"He used to wear a veil": pursuing the other in Algernon Blackwood's "the listener".
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. F. Bleiler, "With the work of Blackwood," the traditional English ghost story "was finally recognized as a legitimate, respectable literary form [...] a thought-provoking work that had something to say to an intelligent reader" (x); and "together with M. R. James, with whom he overlapped in time, [Blackwood] was recognized as one of the two greatest living exponents of supernatural fiction" (vi).
Among Blackwood's less well known efforts, but nevertheless "one of [his] best early stories," is "The Listener," written in 1899, but not published until 1907 in The Listener and Other Stories (Ashley 103). In this rarely commented upon but "marvelously jolting" tale, he offers his own unique, stylish--and quite disturbing--variant of the universally appealing doppelganger theme (Sullivan 125). In the piece, an obsessive and manic protagonist pursues a ghostly figure amid the ominous shadows of a deserted apartment house only to discover in the end that he has been pursuing his spiritual other, a hideous apparition that represents not what he might have been--a la Henry James and others--but what he may well degenerate into if he does not amend his perverse and intensely introversive ways. In short, he sees his future persona in the ill-defined entity who hides in darkness and beckons him to follow.
Drawing heavily upon Blackwood's own years of loneliness and penury while struggling to make a living as an author, this atmospheric, gauzy, and sensual story--called by Jack Sullivan "a dark fugue of sensations" (125) and "an eerie kaleidoscope of interwoven visions" (127)--tells of the misanthropic ways of an ambitious and headstrong writer who seeks to remove all distractions from his life by reducing contact with his fellow humans to an absolute minimum. Recounted in diary form, the tale opens with an early September entry in which the narrator proudly announces his leasing of a shockingly cheap second-floor apartment near the center of London: "Two rooms, without modern conveniences [...] in an old, ramshackle building," a building hidden away in shadows "at the end of a cul-de-sac" ("The Listener" 247). Insisting that "'The noise must stop [or] I can't write,'" the choleric narrator finds his demands for near total isolation and privacy met by this secluded and muffling location (252). As the sole tenant in the rambling house, he has no neighbors below him, beside him, or across the landing. Exile, splendid and self-imposed, awaits him in the quiet, two-hundred-year-old edifice. Because the "roar of London's traffic reaches [him] only in heavy, distant vibrations" (250), and because "there is no traffic down this forsaken alley-way" (251), he can now compose at his leisure, free from all human noise and interruption. He will shortly come to discover that he is not completely alone in the drafty old house, however. He does have one neighbor who resides directly above him in a cramped third-floor attic room. And that fellow lodger--grotesque, misshapen, horrifying--is the ghost of a man long dead.
As the tale progresses, the narrator (so complete is his distancing from others that he never reveals his name) discloses how he has no family connections and is alone in the world; but all of this social disaffection, this aloneness, is by his own design. Although both his mother and father are deceased, the single-minded writer does have a sister, "no, not dead exactly," with whom he once was very close, but he is now estranged from her due to his own spitefulness and envy ("The Listener" 250). Yet, as befits his inimical personality, he blames her alone for the rupture in their relationship: "Through sheer neglect on her part she has long passed out of my life" (250). Gruff and laconic with other people but garrulous and parenthetical in his diary, he then goes on to contradict himself, explaining, perhaps unwittingly, that the fault was actually his own: when his sister sent him a check for fifty pounds at Christmas, he petulantly "returned it to her in a thousand pieces and in an unstamped envelope" (250). He rejected her generous gift--enough for two years' rent in his new domicile--because he believed the money came from her well-to-do husband and not from her. With this last familial door thus "slammed, never to open again," the narrator settles into his small apartment in the sprawling house of vacant flats and prepares to focus all his creative energies upon ambitious writing projects (250). Short stories, poems, essays, and even a novel await his undivided attention. Without family, friends, neighbors, or "distracting noise" to nettle him, only ink, paper, and profound thoughts will engage his precious time (252). Monetary success must surely crown such intense literary efforts, and, in fact, he is soon able to boast of publishing "an article or two" in the leading periodicals of the day (247).
