by Ted Currie
To suggest that Lake Rosseau is a haunted lakeland, is that ripe, time etched speculation, saved as the fertile domain of poets and writers, certain of its inherent spirituality, and rich enchantments. Yet failing in usual course to prove their point beyond the speculation of ghosts, "the lady in white" and claims of bandy-legged wee beasties, dwelling in the dark secrets of the enclosing woodlands. Including all the strange abstractions of age-old folk tales and first person confessionals. Does it inspire thoughts of the paranormal? Or of a deep well of spirituality, profoundly more complex than the familiar pretty picture, of a mist-laden waterway, we still see in news stand postcard images, and those glossy regional promotions that draw the reader's attention to the glories of the "Muskoka lifestyle". There was one voyeur in the early history of Muskoka, who found Lake Rosseau to be a very enchanted place, and he used his experiences gathered here, as a background inspiration, to his well known stories of the paranormal. Horror stories, of which Algernon Blackwood was a master.
At the time of writing today's story, the continuation of yesterday's introduction, to the biography of author Algernon Blackwood, overviewing his five month stay in Muskoka, circa 1892, there was a heavy afternoon thunderstorm with torrential rain pounding over our little hollow of topography here in Gravenhurst. The noise of rain hitting the roof here at Birch Hollow, made it impossible to hear the comforting tick-tock of my old wall clock, only an arm's reach from my desk. The chatter from the radio broadcast was inaudible.
Due to the deepening darkness of the early moments of the storm, passing over, I had to turn up the flame in my faithful oil lamp, the one that was once used at the Muskoka Assembly of writers, on Lake Rosseau's Tobin's Island. The lamp had once belonged to Reverend Charles Applegath, of Epworth Inn (later Wigwassan Lodge), where the Assembly was held in summer seasons, during the 1920's and 30's, hosting some of the most revered authors and poets in Canada at the time. The lamp still gives off an inspirational, warm light, as it did a century ago, in its cultured environs, possibly in the presence of poets such as Charles G.D. Roberts, Wilson MacDonald, and Bliss Carmen.
I suppose it was a fitting circumstance, with the echo of thunder in the hollow, in which to commence this story, about one of the world's best known horror writers, and his relationship with Muskoka, dating back to 1892, when he was in his early twenties. A lawyer friend, in Toronto, following two catastrophic business failures, one being an overly ambitious dairy operation, the other being an ill-famed hotel, offered Algernon Blackwood, new to Canada, an opportunity to hideaway for a period of time, on a secluded island he owned in Lake Rosseau, in the District of Muskoka. He and his former business partner were quick to accept the invitation, and within days, they were housed in a small, simple cabin, on the beautiful little island, not far from the Village of Windermere.
It is acknowledged in his biography, published in 1923, that this five month escape from the city, and creditors looking for his partner to cover back debts, and a hiatus from further risky business ventures, would come to be one of his most cherished memories. Hailed in its inherent simplicity, as wilderness camping, it became a respite for spiritual recuperation. It became an ongoing source of inspiration for the rest of his life. Especially when he began authoring his famous tales of horror, after his turbulent years scrounging for stories on the crime beat, as a New York newspaper reporter. It was the hinterland experience that renewed his interests in exploration and adventure; knowing that there was so much more to see and experience of life, than the inside of a gloomy old hotel with its notorious bar and bad actors, of which he had been a partner.
Algernon Henry Blackwood was born on the 14th day of March, 1869, at Shooter's Hill, London, England, and died at the age of eighty-six, at Bishopbourne, Kent, England. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the mountains of Saanenmoser, Switzerland.
His father, a postal executive with the British Postal Service, was Sir Stevenson Arthur Blackwood, and his mother was Harriet Sydney Dobbs, the Duchess of Manchester. When Algernon Blackwood passed away, in 1951, his personal property was valued at approximately 14,189 pounds.
The fact that the writer lived to the ripe old age of eighty-six is a miracle in itself. As a matter of personal misfortune, firstly being seriously malnourished as a young man, out on his own, stricken-down by poverty, caused by poor paying employment, while living with roommates of the same financial disposition. Dwelling in a bug infested New York rooming house, he struggled with the anxiety, over several long years, feeling certain that his dire circumstance would never change. Then, at his most vulnerable, physically, emotionally, and financially, he survived a nasty bout of illness, that kept him bed-ridden for more than a month, the toxic aftermath of an untreated abscess, that very nearly killed him before he had reached the age of twenty-three. He let the abscess go untreated because he couldn't afford the price of a doctor's visit, and it wasn't until a friend solicited help from a physician he knew, that Blackwood agreed to have his now angry abscess lanced, and treated with healing ointment.
