“The Great Mother Look”: Harrowing Hell in Blackwood’s “The Damned”

by Kirk R. Swenson

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 35] Abstract: In “The Damned” Algernon Blackwood repurposes the traditional ghost story to critique the psychopathology of religious dogmatism, reconceptualizing Hell as an apotheosis of the alienation and othering spawned by exclusionary beliefs. The story’s setting, a maledict estate known as The Towers, is perched over a spectral abyss where the psycho-social impacts of religious intolerance, particularly the exclusivist doctrines of evangelical Christianity, assume disturbing forms, demonstrating Blackwood’s mastery of S. L. Varnado’s concept of the “negative numinous.” While exposing the patriarchal nature of religious dogmatism, the story also critiques the physicalist bias of secular epistemology by ironizing the first-person narrator, Bill, whose doctrinaire positivism gratifies his sense of male authority while blinding him to the supernatural forces threatening The Towers. Ultimately, Bill serves as a foil for his sister, Frances, who offers a welcome counterpoint to her brother’s blinkered vision through her affiliations with the New Woman and feminist thought. As a compelling character who proves instrumental in saving the imperiled estate, she enriches the story’s timely critique of religion gone awry with an alternative spiritual vision reflective of early twentieth-century feminism.

Keywords: chthonic, empiricism, numinous, phallogocentric

In his biography of Algernon Blackwood, Mike Ashley recounts the terror of Hell that the British supernaturalist experienced throughout childhood as a consequence of his parents’ fervent evangelical Christianity: “This fear of hell and damnation was almost tangible in the Blackwood household, and young Algernon grew up torn by a terrifying dilemma—a fear that his parents were right and a fear that they were wrong” (9). If they were right, then Blackwood faced a God whose cruelty horrified him; if they were wrong, then his entire conception of spiritual reality was an illu-[page 36]sion. As Ashley’s biography reveals, Blackwood’s later development as a writer was shaped by his search for metaphysical alternatives to the religious dogmas that so disturbed him in his youth. Nowhere in his oeuvre does Blackwood explore his aversion to these beliefs more directly than in the memorable story “The Damned,” first published in 1914.

The story features two siblings, Bill and Frances, who come to the aid of an heiress afflicted by an inscrutable malaise on her English country estate, The Towers. As the protagonists uncover the source of the mansion’s dark aura, the story critiques the othering endemic to evangelical Christianity through the lens of gender, exposing the patriarchal nature of these beliefs while offering a spiritual alternative grounded in early twentieth-century feminism.

The plot is driven by a dialectic between brother and sister that generates a sustained irony. While both siblings share a refined aesthetic temperament and an impatience with outmoded Victorian prejudices, Bill, the story’s narrator, evinces a matter-of-fact rationality secure in its masculine prerogatives. Looking askance at what he sees as his sister’s eccentricities, he remarks that she “had a weakness for dabbling in the various ‘new’ theories of the day” (81) and fears that “she might become a suffragette or be taken captive by one of these wild theories that caught her imagination sometimes” (91). But despite Bill’s adherence to a sober grasp of empirical reality, at The Towers he is engulfed in an ordeal that slips outside his narrative control. Ironically, his sister, armed with the critical consciousness of the New Woman and a feminist’s awareness of patriarchy, possesses the discernment, compassion, and courage required to solve the puzzle of The Towers, comprehend the threat to her friend Mabel (the heiress), and banish her assailants.

One might characterize Frances’s discernment as an ability to apprehend the numinous. In Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction, S. L. Varnado includes [page 37] Blackwood among twentieth-century masters of the “negative numinous,” a concept the critic derives from the work of theologian Rudolf Otto. Varnado describes the numinous proper as “an affective state in which the percipient—through feelings of awe, mystery, and fascination—becomes aware of an objective spiritual presence” (15). Some Gothic works, he argues, employ a negative variant in which the “theological and moral qualities” of Otto’s numinous are replaced by a “daemonic element”—a sinister, other-worldly power that leaves human consciousness in a state “best . . . described by the word stupor” (12). Varnado’s discussion of Blackwood focuses on “The Willows,” but he might as well have discussed “The Damned” as an effective example of the author’s ability to convey this uncanny experience. Indeed, “stupefaction” is an apt word to describe the impact Bill’s experiences have on him, and while he partially succumbs to this impact, Frances is able to absorb the shock, as it were, and demonstrate a resilience that allows her to prevail.1

The negative numinous in “The Damned” derives from what S. T. Joshi has termed “one of the most novel conceptions in the history of weird fiction” (101). The idea is that the successive inhabitants of The Towers have all professed a variety of exclusivist religious doctrines that condemn unbelievers to some kind of perdition, and the estate is now beleaguered by the bitter legacy these tenants have left behind. Frances, coming to horrified awareness of this situation, refers to “layers” of evil (111) and tells Bill that the beliefs of the estate’s former owners “have left their shadow like a thick deposit over the house and grounds” (146). Even the land on which the house now stands is revealed to have been the site of fearsome rites of ancient Druids (160). The implicit analogy compares the estate to an archaeological site where artifacts of former inhabitants are uncovered in layers of earth, revealing the site’s history. But the history revealed, in this case, is one of malicious intolerance and persecution. If these pernicious beliefs have left residual “layers” of spiritual malignancy, then Bill and [page 38] Frances are the unwilling excavators, descending ever deeper into a Dantean hell of benighted dogmatism and bigotry. Ultimately, the layering motif conveys a sense that the mansion is perched above a chasm of clerical terror stretching back in time—a hell conjured solely from the dark emotions spawned by misguided belief.