The diligent narrator does not spend every waking moment locked away "indoors writing," however ("The Listener" 248). He does have three inexpensive ways of dealing with fatigue, ennui, and the occasional case of writer's block, yet all of them merely serve to reinforce strongly his social isolation, his lack of connectedness with any of his fellow humans. Every day or so, for "health's sake," he takes lengthy walks "through Regent's Park, into Kensington Gardens, or farther afield to Hampstead Heath," often times not returning to his apartment until well after dark (248). But these long and contemplative strolls through attractive London locales frequented by other people are always cold, solitary diversions: he never strolls with a companion, nor does he ever strike up a small conversation with a fellow perambulator. He does not even nod or otherwise acknowledge the men and women he encounters in the public parks and gardens. And if the weather is inclement, he hides himself behind an open umbrella, shielding his face and eyes from the people he meets on the busy streets of the capital city. On other occasions, because he possesses "a reader's ticket," the insular author visits "the reading-room of the British Museum," yet while there, he never socializes with his fellow booklovers, never initiates a friendly conversation with the other patrons (252). Instead, he withdraws into a corner, loses himself in the printed page, and does not speak or otherwise interact socially. If anyone dares to even glance in his direction or seem as if they are about to address him, he feels incommoded and harassed by their "unnecessary and unpleasant" overtures (254). And on those rare occasions when he has enough spare shillings in his linty pocket to dine out "on poached eggs and coffee," he patronizes cheap restaurants where he always eats alone--while brooding upon the many exasperating vagaries of his own species (251).
In The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Chris Baldick, employing Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" as paradigm, declares that to achieve the desired emotional effect, a supernatural tale "should combine a fearful sense of inheritance [...] with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure [...] these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration" (xix). In "The Listener," the troubled narrator's tiny apartment certainly provides a "claustrophobic sense," while the "fearful sense of inheritance" is accomplished by the protagonist's constant fretting over his mental stability: "It had always been my special terror lest the insanity of my father's family should leap across the generations and appear in me" ("The Listener" 250). A further worry involves the admission that he is often too creative and too imaginative for his own good. He is afraid that his nighttime dreams and daytime reveries will eventually pitch him over the edge, and he will tumble headlong into the dark abyss of hereditary madness. To compound these concerns, he is an inveterate sleepwalker (he ties his big toe to the bedpost upon retiring), and he also suffers from sweat-drenched night terrors, vivid dreams that seem as real and solid as the walls of his decrepit new home. Virulently antisocial though he is--human contact "makes me irritable and scatters all my thoughts"--to help the reclusive writer cope with his mental problems, he finally forces himself to visit a chemist (256). Afterwards, while musing upon Thomas De Quincey and his liberal use of opiates as aids to inspiration, the narrator starts dosing himself with powerful drugs to help him sleep--as well as deal with the many bizarre occurrences that begin to plague his dark and secluded new home.
Late at night, for example, he has begun to hear strange scurrying noises in the room directly above his--as well as on the stairs and landings outside of his apartment--and his "sleep has been a good deal disturbed in consequence" ("The Listener" 252). The elderly landlady, whom he calls "admirably silent" but quite "foolish, fussy," and "idiotic," assures her lone tenant that mice are responsible for the intermittent--and maddeningly distracting--scurrying sounds (253). Unconvinced by his landlady's curt explanation, after a time he begins to obsess over the noises; they are ominous and singular, too heavy for rats or mice, too light for a human. He eventually learns that a proper English gentleman with a horrible secret once lived in the fetid, cramped, slant-roofed room immediately above his quarters. As the days pass and the narrator's diary entries grow ever more manic, more bizarre, he begins to be haunted by someone--or something--that periodically comes down from that musty compartment up under the eaves. And, like the obsessive protagonists in "The Jolly Corner," "The Secret Sharer," and "Markheim," the closeted writer decides to pursue the dark thing that now beckons him: the ghostly other in the rambling old house in which "elemental forces are loose" (Stern ix).
