Imperial fiction: John Silence

‘All humourists are worth saving,’ he said with a smile, as she poured out tea. ‘We can’t afford to lose a single one in these strenuous days.’
Algernon Blackwood, John Silence: Physician Extraordinary (1908)

Mr Blackwood’s writing is of that kind which takes the reader precisely as music takes the listener. It creates a different mood. A man in the middle of one of these stories does not leave it. It dominates his thought while he is concerned with it; it remains in his mind after he has completed it.
Morning Post (1908)John-Silence2

John Silence is fully qualified as a doctor of conventional medicine. But he has another string to his bow, as well:

He had submitted himself to a long and severe training, at once physical, mental, and spiritual. What precisely this training had been, or where undergone, no one seemed to know – for he never spoke of it, as, indeed, he betrayed no single other characteristic of the charlatan.

Five years he’d been away on this mysterious course of training, and on his return he’d set up in practice as a ‘Psychic Doctor’. Now, his fame is ‘almost worldwide’. It’s not just the body, but the soul that he can treat. And, in particular, the souls of the dead, for he’s become a kind of secular exorcist.

It’s a superb premise for a character, an Edwardian take on Sheridan Le Fanu’s occult detective Dr Martin Hesselius. And, in turn, it went on to inspire others, including William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki and Terry Nation’s Robert Baldick.

A volume of John Silence adventures was published in 1908, a collection of five stories, but thereafter only one further tale emerged. Which is a shame, because I think he had greater potential than that.

Having said which, I want to look in particular at just the first story in the collection, ‘A Psychical Invasion’.

Felix Pender is a typical Englishman of his time, a ‘nominal Christian with the nominal Christian’s lofty standard of ethics, and his utter ignorance of spiritual possibilities’.

He is also a writer of humorous stories (‘you must have heard the name’), but he has lost his sense of humour. He tries to continue writing, but he’s not ‘feeling funny’, and what appears on the page is not what he intended:

At the very places where my characters were intended to tickle the ribs, only curious emotions of sinister amusement resulted. Dreadful innuendoes had managed to creep into the phrases. There was laughter of a kind, but it was bizarre, horrible, distressing…
The story, as it read then, made me shudder, for by virtue of these slight changes it had come somehow to hold the soul of horror, of horror disguised as merriment. The framework of humour was there, if you understand me, but the characters had turned sinister, and their laughter was evil.Algernon Blackwood

It’d be a winner now, of course, but Edwardian humour didn’t really do ‘dark’, so he has a problem professionally as well as personally.

Anyway, John Silence is called in to investigate, and soon gets to the heart of the matter. It turns out that Pender has acquired some cannabis oil and has eaten it in a spirit of adventure. ‘One of its effects, as you know, is to induce torrential laughter,’ he explains. ‘I am a writer of humorous tales, and I wished to increase my own sense of laughter – to see the ludicrous from an abnormal point of view.’

The experiment has worked, in the sense that – while under the influence of the cannabis – he saw perfectly ordinary objects as subjects of absurd amusement: ‘The bookcase was ludicrous, the armchair a perfect clown, the way the clock looked at me on the mantelpiece too comic for words.’ But unfortunately, that’s not all that happened: ‘Behind the fun lay the fear. It was terror masked by cap and bells.’ And now he can’t get rid of the dread.

Silence understands the situation entirely (‘I know something myself of the hashish laughter,’ he says), and tells Pender that what he’s done is to disturb his spiritual equilibrium:

You are in a surprising psychical condition. Certain portions of your atmosphere are vibrating at a far greater rate than others…
If the higher rate of vibration spreads all over, you will become, of course, permanently cognisant of a much larger world than the one you know normally. If, on the other hand, the rapid portion sinks back to the usual rate, you will lose these occasional increased perceptions you now have.

In short, the humourist is in extreme peril. ‘Your mind would not be permanently affected here and now, in this world,’ Silence advises him; ‘but in the existence after the body is left behind, you might wake up with your spirit so twisted, so distorted, so befouled, that you would be spiritually insane.’