While the chasm yawns beneath, looming over the dining hall at the heart of the mansion is a grim visage personifying the most recent regime in this long inheritance of dread. This is a portrait of Samuel Franklyn, Mabel’s deceased husband and the estate’s prior owner, in whom Blackwood embodies all the worst traits of the evangelical Christianity in which he was raised. Blackwood was born in 1869, when the evangelical tradition was by no means a marginalized or esoteric sect; in fact, it was the dominant form of Christianity in both England and the United States throughout the Victorian period (Altick 166 ff.). Historically, the conviction that nonbelievers are “damned” has motivated the evangelizing mission at the core of evangelical churches. As Richard Altick observes, for evangelicals, “[s]inful man could be saved . . . but salvation could be achieved only by conversion and submission to the will of God” (166). Historian Frances Fitzgerald writes of the great Victorian evangelist D. L. Moody (1837-1899) that he was “perfectly in tune with the popular culture of his day” and “helped to fuse the spirit of middle-class Victorian America with evangelical Christianity” (84). This same Moody counted Blackwood’s father among his close friends and was a frequent houseguest during the writer’s boyhood years (Ashley 9, 91). According to Ashley, “[Moody’s] powerful personality and hypnotic eyes frightened Algernon, who avoided [him] for fear of being cornered and asked, ‘Are you saved?’” (9).

Samuel Franklyn, whose spirit pervades the mansion he recently tenanted, is described as a zealous proponent of this withering division of all humanity into two camps, the saved and the damned. A wealthy banker, philanthropist, and [page 39] preacher of the gospel, he is remembered by Bill early in the story: “[H]e was narrow as a telegraph wire and unbending as a church pillar; he was intensely selfish; intolerant as an officer of the Inquisition. . . . All the world but his own small, exclusive sect must be damned eternally—a pity, but alas, inevitable. He was right” (84, emphasis in original). Initially striking readers as a familiar Victorian stereotype—the avaricious businessman of self-righteous pieties and philistine prejudices—Franklyn becomes far more daunting as the story proceeds. He is, after all, the spirit presiding over the netherworld emanating from those residual deposits of spiritual hatred and othering, a subterranean realm which Bill and Frances discover is also the abode of restless spirits trapped in the dark legacy of their own dogmas. As the dark energy of these entities threatens to surge upward and flood the mansion above, it also inflicts a paralysis of the will that threatens to pull the mansion’s inhabitants, in particular Franklyn’s widow, Mabel, downward into the ranks of “the damned.” Presiding over this perilous milieu, Franklyn’s spirit assumes a stature that recalls the chthonic deities of classical antiquity: he is Pluto or Hades, whose real wealth cannot be found in estates or financial assets, for it is comprised of the numberless anguished souls raging in the depths beneath The Towers.

The plot begins in earnest when Bill joins Frances at the estate after receiving from her a series of vaguely disturbing letters. Upon arriving, Bill asks, “[Y]ou are not frightened, are you? Nothing has happened, has it?” (95). Frances assures him nothing has, and from that point on the statement “Nothing happened” ironically cycles through their conversations and Bill’s narrative as they struggle with the malignant forces enveloping the estate. For much of the story, very little does happen in the physical realm, but the visitors’ subjective experiences of dread and disquiet escalate. “Degrees of unrest we felt,” observes Bill, “but the actual thing did not disclose itself. It did not happen” (94). [page 40] This sense of negation also seems to characterize the malaise afflicting their host, Mabel. Bill remarks, “I could not see her clearly—could not feel her soul, her personality. . . . She seemed not there, lifeless, empty, a shadow—nothing” (100). Along with this perception comes the realization that Mabel is somehow a captive. Seeing her on the grounds one day, Bill feels unaccountably that he is watching a “prisoner . . . one who wishes to escape, but cannot” (100).

The siblings soon realize that the crushing nihilism emanating from the house has driven Mabel to summon them both, and moreover, they learn that they were chosen because of their powers of artistic expression: Bill is a writer and his sister a painter. Bill asks, “Why had Mrs. Franklyn asked us to come, artists, unbelieving vagabonds, types at the farthest possible remove from the saved sheep of her [deceased] husband’s household?” (100). The answer comes on his tenth day at the estate when—after an uncanny experience with a “Shadow” that was more “thought” than perception and a revelatory moment regarding the posthumous influence of Samuel Franklyn (104-106)—Bill consults Frances. She tells him that while Mabel knows “the place is saturated with some influence,” she feels that “she is herself too positive or too stupid to interpret [it]. . . . So she’s trying me—us—what she calls the sensitive and impressionable artistic temperament. She says that until she is sure exactly what this influence is, she can’t . . . ‘get the house straight’, as she phrases it” (110). Mabel’s hope is that brother and sister will use their respective talents to break the silence and express what has been inexpressible. Thus, she has been encouraging Bill to use the mansion’s well-appointed office and capacious library, suggesting that he write “perhaps a story about the house” (98), while insisting that Frances produce sketches of the house and grounds.