Although the narrator does not yet know it, the patrician gentleman who used to dwell in the claustrophobic room upstairs was a horribly disfigured leper in the last stages of the dread disease: "'His head and face were something appalling, just like a lion's'" ("The Listener" 275). The poor fellow's name was Blount, and, years before, he had secreted himself away in the cramped attic room with tiny windows. Exactly like the narrator, the leper was once the sole inhabitant of the secluded apartment house at the end of the silent cul-de-sac. Horribly maimed by his affliction and embarrassed by his grotesque appearance, whenever he left the safety and seclusion of the house, which was rarely, "'he used to wear a veil when he went out, and even then it was always in a closed carriage'" (274). Like some greatly changed Moses come down from Sinai after witnessing the awesome power of God, the leprous unfortunate had to conceal his features in order to spare those around him from the shock of seeing what had happened to his once-handsome countenance. Even though the wealthy Blount had leased the entire boarding house, he elected to live only in the small attic room "'because it was dark'" and because "'people might see him through the windows'" of the lower floors (275). From his vantage point high above the bustling, cosmopolitan streets of Victorian London, Blount could observe from afar the excitement of life in the grandest city in the world at the turn of the century, but, due to his disfigurement, he could never again be a part of that excitement.
Eventually, as the disease continued to ravage his ever-weakening body, Blount lost both legs below the knees. Thereafter, he was compelled to move "'about the ground on all fours with a sort of crawling motion'" ("The Listener" 274). Although a brilliant and well-educated man with a caring family and a once promising future, because of his dreadful appearance, Blount withdrew farther and farther from society, from his fellow humans. Unlike the irritable and antisocial narrator, however, Blount became a hermit, an isolato, out of cruel necessity, not deliberate choice. After years of enduring the horrors of leprosy, he finally took his own life in the tiny attic room: "'He had the free use of drugs--and in the morning he was found dead on the floor'" (275). By committing the sin of self-murder, though, he condemned his lonely, disfigured spirit to roam about the dark and desolate house on all fours, finding that even in death there is neither peace for him, nor wholeness.
Thus, it is the ghost of a lonely and forsaken leper who has been haunting--with ever longer and stronger manifestations--the misanthropic new tenant of the old house. The narrator, growing more and more obsessed with discovering the source of the bedeviling crawling sounds, begins to pursue his nemesis about the halls and landings at night. The first encounter occurs when the young writer comes home to his pitch-black apartment one evening. While feeling his way along the mantelpiece in search of the matches, he encounters another hand, "cold and moist," and instantly recoils in horror ("The Listener" 260). He then hears "someone moving away from me across the room in the direction of the door," but when he lights the gas-jet, "there was not a sign of a person anywhere" (260). Remembering the scurrying noises in the attic room that had disturbed him so many times before, he decides once and for all to seek out this vaguely sensed other presence in its own lair: "So, with a lighted candle, I went stealthily forth on my unpleasant journey into the upper regions" of the old house (261). According to Brad Leithauser, "Ghosts are wont to announce their arrival [...] through a scent" (16). In the case of a female spirit, sometimes it is the haunting fragrance of a favorite perfume or the bouquet of a special flower; in the case of a male entity, it may be the aroma of pipe tobacco or a signature shaving lotion. When the narrator, angered and emboldened by the recurrent aggravation of the noises, forces open the door of the attic room for the first time, there issues forth "an indescribable odour. [... An] odour that made my gorge rise" ("The Listener" 261). The "icy atmosphere and the nameless odour combined to make the room abominable," so this standoffish writer who loves solitude and silence above all things, even his family and friends, quickly truncates his first quest for the source of the scurrying sounds that so haunt and distract him (261).