"My parents were both people of marked character, with intense convictions; my mother, especially, being a woman of great individuality, of iron restraint, grim humour, yet with a love and tenderness, and a spirit of uncommon sacrifice, that never touched weakness," wrote Algernon Blackwood, in his 1923 biography, "Episodes Before Thirty." "She possessed powers of mind and judgement, at the same time, of which my father, a public servant - financial secretary to the Post Office - availed himself to the full. She had great personal beauty. A young widow, her first husband having been the 6th Duke of Manchester, also of the evangelical persuasion, she met my father at Kimbolton soon after his return from the Crimean War, where he had undergone that religious change of heart, to the movement as 'conversion.' From a man of fashion, a leader in the social life to which he was born, he changed with sudden completeness to a leader in the renounced world, the flesh, the devil and all their works. The case of 'Beauty Blackwood', to use the nickname his unusual handsomeness gained for him, was, in its way, notorious. He became a teatotaller and non smoker, wrote devotional books, spoke in public, and held drawing-room prayer meetings, the Bible always in his pocket, communion with God always in his heart. His religion was genuine, unfaltering, consistent and sincere. He carried the war into his own late world of fashion. He never once looked back."
Blackwood noted of his family in the following kindly overview, that "Without wholeheartedly sharing my father's faith however, his religious and emotional temparment, with its imperious need of believing something, he certainly bequeathed to me..... The evangelical and revivalist movements, at any rate, was the dominant influence in my boyhood's years. People were sharply divided into souls that were saved and those that were not saved. Moody and Sankey, the American Revivalists, stayed in our house."
"In a short time I came to look upon the whole phenomena of 'conversion', so far as my type of mind and character was concerned, with distrust and weariness. Only the very topmost layer of my personality was affected; evidently, there was no peace or happiness for me that way. None the less, I had one or two terrible moments; one (I was reading with a private tutor in Somerset for Edinburgh University) when I woke in the very early morning with a choking sensation in my throat, and thought I was going to die. It must have been merely acute indigestion but I was convinced my last moment had come, and fell into sweating agony of fear and weakness. I prayed as hard as ever I could, swearing to consecrate myself to God if He would pull me through. I ever vowed I would become a missionary and work among the heathen, than which, I was always told, there was no higher type of manhood. But the pain and choking did not pass, and in despair I got up and swallowed half a bottle of piles of aconite which my mother, so ardent a homeopathist, always advised me to take after sneezing or cold shivers." Blackwood writes, "They were sweet and very nice, and the pain certainly began to pass away, but only to leave me with a remorse that I had allowed a mere human medicine to accomplish naturally what God wished to accomplish by His grace. I was certainly released from my promise to become a missionary and work among the heathen. And for this small mercy I was duly thankful, though the escape had been a rather narrow one."
He continues, "A year and a half in school of the Moravian Brotherhood, in the Black Forest, though it showed me another aspect of the same general line of belief, did not wholly obliterate my fear of hell, with its correlated desire for salvation. The poetry of the semi-religious life in that remote village set among ancient haunted forests, gave to natural idealistic tendencies another turn. The masters, who we termed Brother, were strenuous, devoted, self-sacrificing men, all later to go forth as missionaries to Labrador. Humbug, comfort, personal ambition played no part in their lives. The Liebesmahl in their little wooden church, for all its odd simplicity, was a genuine and impressive ceremony that touched something in me no church service at home, which Sankey's hymns on a bad harmonium, had ever reached. At this Communion Service, or Love Feast, sweet, weak tea in big white thick cups, followed by a clothes-basket filled with rolls, were handed round, first to the women, who sat on one side of the building, and then to the men and boys on the other side. There was a collective reality about the little ceremony that touched its sincerity with beauty. Similarly was Easter morning beautiful, when we marched in the early twilight towards the little cemetery among the larch trees and stood with our hats off round and open grave, waiting in silence for the sunrise. The air was cool and scented, our mood devotional and solemn. There was a sense of wonder among us. Then, as the sun slipped up above the leagues of forest, the Eight Brothers, singing in parts, led the ninety boys in the great German hymn, 'Christus ist auferstanden'."
"The surroundings, too, of the school influenced me greatly. Those leagues of Black Forest rolling over distant mountains, velvet-coloured, leaping to the sky in grey cliffs, or passing quietly like the sea in immense waves, always singing in the winds, haunted by elves and dwarfs and peopled by charming legends - those forest glades, deep in moss and covered in springtime with wild lily-of-the-valley; those tumbling streams that ran for miles unseen, then emerged to serve the peasants by splashing noisily over the clumsy water-wheel of a brown old sawmill before they again lost themselves among the mossy pine roots; those pools where water pixies dwelt, and those little red and brown villages we slept in our long walks - the whole setting of this Moravian school was so beautifully simple that it lent just the proper atmosphere for lives consecrated me an impression of grandeur, of loftiness and of real religion....and of a Deity not specifically active on Sundays only."
The recognition and celebration, of the natural environment on the soul of Algernon Blackwood, is a recurring theme throughout his biography, and plays well in his discovery of the solitude of Muskoka, specifically his island retreat on Lake Rosseau in the early 1890's. It is also reported, according to a piece written by John Robert Colombo, that Blackwood returned to Muskoka much later in life and his writing career, to stay for a shorter period, on North Bohemia Island, also in Lake Rosseau. His first retreat in Muskoka, had been on what is now known as Wistowe Island. More on this interesting biography, of internationally revered horror-writer, Algernon Blackwood, in the next issue of Curious The Tourist Guide. Please join us.