While both siblings make an effort on Mabel’s behalf, the results of each are strikingly different. Bill, who writes for popular magazines, finds that he cannot write anything sub-[page 41]stantive about the estate. When Frances asks him whether he has any “desire to interpret” whatever haunts The Towers, he says he would like to use writing as a purgative, “to explain, discover, . . . to get rid of it” but admits a lack of success “as yet” (114). In fact, what might be termed Bill’s “writer’s block” persists to the story’s end, generating a metafictional motif that magnifies the irony of his first-person narration. Shortly after the climactic events that save Mabel, Bill remarks, “A novelist might mould [sic] the queer material into [a] coherent sequence that would be interesting but could not be true. It remains, therefore, not a story but a history. Nothing happened” (151). Several pages later, in the story’s concluding passages, Bill avers, “There was no climax in the story sense. Nothing ever really happened” (163). As has been noted, both siblings initially sense an atmosphere of paralysis on the estate, but Bill makes these conclusive pronouncements toward the end of a dramatic story arc capped with an affecting climax. And while the epistemological problems that prompt him to say the story “could not be true” are significant, Bill’s repudiation of a “coherent sequence” and denial that anything has even “happened” can only strike the reader as unwarranted. These judgments are best read, then, as ironic revelations of Bill’s own perceptual limitations, and, as such, they reveal the gulf that divides his consciousness from that of his sister. As Frances notes, referring to each sibling’s reactions to the estate, “One set of influences gets at me, another gets at you. It’s according to our temperaments, I think” (113-114). In sum, the nature of The Towers’ evil has so affected Bill that he cannot conceptualize his own experiences as a story, a series of meaningful events in which he has played a significant role. For Frances, as we shall see, something like the opposite has occurred.

Frances produces scores of “sketches,” watercolor paintings of the house, garden, and grounds whose importance is revealed in the same consultation in which Bill confesses his writer’s block. Perusing these sketches quickly relieves him [page 42] of the quaint notion that the estate is simply the victim of Samuel Franklyn’s ghost—a theory he derides explicitly as “Victorian” and implicitly, in distinctly patriarchal terms, as emasculating, apparently associating the traditional ghost story with an effeminate irrationality (111). “The mere thought,” he effuses, “exasperated, with its suggestion of imagination, overwrought nerves, hysteria, and the rest” (111). Ironically, his sister offers the alternative diagnosis that will be borne out by subsequent events: “He [Franklyn] is in it,” she concedes, “but it’s something more than that alone, something far bigger and more complicated” (111, emphasis in original). She goes on to adumbrate her theory that the estate is afflicted by spectral “layers” of dogmatic belief locked in a struggle of mutual animosity, creating a kind of gridlock that conveys the now-familiar sense of paralysis. As Bill examines her sketches, he finds that they function as a vector for the negative energy emanating from these deposits of intolerance and hatred. This channelling occurs in spite of the artist’s intentions, driven by a force “not her own” that infuses them with “a kind of symbolism that was sinister, even diabolical” (109). When Bill notes a “pagan” quality to this symbolism (112), his sister concurs, remarking, “There has always been in me, more than in you, the pagan thing, perhaps, though never, thank God, like that” (114, emphasis in original).

A revival of interest in paganism was characteristic of both the fin de siècle and the early Modernist period in which Blackwood wrote. Blackwood’s readers in 1914 would have been familiar with pagan motifs in the work of “decadent” poets such as Charles Algernon Swinburne and writers of the Celtic Twilight, for example. But for Blackwood “the pagan thing” was more than a matter of literary fashion. As David Punter notes, Blackwood may have been “the only major writer of supernatural fiction to take the supernatural seriously” (45). The animism of pre-Christian paganism resonated with the sense of “oneness with Nature” that, as Blackwood put it, endured throughout his life as “an [page 43] imperious and royal spell that overmastered all other spells” (qtd. in Joshi 92). As a young man, he joined a succession of esoteric occultist groups, many of which looked to pagan traditions for access to elemental powers they felt had atrophied in modern society (Graf, chap. 4). In 1900, for example, W. B. Yeats initiated Blackwood into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Ashley 112), which incorporated pagan elements into a “syncretistic compilation from the esoterica of many cultures and times” (Graf 7).