According to Edith Wharton, "a ghost," whether benign or malevolent, almost always "prefers the silent hours" of night in which to manifest itself (8). This spiritual predilection certainly holds true for "the leprous thing" in the attic, for he chooses to come down and haunt the new lodger in the dark and quiet hours of the late evening (Sullivan 115). Despite the powerful sleeping opiates--to which he is now almost certainly addicted--the narrator is frequently plagued by either insomnia or vivid nightmares; moreover, he often awakens in the morning only to find his clothes strewn about the bedroom as if someone else has been rifling through them during the night. Reality begins to blur into dream since he cannot decide if he has scattered his clothing around the room while sleepwalking or the elusive otherworldly visitant from upstairs has been trying on the garments after midnight: "[A]ll my clothes lay about the floor [...] where they had evidently been flung (had I so tossed them?) during the dark hours, and my trousers trailed over the step into the front room" ("The Listener" 263). As a result of his growing dread over what may lurk--real or imagined--in the darkness, he begins, in spite of the cost, to burn the gas-jet in his tiny bedroom (a mere ten-by-ten feet) all night long.
Then on a dismal evening in late November, the narrator suddenly awakens "with the impression that someone was standing outside my bedroom door listening" ("The Listener" 264). He is so certain of a palpable eavesdropper that he climbs quietly out from under the covers, stations himself against the door, presses his ear to the wood, and listens to his listener, further blurring the distinction between the isolated narrator and the isolated ghost of the suicidal leper. The writer declares, "this midnight Listener could not be very far away, and I felt that if I persevered I should eventually come face to face with him . [... It] was somehow necessary for my safety as well as my sanity that I should find this intruder and force his secret from him" (265). When he later summons the courage to snatch open the door, his sitting room is completely empty--"There was nothing to be seen; no one was moving in the darkness"--so he ventures out onto the stair landing, where a nebulous motion in the dimness draws his "eyes upward" (265). There he sees, with a cold shudder, "a person about half-way up the next turn of the stairs, leaning forward over the balustrade and staring straight into my face. [...] The gloom made it impossible to see much beyond the general outline, but [...] I was looking into the visage of something monstrous" (265). He confesses how for some seconds, fascinated by horror, I returned the gaze and stared into the dark, inscrutable countenance above me without knowing exactly where I was or what I was doing. Then I realised in quite a new way that I was face to face with the secret midnight Listener, and I steeled myself as best I could for what was about to come. (266)
Marshaling all his bravado, he begins to mount the stairs, but the misshapen shade above "retreated as swiftly as I advanced" ("The Listener" 266). The legless ghost scampers up the stairway, always staying equidistant to his pursuer, and then disappears into the black doorway of his attic sanctuary. This cramped and dank place symbolically parallels the dark and tiny apartment inhabited by the solitude-craving writer just one floor below, but so obsessed is he with finding out the identity of this "shadow-self, a dark and hidden counterpart of [his] daytime consciousness" (Herdman 153), he does not stop to consider how he is pursuing the very thing he is in the accelerating process of becoming: not a physical leper per se, but a social one--a pariah, an outcast, an embittered and hateful recluse . "Monstrous guilt," contend Patricia L. Skarda and Nora Crow Jaffe in The Evil Image, "sometimes requires embodiment outside the self before it can be recognized" (Introduction xxi). At this point, although the narrator has touched his "annexe of the self" in the darkness, has seen him in shadow, has smelled his diseased flesh, the flurried writer still cannot decipher the riddle of this ghostly other (Herdman 42). He begins to believe that he will finally fulfill his family curse and go mad in his attempt to identify, to unmask, the occult presence in the old house.
