most of the unwary protagonists are soldiers, either shell-shocked or otherwise wounded, returning from World War One to a new world they must somehow re-engage with. (Blackwood’s world of myth and madness would surely have made most wish they hadn’t come back at all!)
This is hardly surprising, since Mike Ashley’s revealing biography on Blackwood – ‘Starlight Man’ – confirms that most of these tales were written in the immediate aftermath of Armistice, during 1919 – 20.
And who was Wilfred Wilson? Ashley confesses to gleaning few facts about him, other than he seems to have been a long-term hill-walking companion of Blackwood’s, who deemed he'd offered him enough research on the lie of foreign lands to justify joint credit.
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