Obviously, the strain of paganism emanating from Frances’s sketches is not the redemptive force that animated Blackwood’s mysticism; whatever is in the sketches is corrupted by the legacy of The Towers. It is noteworthy, however, that Frances, the character who will guide her friend and brother to safety, confesses forthrightly that paganism “has always been in me” (114). This remark sets the stage not only for an endorsement of the pagan ideals that Blackwood celebrated, but for a passage that resonates with feminist ideas that developed in a current of paganism that runs through the nineteenth century. At the conclusion of the consultation over the sketches, Bill asks, “Would you like to leave, Frances? Shall we go back to town?” (115). Frances, her face “buried in her hands,” seems too overcome with emotion to reply, and Bill is on the verge of leaving the room when she raises her head and whispers resolutely, “We must stay by Mabel and help her get it straight” (115). Bill describes her appearance as she says this: “The sunlight caught her face, framed untidily in its auburn hair, and I saw her wonderful expression with a start. Pity, tenderness and sympathy shone in it like a flame. . . . There shone through all her features the imperishable love and yearning to sacrifice self for others which I have seen in only one type of human being. It was the great mother look” (115).

Beyond this passage, the story offers no explanation for what is meant by “the great mother look.” Contemporary readers, however, had ample cultural context for an understanding that may evade readers today. The façade of bour-[page 44]geois gentility that characterized the Victorian world of Blackwood’s youth concealed widespread discontent with the patriarchal God of orthodox Christianity and growing agitation for re-envisioning him as female, as what some at the time did indeed call the “great mother.” Gail Turley Houston observes that this discontent derived from several developments, beginning with the general fact of the growing power and influence of women among England’s middle and upper classes. As Houston puts it, “The increase of women’s political, social, and artistic power during the nineteenth century occurred in conjunction with subliminal mother-god-want” (11).

In Houston’s work, four discursive sources for the project of re-gendering god in the nineteenth century stand out. First, the Romantic movement in England and on the Continent endowed the Victorians with a legacy of fascination with “pagan” deities, ranging from the Olympians of ancient Greece to the pantheons of the ancient Celts and Teutons. Consequently, notes Houston, “England . . . was rife with variant mythologies,” including “more goddesses than one knew what to do with” (7). Second, from the late eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth, religious orthodoxy in England was roiled by a number of “millenarians and socialist feminists” for whom “a symbolic divine in the form of the Great Mother” was preached, promoted, and celebrated as a welcome agent of spiritual renewal (Houston 2). Driven by “mother-god-want,” these radical visionaries were responding to many women’s increasing dissatisfaction with a patriarchal God who seemed oblivious to their needs and aspirations (Houston 14 ff.). Third, Houston finds that these radical ideas were adopted by several major female novelists and poets, including Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who further developed the project of using “Mother Nature as an emblem for a woman-centered mythology featuring the biological, political, and linguistic potency of classical goddesses, a titanic Eve, and a female savior” (13). [page 45]

Finally, Houston notes the 1861 publication of Swiss scholar Jacob Bachofen’s Das Mütterrecht, translated as Mother Right (12). This influential work argues that patriarchal Western civilization consolidated power during the Roman Empire after a long struggle against the rule of the Great Mother, an archetypal figure symbolizing a nexus of generative powers essential to the emergence of complex societies (Georgoudi 451 ff.). Bachofen traces the Great Mother’s ascendency and eventual decline through a succession of ancient civilizations shaped by a form of matriarchal rule he terms “gynecocracy” (Georgoudi 450-51). For Bachofen, Stella Georgoudi notes, “Ultimately matriarchy rests on religion, whence the importance of the archetype of the Great Mother or Great Goddess or Mother Earth, symbol of the maternal reign, with whom nearly all the ancient goddesses have been identified” (456).

In sum, Blackwood’s readers in 1914 would have been prepared to appreciate the phrase “the great mother look” as an apt expression of several elements of Frances’s character: her fierce commitment to her friend and otherworldly spirit of altruism as well as her independence as a single woman and penchant for free-thinking and artistic creativity. This same spirit of the “great mother” would also account for her affinity with the “pagan thing,” including her intuitive ability to apprehend the dark aura afflicting The Towers and reflect it in her sketches—paintings in which both siblings perceive a kind of perverse paganism. Almost in the manner of a goddess wielding powers of second sight, Frances, as an artist, is able to penetrate the surface and expose the malignant spirit in the prospects that she paints.

In the next episode, the scenes depicted in the sketches become portals into an alternate reality as Bill, determined to find “the places [Frances] had painted” and “see what she had seen” (116), finds that, under his gaze, the prospects featured in the sketches have deeply unsettling effects. It is as though Frances’s paintings provide a means through which her brother passes into a visionary state that takes [page 46] him into the subterranean realm beneath The Towers. The initial stop on his way down occurs when he looks at a garden that was featured in the paintings: “I saw, as with the eyes of a child, what I can only call a goblin garden—house, grounds, trees, and flowers belonged to a goblin world that children enter through the pages of their fairy tales” (117). The defining characteristic of this garden is its lifelessness. If the “Great Mother” symbolizes the forces of fecundity and life, the goblin garden represents her antithesis, a place where all was “barren, abortive, torn by the strife of frustrate impulse, ugly, hateful, sinful” (120).