When the narrator early on in the story boasts of how he ripped up the fifty-pound Christmas check from his only sister and petulantly returned it to her postage due, he describes how she "wrote back with a broad quill pen that covered a whole page with three lines, 'You are evidently as cracked as ever, and rude and ungrateful into the bargain'" ("The Listener" 250, my emphasis). British slang for madness notwithstanding, mirrors are referenced several times in Blackwood's tale (perhaps in homage to Stevenson's mirror-filled "Markheim"), but the looking glasses are fractured, imperfect, defective. Hence, any image they offer is distorted, surreal, kaleidoscopic: "Once I actually caught myself gazing into the long, cracked mirrors, trying to see the sunlight dancing beneath the trees," but the narrator cannot see himself or the world behind him accurately reflected (255). Thus, he really is, as his sister had warned, "as cracked as ever." And, toward the end of the story, it is one of these disfiguring mirrors in which the narrator, upon awakening at midnight, sees his ghostly other staring intently, examining a swollen, leprosy-blotched face: "His back was turned to me, but in the glass I saw the reflection of a huge head and face illumined fitfully by the flicker of the night-light" (271). Horrified into mute rigidity, he continues to stare at the reflected image of the spectral trespasser until "he suddenly turned and regarded me with small beady eyes [...] I sat bolt upright in bed, uttered a loud cry, and then fell back in a dead swoon of terror upon the bed" (272). As with his many literary predecessors, the full, clear gaze of the spectral double is simply too awful to bear; the narrator collapses, spent and drained, not regaining his sensibilities until the next morning. And even then, he is so seized with "violent trembling" over the latest and strongest manifestation that rushing headlong out of the house seems the only remaining option if he wishes to maintain his tenuous hold on sanity (271).
But before he can dash out of the house and gallop madly about the streets of London, the terrified writer is rescued by an old college friend he has not seen in ages. The man's name is Chapter, and he has just returned to England after a long sojourn in the Middle East. This worldly and "capital fellow, vigorous, healthy, with no nerves," discovers the haggard narrator on the verge of a total mental and physical breakdown ("The Listener" 269). After some forced and uneasy small talk about their university days at Cambridge, a strangely ill-at-ease Chapter, a man renowned for iron discipline and steely nerves, reveals the truth about the old boarding house where the rent is low, yet all the apartments--except for the writer's--remain curiously vacant.
Chapter informs the narrator that the dead leper who had inhabited the house years before had also been a good friend of his; and he, Chapter, regularly visited the dying man in his tiny room up under the eaves: "'Poor devil. [...] I used to keep my eyes closed as much as possible. He always begged to be allowed to take his veil off, and asked if I minded much. [...] He rented the whole house. [...] He had the little room on the top floor, the square one just under the roof'" ("The Listener" 275). Hidden away up there, outcast and forsaken, Blount--like the narrator, a graduate of Cambridge--perished in cruel, suffocating isolation. And so now, if the solitude-craving writer, a social leper, a psychological amputee, does not heed the lesson provided him by Blount's tragic example, the same woeful pattern will be repeated. The narrator already has plenty of drugs; all he needs is time for his emotional "leprosy" to metastasize into full-blown dementia and then he will undoubtedly be found sprawled lifeless on the cold floor of his apartment in the empty house on the dead-end street. If slain by his own hand, he, too, may be doomed to haunt the lonely scene of his self-murder, bidding new tenants to rise from their beds at midnight and follow him up the winding stairs and into the darkness.
As "The Listener" approaches its conclusion, a wonderful ambiguity still tantalizes: who is the real listener of the title? Since both the antisocial writer and the ghost of the disfigured leper crouch outside locked doors and eavesdrop upon the other, who is the real "secret midnight Listener," the true outsider? Is it the leper, ostracized in life because of his facial deformities and his missing legs? Or is it the reclusive and misanthropic author who likes to write for and about humans yet detests being around them? In the final analysis, the two are symbolically melded into the same lost and damned soul. Just as surely as did his malformed predecessor, the insular writer hides himself behind a veil--albeit metaphorical--when he stubbornly shields from his fellow beings not only his face, but his heart and his common humanity. According to Brad Leithauser in The Norton Book of Ghost Stories, "It is rare for ghosts to prey upon the wholly blameless" (15). Presumably, due to Chapter's revelation about the tragic fate of the horribly isolated Blount, the narrator will change his attitude, will rejoin the human race and learn to live with the noise and aggravation that are unavoidable by-products of society. Like Captain Robert Walton--who is warned away from the precipice of self-destruction by the anguished example of a dying Victor Frankenstein--perhaps the cloistered narrator, once so keen on solitude and separation, will mend his deeply flawed personality, will reject his self-imposed isolation and will live with and among those noisy creatures about whom he writes.
