Smoke from the campfire swirls up into the darkness. I peer up through the woods, the black branches against the gray night, and wonder if I'm alone.
My imagination was forged by storytellers, my father spinning tales of decapitated coal miners running through fields of corn; my mother telling me, like a secret, about waking in her childhood home to see an Indian in the moonlight, watching her through her bedroom window.
Nothing makes the world more alive to me than a ghost story. And when I need my fix of spectral wonder, I turn to the Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood, authored by an Englishman whose name is not known as much as his influence is seen in the work of everyone from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King.
Though Blackwood is better known with horror fans, I feel something deeper, more literary, at work in his stories. He wrote not just about the shock and violence that pervades today's horror shelves, but of what he described as a new consciousness, of people coming to startling confrontation with a universe beyond natural.
In the story The Wendigo, a hunting party in the Canadian wilderness comes in contact with a spirit creature out of Algonquian mythology, sparking cannibalistic desires that focuses not on the gory devouring of flesh, but on those confounding fears that make even the best of us, in the times of peril, consume ourselves.
Many stories, like The Empty House and The Other Wing, deal with classic Gothic architectural spaces, while others, like Ancient Lights and The Glamour of the Snow, play up human naivete against the malefic mystery of the natural world.
The best of them all, the greatest ghost story I've ever read — better, I think, than more acclaimed tales like Henry James' The Turn of the Screw or Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House — is Blackwood's supernatural masterpiece, The Willows: Two men canoeing down the Danube become stranded on a small island, midriver, with a storm bearing over them. The setting is compelling, an island of willow trees thrashing in the wind.
The suspense is chilling, wondering if these men will escape the storm, and the trees, alive. But more than anything, Blackwood opens a new universe of truth, and as the wind-whipped willows release human-shaped shadows into the night, our character turns inward, confessing to "a vague feeling in me I wished to face and probe to the bottom," the psychological depths of which are both beautiful and terrifying.
It's been years since I first read Blackwell's stories, and yet they remain like lenses over my eyes, and in the summer, when I go into the woods to camp, I inevitably gaze up into the night sky and wonder about all that is us that is not our bodies. Then they are there, those unnatural things at the edges of my vision, those glimpses of mystery that slip in and out of our world like dreams in smoke.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.