As Bill recounts it, the visionary transformation of the garden begins innocently enough when he first observes the scene and contrasts his own mundane perception of it with his sister’s perception when she painted it. He states, “Where I saw the gross soul of an overgrown suburban garden, inspired by the spirit of a vulgar, rich revivalist who lived to preach damnation, she [Frances] saw this rush of pagan liberty and joy, this strange licence [sic] of primitive flesh which, tainted by the other, produced the adulterated, vile result” (116). This passage bears close reading: “the other” refers to the spirit of Franklyn, the “vulgar, rich, revivalist,” and the “vile result” is the painting that Frances produced in spite of her pagan spirit of “liberty and joy.” The painting’s evil aura, then, is the offspring of an “adulterated” confluence between the vital paganism of Frances, avatar of the “great mother,” and the spirit of Franklyn, the damning, plutocratic Hades who rules over The Towers. As Bill noted earlier when discussing Frances’s sketches, “That queer symbolism in her paintings, pagan and yet not innocent, was, I understood, the result of mixture” (112). Recall, as well, that Frances notes in the same conversation that her own paganism has never been, “thank God, like that” (114, emphasis in original).

In the succeeding passages, Bill witnesses the garden transform from a place that is merely “vulgar” into the sinister “goblin garden.” The implication is that the same [page 47] unfortunate confluence that erupted in Frances’s painting is now somehow working in Bill’s psyche, propelling him into a nightmare vision that reveals the cause of his inability to write: he is in a place of utter paralysis and sterility, where “[n]othing happened anywhere” (120). But the garden proves to be only the vestibule, as it were, of this hell, for Bill soon becomes aware of “the next layer below the goblin [garden]” and finds himself “sinking down . . . into this turgid layer that was so much more violent and so much more ancient” (120).

As Marshall Berman observes, “[M]odernism is preoccupied with the dangerous impulses that go by the name of ‘sensation of the abyss’” (266), and Blackwood’s story is Modernist at least in this respect, for it is structured around two forays into an abyss as compelling as any in the literature of the period. The first of these forays is, as we have seen, fundamentally a psychological experience induced by Frances’s paintings; the second is more dramatic—a physical excursion at night from the upper floors of the mansion down to its lower levels at a moment of peril. Both forays end in a confrontation with the subterranean phantoms that threaten to engulf the estate, and in both episodes, these phantoms seem to haunt not only the abyss beneath the mansion but also the substrata of Bill’s own mind. As he notes after the second foray, “[E]very mind conceals ancestral deposits that have been cultivated in turn along the whole line of his descent” (152), “descent” here referring to ancestry.

Accordingly, the “turgid level” beneath the “goblin garden” transports Bill to a scene from the cultural ancestry of Britain, where he encounters structures reminiscent of Stonehenge and glimpses rituals of human sacrifice associated with druids: “a thought of tangled woods, of big stones standing in a circle, motionless, white figures, the one form bound with ropes, and the ghastly gleam of the knife” (121). The descent into this tableau seems partly driven by Bill’s own emotions: “This lurid aspect . . . as of sacrificial rites . . . [page 48] was so revolting that at the same time I felt a dreadful curiosity as of fascination—I wished to stay” (120). The psychological subtlety is striking here: this excursion into the dark places of archaic religion reveals the persistence of a primal appetite for violence ostensibly superseded by modern civilization. Thus Bill reflects, “What atavistic strain, hidden deep within me, had been touched into vile response . . . I cannot say. The coatings laid on by civilization are probably thin enough in all of us” (121). The insight is familiar to any student of Modernism, resonating, for example, with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and is central to Freudian thought. In a paper published in 1919, Freud wrote, “Man’s archaic heritage forms the nucleus of the unconscious mind; and whatever part of that heritage has to be left behind in the advance to later phases of developments, . . . falls a victim to the process of repression” (qtd. in Trotter, 213). Descending beneath the “goblin garden,” then, entails recovery of atavistic impulses repressed in Bill’s own psyche.

But Blackwood’s story complicates this familiar idea. The toxic miasma of the abyss is comprised of “layers” of conflicting religious beliefs, and thus Samuel Franklyn’s evangelical Christianity, a prevalent belief of the modern world, has its own subterranean place along with brutal archaic rituals. Moreover, as the most recently deposited layer, its spirits are the most restless, as indicated by the concluding event of this macabre episode. As Bill finally turns to leave the garden, there surges behind him a “tumultuous, awful rush,” followed by “the conception of a huge assemblage determined to escape with me, or to snatch me back among themselves” (122). These pursuers, he concludes, are “The Damned” (122). The eponymous phrase is such a familiar Christian term for lost souls relegated to Hell that readers may miss the ironic reversal Blackwood has contrived: the souls in Franklyn’s hell are damned not because of their failure to accept the one true faith; they are damned because they have accepted it. It is their embrace of [page 49] the gospel preached by Franklyn that has damned them, for Blackwood’s hell is a consequence of evangelical belief itself. The vicious othering entailed by belief in Hell as punishment for unbelievers is the condition for admittance to the hell beneath The Towers.2 The implication, moreover, is that this othering partakes of the same primal appetite for victimization and violence exhibited in the darkest rites of ancient pagans.