Through his several frightening encounters with the ghost of the leper, the narrator has been presented with what Millicent Bell describes as the psychic "presence at once of both the potential and the actual" (27); or as Skarda and Jaffe maintain, "The double or the complementary personality [...] can and does terrify because it awakens fear of real and horrid possibilities" (Introduction xx). During the progression of the tale, like a latter-day Ebenezer Scrooge, the self-absorbed narrator has been given a glimpse of his own future: it is diseased. As the story ends, this urban Selkirk must select from two possible destinies--one dark, the other light--that are proffered him in the old house. On the last page of the text, he declares, with a hint of hard-earned insight, "at last I was beginning to understand" ("The Listener" 275). Like a mature Saint Paul, the now chastened narrator has come to accept that "the impulses of nature and the impulses of the spirit are at war with one another," and to achieve self-harmony, he must change--he must unveil himself--or be utterly damned (Gal. 5:17, RSV).
Although not as widely anthologized or celebrated as Blackwood's many better known tales, and although seen by some as merely a grotesque thriller designed to shock, horrify, and even disgust, "The Listener" deserves elevation to the rarified company of those few stories that render the archetype of the ghostly double-goer in a deep, stylish, and memorable way. As lurid and dark as any tale imagined by the mind of Edgar Allan Poe, as elegant and profound as anything evoked by the pen of Henry James, this layered, dreamlike story of desolation and disintegration, of physical and psychical separateness, deserves a wider audience and a better reputation; for it skillfully and artfully delineates what Blackwood himself once described as "the intimate struggles of a growing soul" via the protagonist's emotional grappling with the manifold fears and the enduring challenges of human existence (Episodes Before Thirty 27).
Ashley, Mike. Algernon Blackwood: An Extraordinary Life. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001.
Baldick, Chris. Introduction. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. xi-xxiii.
Bell, Millicent. Meaning in Henry James. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
Blackwood, Algernon. Episodes Before Thirty. London: Cassell, 1923.
--. "The Listener." Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood. New York: Dover, 1973. 247-275. Original spelling is retained in all quotations from British sources.
Bleiler, E. F. Introduction. Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood. New York: Dover, 1973. v-x.
Herdman, John. The Double in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: The Shadow Life. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.
Keiting, P. J. "Algernon Blackwood." The Avenel Companion to English and American Literature. New York: Avenel, 1981. 51.
Leithauser, Brad. Introduction. The Norton Book of Ghost Stories. New York: Norton, 1994. 9-21.
Rogers, Robert. A Psychological Study of the Double in Literature. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1970.
Skarda, Patricia L., and Nora Crow Jaffe. Introduction. The Evil Image: The Literary Art of Terror From Daniel Defoe to Stephen King. New York: Meridian, 1981. xi-xxiv.
--. Note on Robert Louis Stevenson. The Evil Image: The Literary Art of Terror From Daniel Defoe to Stephen King. 329-331.
Stern, Phillip Van Doren. Introduction. Great Ghost Stories. New York: Washington Square, 1964. ix-xxvi.
Sullivan, Jack. Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story From LeFanu to Blackwood. Athens: Ohio UP, 1978.
Wharton, Edith. Preface. The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. New York: Scribner, 1997. 7-11.
Wise, Herbert A., and Phyllis Fraser. A Note on Algernon Blackwood. Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. New York: Modern Library, 1944. 785.
TERRY W. THOMPSON has taught English at universities in China, Arabia, Colorado, and Georgia. His most recent peer-reviewed publications have been on H. G. Wells, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, and Arthur Miller.
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|Author:||Thompson, Terry W.|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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