The drug has opened his inner being to ‘ancient forces’, and now they have broken through into our world, manifest in the form of ‘a dark-skinned woman, with huge and terrible features and a very drooping left eye’. It turns out that this is a former occupant of this property, ‘a woman of singularly atrocious life and character’, who committed ‘a series of crimes that appalled the whole of England’, and was hanged in 1798.

Dr Silence swiftly moves Pender out of the house, and then sets himself up in residence, accompanied only by a cat and a dog, to force a showdown with the unruly spirit.

As so often with Algernon Blackwood, though, the story itself doesn’t matter a great deal. What he does best as a writer – and sometimes better than almost anyone else – is to suggest uncanny atmospheres. Here, for example, is the start of Silence’s experience in the house:

A veil that was denser than mere fog seemed to drop down over the scene, draping room, walls, animals and fire in a mist of darkness and folding also about his own mind. Other forms moved silently across the field of vision, forms that he recognised from previous experiments, and welcomed not. Unholy thoughts began to crowd into his brain, sinister suggestions of evil presented themselves seductively. Ice seemed to settle about his heart, and his mind trembled. He began to lose memory – memory of his identity, of where he was, of what he ought to do. The very foundations of his strength were shaken. His will seemed paralyzed.

Just to be clear: Dr Silence himself is not taking drugs, but the after-effects of the cannabis are still affecting the physical world. The evil spirit has taken possession of the house.

The glacial atmosphere closed round him with the cold of death, and a great rushing sound swept by overhead as though the ceiling had lifted to a great height. He heard the door shut. Far away it sounded. He felt lost, shelterless in the depths of his soul. Yet still he held out and resisted while the climax of the fight came nearer and nearer. He had stepped into the stream of forces awakened by Pender and he knew that he must withstand them to the end or come to a conclusion that it was not good for a man to come to. Something from the region of utter cold was upon him.


I’m reminded when reading these passages of another great Edwardian account of drugs, Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’ (1910), in the Sherlock Holmes volume His Last Bow.

At the centre of the story is the titular drug – Radix pedis diaboli – which has been brought to Britain from Africa, and which, when burnt, produces a smoke that can kill. Holmes, being the curious person that he is, can’t resist an experiment, burning a small quantity of the drug to observe the consequences. And Dr Watson, being the dutiful sidekick that he is, finds himself prevailed upon to join in. Here’s his report:

A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe. Vague shapes swirled and swam amid the dark cloud-bank, each a menace and a warning of something coming, the advent of some unspeakable dweller upon the threshold, whose very shadow would blast my soul.
A freezing horror took possession of me. I felt that my hair was rising, that my eyes were protruding, that my mouth was opened, and my tongue like leather. The turmoil within my brain was such that something must surely snap. I tried to scream and was vaguely aware of some hoarse croak which was my own voice, but distant and detached from myself.
At the same moment, in some effort of escape, I broke through that cloud of despair and had a glimpse of Holmes’s face, white, rigid, and drawn with horror – the very look which I had seen upon the features of the dead…

‘A Psychical Invasion’ and ‘The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’ share a sense of an old, primitive power that lies beneath our civilized world and might break through at any time. There’s obviously a parallel between these drug narratives and the recurrent imagery of Pan in Edwardian literature –  a strand to which Blackwood himself made his own contribution with the story ‘A Touch of Pan’ (1917) and the collection Pan’s Garden (1912).

And the central theme in all this material, I think, is the nagging feeling that runs through so much of British literature from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde onwards to the Great War: the feeling that the apparent peace and stability of the times is far less secure than it appears. This is the highpoint of the Empire – the absolute peak of which I take to be the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 – and yet there’s this fear that it can’t last, that society has drifted too far from nature, and that a crisis is coming.

Within this literary current, John Silence is one of the more reassuring figures. He confronts the unquiet spirits that break through into our world, and triumphs over them. And despite that training in conventional medicine, he does so through channelling greater forces that lie outside himself. There is a suggestion that his exorcisms are in an old tradition, more orthodox than occult. As he exerts his power, one of the characters sees him as though for the first time:

It was a face of power, a face, he now realized, of simple goodness such as might have been seen by men of old on the shores of Galilee; a face, by heaven, that could conquer even the devils of outer space.

Which makes Silence a rather comforting, even conventional figure.

see also:

The Beetle
The Madonna of the Barricades
Jim Maitland


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