This ironic reversal is crucial for understanding the plight of Mabel, Franklyn’s widow. Bill learns from Frances what has happened to her friend: some years earlier, as a single woman attending one of Franklyn’s revival meetings, she was “frightened . . . into heaven” and into a marriage which swept her into his world of religious zealotry (143). But his death three years later left her spiritually bereft, “so haunted with a secret dread of that hideous after-death that she had finally revolted and tried to recover that clearer state of mind she had enjoyed before the religious bully had stunned her” (144). She lived abroad for a year, but returned to The Towers only to find that she “searched in vain for the peace and beauty [Franklyn’s] teachings had destroyed. . . . This man, whom she had loved to the point of losing her soul for him, had bequeathed to her one black and fiery thing—the terror of the damned” (144). No wonder, then, that Bill’s initial impression of Mabel was that she was “lifeless, empty, a shadow—nothing” (100). She has been reduced to a state of spiritual paralysis. But Frances also realizes that Mabel has, unwittingly, instigated the spiritual unrest beneath The Towers (145). On the one hand, the widow’s efforts at self-liberation have stirred a similar urge in the phantoms to escape the hell of their beliefs; on the other, she has incited among them a jealous hunger to pull her back into their ranks and to rejoin their congregation of the damned (145-46). As always in the hell beneath The Towers, each impulse frustrates the other and contributes to the stalemate in which, as Bill repeatedly says, nothing happens. [page 50]

One character, however, is uniquely placed to make something happen—the housekeeper. In The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White discuss the ubiquity of the maid in turn-of-the-century texts as a figure who mediates between the insular world of bourgeois gentility and any number of forbidden locales, many partaking of the sexual or erotic (pp. 149 ff.). In “The Damned” Blackwood extends this mediating function to encompass Hell itself, for the housekeeper, a devout believer named Mrs. Marsh, patrols the boundary between the gauche opulence above ground and the seething netherworld below. She is, in effect, keeper of the gates of hell. Soon after his arrival, Bill senses that she “formed a link with the departed influence of her bigoted employer. She, alone among us, belonged to the house, and looked at home there” (104). He also senses that if Mabel is a prisoner, then Mrs. Marsh is the warden: “She yet exerted some influence that sought to make her mistress stay in the building for ever—live there. She would prevent her escape . . . thwart her will to freedom, if she could” (104). Bill’s encounters with Mrs. Marsh chart a growing awareness of her power and complexity. Initially seeing her as a figure of spectral menace, he eventually realizes that her position on the boundary between the living and the dead has left her anguished and conflicted, a realization that only increases the dread he feels toward her.

Late in the evening of the same day as his encounter with the Goblin Garden, he comes upon her “standing by an open window as if in the act of listening” and asks if she has recently been to church (128). In the brief conversation that ensues he enjoins her to believe there are no damned souls since no “merciful . . . God could ever have devised such a fearful plan” (129). She interrupts him with a voice that “seemed to rise out of the bowels of the earth: ‘They rejected the salvation when it was offered to them, sir, on earth’” (129). When Bill attempts to convince her of the barbarity of such a belief, he only becomes increasingly patronizing: “She [page 51] stared at me,” he recounts, “a curious expression in her stupid eyes” (130). He decides to end the conversation, but she stops him. “In her eyes,” he remarks, “I saw the ‘woman’ peering out through fear” (130). While his refined sentiments have not altered her beliefs one whit, his sympathy for the damned has struck a chord: “’Per’aps, sir,’ she faltered, as though lightning might strike her dead, ‘per’aps . . . a drop of cold water, given in His name, might moisten —?’” (130). This anguished reference to a sip of water for the suffering, derived from Christ’s words in the gospels,3 will become a verbal talisman in later events of that night. Bill, clearly unnerved, extricates himself from the conversation with a flurry of cliches about God’s love and compassion. “Her belief was iron,” he concludes; “she dared not let it go; yet somewhere underneath there lurked the germ of a wholesome revulsion. She would help ‘them’—if she dared” (130).

While this exchange reveals that Mrs. Marsh is not impervious to Bill’s appeals to compassion, it also reveals his emotional vulnerability to the housekeeper. Clearly, he would like to dismiss her as a simple-minded zealot, yet he is affected by the pathos of her passionately-held convictions. The encounter, coming on the heels of his experiences that afternoon in the “Goblin Garden,” erodes Bill’s composure as an even-tempered champion of tolerance and rationality. In a moment that recalls his earlier remark about the fragility of “the coatings laid on by civilization” (121), he confesses, “[I]n me was a disagreeable sensation as though I had just left the Incurable Ward of some great hospital. A reaction caught me as of nausea. Ugh! I wanted such people cleansed by fire” (131). The irony is trenchant as Bill wishes upon Mrs. Marsh the identical punishment he finds so offensive in her beliefs. Indeed, Mrs. Marsh is aptly named: her murky world—fraught with dread, retribution, and heart-wrenching pity—provides a sharp contrast to Bill’s placid realm of self-composure and rational moderation. But on the treacherous terrain of the late Samuel [page 52] Franklyn’s estate, it is Bill’s bright realm that is subject to inundation.

