A later addition by Algernon Blackwood to the series of Dr Silence stories was ‘A Victim of Higher Space’, about a man who became overinvolved in the study of tessaracts and began to lose his own visible dimensions.
I am more interested in Dr Silence’s own space, his ‘green study’ – the reception room in which he saw potential patients with psycho-spiritual problems. He advises his ‘man’, Barker, to speak as little as possible when showing people in, but to think ‘kind, helpful and sympathetic thoughts’.
The room itself was: ‘entirely draped and furnished in a soothing deep green, calculated to promote calmness and repose of mind’. In case of agitation, however, it was also equipped with a secret spyhole, a chair fixed to the ground, and camouflaged green buttons, which when pressed ‘permitted a soothing and persuasive narcotic to rise invisibly about the occupant of the chair’.
Admirable arrangements, and good for an afternoon nap too.
Another of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories, ‘In the Camp of the Dog’ (1908), is set in an uninhabited island off the coast of Sweden. A group of Dr Silence’s friends are camping there – the Reverend Timothy Maloney; his wife; their pretty daughter Joan; an earnest Canadian student, Peter Sangree, and the narrator, Hubbard.
At first all is idyllic, but strange events start to happen at night – it seems from the noise and paw prints as if a large dog is sniffling around Joan’s tent, and once it tries to attack her. They can find no trace of anything by day, but one night Hubbard sees:
A dark and shadowy mass that might have been…the body of a large animal. Two glowing eyes shone for an instant…
Hubbard sends for Dr Silence. His view is that a werewolf is likely as the islands are soulless rocks, and that:
‘a long sojourn could lead [a man] to deterioration, to degeneration…he might turn savage, his instincts and desires turn animal…entirely unknown to himself however.’
His theory was that under such circumstances a man’s ‘astral body’ or ‘Double’ could manifest, separately from the the physical body.
Suffice it to say that although the clergyman shoots at and wounds the man-wolf, true love wins the day with the aid of Dr Silence.
Imagine, many years after leaving, you have decided to visit your far-away old school. You approach it by night (of course) and muse on the frustrations and delights that come to mind connected with the place. You ring the ancient bell and are welcomed in.
The corridors and classrooms are familiar and even some of the faces of the shadowy staff – yet how can that be? You are invited to stay overnight, but then suddenly your hands are bound, and you find you are to be a sacrifice to – Asmodelius!
Fortunately Dr John Silence has followed you, and intervenes, explaining later that:
‘It was a concourse of the shells of violent men…seeking after death…to prolong their vile and unnatural existence. And had they accomplished their object, you, in turn, at the death of your body, would have passed into their power and helped to swell their dreadful purposes.’
Dr Silence and his assistant are called to the aid of an ex-military man who is concerned about strange events in and near his country house, including the deaths of his older brother and estate manager who were both found with their faces scorched. After this shock his sister has been unable to walk.
When the investigators arrive they are struck by an unusual sensation of heat, and later hear about weird outbreaks of fire emanating from a large woody area, which has a neolithic stone circle in its centre and is avoided by living creatures. Events worsen as the moon becomes full, and the suspense increases, while Dr Silence exercises his psychic powers and occult insights.
The final scene involves an Egyptian mummy, a scarab amulet, and a further death, but no more will now be revealed.
Dr Silence has been discussing a story told by a friend, Vezin, who had once stayed by chance at a little town in France where he underwent an extraordinary and unsettling experience…
The people of the town seemed to move stealthily like cats, and watch him. Did they have another, secret, night-time life? And why were they afraid of fire?
The inn-mistress’s beautifully feline daughter enchanted Vezin and wanted him to stay – and join their ancient Satanic rites. He escaped and returned to London. But Dr Silence says sadly of Vezin that he was:
swept into a vortex of forces arising out of the intense activities of a past life … subliminal uprushes of memory like this can be … exceedingly dangerous.
In Algernon Blackwood’s ‘A Psychical Invasion’ Dr John Silence is consulted by a lady because ‘of his wonderful clairvoyant gift and his trained psychic knowledge of the processes by which a personality may be disintegrated and destroyed’.
He replies that if it’s only a case of multiple personality he is not interested to help – but no, she wants to help a friend restore a lost sense of humour.
Dr Silence visits Mr Pender, a humourist by profession, and by holding his hand diagnoses drug use – yes, Cannabis Indica. He was looking for the famous induction of greater laughter, but instead has found his thoughts invaded by an evil-looking one-eyed woman, and his writing become too macabre for sale.
With the help of his sensitive cat, Smoke, and his dog, Flame, Dr Silence visits the Pender house at night, and gradually the haunting effects begin to manifest…
Dr Silence overcomes the demon by absorbing its power (he is immune after much experience) and later discovers that a previous occupant of the house was
a woman of singularly atrocious life and character who finally suffered death byhanging, after a series of crimes that appalled the whole of England and only came to light by the merest chance.
To get the full effect you too must pass the night with Dr Silence, Smoke and Flame.
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) is famous for his ghostly tales, and his stories of the ‘psychic doctor’ John Silence (1908) were extremely successful.
This was in part due to the insights of his publisher, Nash, who both suggested that the previously various stories should have the same central character and intrigued the public with the poster above.
Blackwood later wrote:
Dared I, at the age of thirty-seven, throw up the security of a lucrative, yet uncongenial career? After a week’s careful reflection I left dried milk and went off to a mountain village abroad to try my hand at further books.
Of the stories he remarked that they were ‘the dramatised emotions of places I registered in certain places’.
Dr Jack Petrie is the narrator and side-kick, and thus a Dr Watson equivalent. He seems to have ordinary rather than startling medical skills, and lives in the suburbs, next to a common (probably Clapham).
Denis Naylor Smith is the Sherlock Holmes equivalent, but unmemorable and fairly ludicrous by modern standards. He is a ‘tall, lean man, with his square-cut, clean-shaven face sun-baked to the hue of coffee’. He announces:
“I have travelled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interests of the entire white race, and I honestly believe–though I pray I may be wrong – that its survival depends largely upon the success of my mission.”
All police and others immediately grant him entry and support at his request, as he has a special government commission of authority.
The several loosely connected stories follow a pattern: some warning comes that an important British man connected with the Far East i.e. India, China or Burma, is about to be assassinated. Naylor Smith and Petrie rush to the scene, and are either just too late or just in time. Fu Manchu’s methods are hard for the British investigators to work out, but include mysterious poisons, horrid insects, green mists from a mummy, specially flexible ladders, a monkey and strangulating lassos. At various points Smith and Petrie are captured and about to die by torture, poison, fire or drowning but are rescued by the beautiful Karamaneh.
They encounter Dr Fu Manchu on several occasions but their attempts to capture him never succeed…
Dacoits, Thuggees and Lascars appear frequently as denizens of an opium den in Limehouse, or as instruments of Dr Fu Manchu’s evil will. As they had appeared as stereotypes in fiction previously, people of the day had readier images to attach to these labels than we do.
Lascars were sailors from India or elsewhere in the East employed by the East India Company and other British ships, and commonly set up communities in British port towns. By the eve of World War I, there were over 50,000 Lascars in Britain.
The Dacoits were members of a class of robbers in India and Burma, who plundered in armed bands. The Thugs or Thuggees travelled in groups across India for several hundred years. They would join travelling groups, gain their confidence and then surprise and strangle their victims by pulling a handkerchief or noose tight around their necks. This garotte is called by a name which translates as ‘yellow scarf ‘, an idea which is picked up by the movies.
The East India company established the Thuggee and Dacoity Department in 1830, and the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts, 1836–1848 were enacted in British India under East India Company rule.