Algernon Blackwood’s Incredible Adventures was first released in book form in 1914, and is comprised of three novellas and two short stories. The literary critic and scholar S.T. Joshi has called this book “perhaps the greatest weird collection of all time,” and while I do not pretend to be well read enough to concur in that evaluation, I will say that the book is beautifully written… and certainly weird, in Blackwood’s best manner.
The five pieces in Incredible Adventures are almost impossible to categorize. They’re not exactly horror or fantasy tales, but they all share one thing in common: In all of them, Algernon Blackwood — lover of Nature (with a capital “N”) and ever one to seek for the ultimate reality behind the surfaces of what we seem to know — gives us characters who are bettered for their glimpses behind “reality’s” curtain. This is not an easy book to write about, nor are the stories in it by any means light reading. Blackwood was trying to elucidate important points with these tales; to help readers understand their true relation to Nature, and time and space. Sounds like heavy going, I know, but for all lovers of finely crafted albeit unusual tales, this book will be a godsend.
The collection starts off with a bang with one of the novellas, “The Regeneration of Lord Ernie.” In this tale, a tutor tries to breathe some much-needed spirit into his young ward by exposing him to a pagan ceremony in the Jura Mountains. But things get a little out of control in this very atmospheric tale.
Next up is “The Sacrifice,” one of the shorter pieces, in which a mountaineer who has just undergone some severe life setbacks goes climbing. This story is the most symbolic, surrealistic and ambiguous of the bunch. I don’t want to ruin the tale for any prospective readers, so just let me say that I have never read a story quite like it.
“The Damned” is next up, and it is the longest novella in the collection. At first glance a traditional haunted-house story, the tale is soon revealed to go much deeper than that. As the author tells us repeatedly, “nothing happens” in this tale per se; atmosphere is everything, and nobody conveys atmosphere better than Blackwood (as a reading of his classic tale “The Willows” will surely demonstrate). But it really is remarkable how Blackwood maintains and magnifies this ominous atmosphere over the length of this novella; a really bravura performance.
The last of the three long tales, “A Descent Into Egypt,” immediately follows. In this tale, a group of men in modern-day Egypt find themselves being helplessly drawn back in time (spiritually, at least) by the glamour of that ancient land. This tale just keeps getting weirder and weirder. It is hallucinatory in the extreme; so much so that it makes me wonder why Blackwood was never championed in the 1960s by the same hippie college kids who took so wholeheartedly to Carlos Castaneda and P.K. Dick. Like Dick, Blackwood was very concerned with the reality that underlies our so-called reality. In this Egyptian tale, the land and time of the ancients is the reality; the present day is only the skin on the surface. This really is some amazing work.
Incredible Adventures ends on a lovely note with the short story entitled “Wayfarers.” Here, a man awakens after an auto accident and finds himself in bed a full hundred years earlier! It is a tale of eternal love and reincarnation; the type of tale that H. Rider Haggard would probably have loved, and another beautifully written winner.
I should add here that these stories are probably best read and savored slowly, both for their exquisite atmospheres as well as for their deeper meanings. Savor the language that Blackwood commands, and lines such as this one: “The stars turned a shade less brilliant, a softness in them as of human eyes that say farewell.” You can’t sprint through a botanical garden and expect to appreciate all the wonders therein!
I should also mention that, while I am grateful to Stark House for bringing back this classic, long-out-of-print collection in 2002, I deplore the sloppiness with which their edition has been put together. I have never read a book with more typographical errors of every description. Besides the run-of-the-mill typos, hyphens and emdashes are routinely intermixed throughout; margins are fouled up; words are omitted from sentences; changes in font size occur; British pound symbols are substituted for the letter “f”; words are repeated; boldface words appear for no reason; accent marks are at times used for apostrophes; and on and on. I myself am a copy editor and proofreader, and find it amazing that this edition was proofed at all. And yet, uncommonly enough, a credit for the proofreader is given at the front of the book!!! If it were me, I would have had my name deleted, out of professional pride! Fortunately there are now several more editions available including a $2 Kindle version. I suggest trying one of those.