The climactic events of the story—Bill’s second descent into the abyss and the rescue of Mabel—occur in the wee hours of the night following the conversation with Mrs. Marsh. Frances awakens Bill “in the grip of some distressing terror” (132). This is first occasioned by “The Noise”—a phenomenon that defies description, but which Mabel and her guests have come to associate with the opening or closing of enormous doors somewhere far beneath the mansion (123-24). The other cause of distress is Mabel, sequestered in her bedroom one floor below. When Bill asks about her, Frances chokes on a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew: “She is weeping and gna—” (133).4 For Frances, the spectacle of Mabel “weeping and gnashing her teeth” signals that she is already in hell—the hell of a mind consumed by despair, rage, and futility. Mabel may not yet be bodily ushered into the darkness below, but Frances will later explain that “She is terror incarnate” before pointing downward and adding, “Her soul is—there!” (145).

In the face of this numinous horror, Bill insists on a sense of normalcy and announces, “There’s someone in the house, of course. . . . Don’t be alarmed. I’ll go down and see” (132). Frances goes to comfort Mabel while, pistol in hand, Bill descends to the lowest level of the mansion—the “under-space of the odious building” (141)—where he traverses a network of spacious rooms and long corridors, noting that all the doors between rooms and passages that should be closed at this late hour have been opened. His gun feels as useless as “a child’s toy” (136), and soon he feels again the presence of damned souls massing behind him, just as he did at the end of his sojourn in the “Goblin Garden.” He recounts, “It was not courage that sent me on, but rather a strong impulsion from behind that made it impossible to retreat: the feeling that a throng pressed at my back, drawing nearer and nearer; that I was already half surrounded, . . . coaxed into a vast prison-house where there was wailing and [page 53] gnashing of teeth” (138). The sense of being trapped by phantoms intensifies until, just as it becomes unbearable, the clock strikes three, and a figure sweeps toward him out of the darkness. It is Mrs. Marsh, bearing a glass of water. He flattens himself against a wall as she passes without a glance, staring straight ahead and repeating, as though it were an incantation, the line from her conversation the previous day: “A drop of cold water, given in His name, shall moisten their burning tongues” (141). He stands immobile against the wall, losing track of time until he realizes that “the air had emptied, the crowd her presence had stirred into activity had retreated” (141). And the doors are now all shut; “[t]he woman had closed every one” (142).

Despite its uselessness, the pistol may be the most telling item in this episode, for it indicates Bill’s determination to defend the premises from an intruder of flesh and blood. If only there is something to shoot, an antagonist of physical substance, then at last something will have “happened.” At last Bill will have repudiated once and for all the feminizing aura of “imagination, overwrought nerves, hysteria, and the rest” that so exercises him early in the story. But again, all efforts to affirm his insistent empiricism are defeated, and again, from Bill’s perspective, nothing happens. Accordingly, when he returns to Frances, he reports, “There’s nothing, . . . All is quiet and undisturbed downstairs” (142). Later he explains, “I felt in me a terror lest I should be moved to describe my own experiences below-stairs, thus increasing their reality and so the reality of all” (147). When his own experience defies his assumption of empirical reality, Bill’s power to affirm that experience through narrative, either written or spoken, becomes a liability, even a source of “terror.” As Frances says, the evil of The Towers targets its victims “according to our temperaments” (114), and Bill’s temperament as a writer grounded in a world of physical sense-data makes him vulnerable to a crippling disengagement from his own experience. The use-[page 54]less pistol, consequently, becomes an ironic marker of Bill’s phallogocentric impotence.

We are not surprised, then, to find a woman in control of the perils of the abyss. Just as Frances is tending to Mabel upstairs, downstairs Mrs. Marsh is shepherding her flock of damned souls under the misapprehension that they are lost unbelievers rather than malicious zealots. Having rallied the spirits that assail Bill in the corridors, she dutifully escorts them back to hell. Accordingly, for a moment at least, Bill’s understanding of Mrs. Marsh alters profoundly: “My memory of the figure changed then. The woman with the glass of cooling water had stepped down from Heaven; but the Man—or was it Men?—who smeared this terrible layer of belief and Thought upon the world! . . .” (142, ellipses in original). Bill’s perception of Mrs. Marsh as an agent of mercy prompts a realization that the evangelical dogma afflicting The Towers is essentially a male enterprise. Even as he recognizes the futility of masculine bravado (the man with a gun) to subdue the wraiths whose existence he struggles to deny, he also recognizes their origins in a tradition of dogma and deceit that is patriarchal to the core; thus, he expostulates in horrified indignation against “the Man,” Samuel Franklyn, who devoted himself to such a nefarious cause. But by asking “or was it Men?” he acknowledges the patriarchal nature of the entire evangelical project that has been “smeared . . . upon the world.” With its scatological connotations, the verb “smeared” evokes Freud’s notion of the anal character and, in a trope that resonates with psychoanalytic thought, links this character not only to evangelical Christianity but to the avaricious spirit of the former banker.5

Once the threat from below is vanquished, Bill returns upstairs, hearing again “the Noise,” this time a vast rumbling suggesting that the gates of hell are closing. He meets Frances outside Mabel’s room and learns that their host is “sleeping quietly” (143). The siblings confer on a nearby landing as Frances relates the story of Mabel’s ill-fated [page 55] marriage and concludes by announcing that “She is terror incarnate,” indicating Mabel’s soul is in the abyss (145). As Frances, who seems to be listening intently for something, explains the connection between Mabel’s plight and the restless spirits below, Bill, his credulity strained, becomes increasingly alarmed. When Frances tells him, “We are in it with her, too, Bill,” he confesses, “The desire for violence came over me” and insists that “we leave tomorrow. . . . We go back to London” (148). At that moment, Frances hears the sound she has been waiting for: Mabel gnashing her teeth. As she rushes toward the door of her friend’s room, Mabel exits and steals down the corridor toward “a second figure [who] stood beckoning, scarcely visible” (148). Bill recounts, “I followed [Frances’s] lead . . . ; it was surer than my own” and admits feeling “flustered beyond belief and ashamed that I was so” (148). Nonetheless, he manages to help his sister intercept Mabel and carry her back to her room. They have rescued her from Hell’s emissary, whom Bill identifies as Mrs. Marsh, intent on securing her mistress’s devotion to Hades’ dark realm.

Frances’s understanding of that realm is notable for its psychological acuity and relevance to the Modernist themes of alienation and loss of identity. When she says Mabel is “terror incarnate” and that “There is no Mabel . . . [Franklyn] has killed her in his lake of fire and brimstone” (145), she echoes Bill’s impression that their host is “not there, lifeless,—nothing.” When she relates the story of her friend’s breakdown in the wake of Franklyn’s death, she tells a story of psychological trauma that, in its broad outlines, recalls Blackwood’s own religious crisis as described by Ashley (55). Again, as with Bill’s descent beneath the goblin garden, we are reminded that the hell afflicting The Towers is as much a state of mind as it is a place beneath the mansion. In a passage that resonates remarkably with Blackwood’s vision, the psychologist Erich Fromm describes the anxiety caused by alienation, or “the loss of self,” as “the abyss of nothingness” and comments, “In the vision of hell, I am pun-[page 56]ished and tortured—in the vision of nothingness I am driven to the border of madness—because I cannot say ‘I’ any more. If the modern age has been rightly called the age of anxiety, it is primarily because of this anxiety engendered by the lack of self” (204). The contrast Fromm draws between the traditional Christian Hell and the hell of alienation illuminates Blackwood’s ironic reversal in which hell is not a place of punishment for failure to accept the gospel but rather an apotheosis of the alienation spawned by evangelical belief. As a casualty of the trauma inflicted by that belief, Mabel has become, in Fromm’s words, unable to “say ‘I’ any more”; she is in “the abyss of nothingness,” and it is Frances who intervenes and brings her back to humanity.

The rescue of Mabel closes section VIII of the story; section IX, the last, is essentially denouement. Despite Bill’s desire to return to London immediately, he defers to Frances’s insistence that they spend an additional week, as planned (150). Bill relates multiple signs that the insurgent forces of the abyss have subsided: “I neither saw the housekeeper again in unreasonable times and places. . . . The Noise was never once repeated. . . . Since Mabel’s fruitless effort to escape, the Doors kept closed remorselessly. She [Mrs. Marsh] had failed; they [the wraiths below] gave up hope” (151, emphasis in original). But perhaps the most meaningful sign of victory marks a change in the relationship between the two friends. When Bill first arrives at the mansion, Frances tells him that she “hate[s] sleeping alone here” (94) but has avoided joining Mabel in her room because the host, while formally obliging, seems averse to the arrangement. Frances can only conclude that Mabel is struggling with her own night terrors and would rather not be a burden to her friend (96). Early in section IX, however, we learn that “Frances now occupied a bed in our hostess’s room” (151).6 The arrangement signals a deepening of trust between the two women and a triumph for the healing powers of the “great mother” over the evangelical othering of Mrs. Marsh. Most importantly, it evinces a renewal of inter-[page 57]personal understanding and compassion—the only source of healing for the inability to say “I”.

The story concludes with Mabel turning the estate over to a society of spiritual reformers who espouse “universal salvation” and whose motto is “There is no religion higher than Truth” (159).7 Frances explains that the society “will act as a solvent. These vitriolic layers actively denied, will fuse and disappear in the stream of gentle, tolerant sympathy which is love” (161). According to Ashley, Blackwood was convinced “that intense emotions can imprint themselves upon their surroundings” (18), so Frances’s expectations are likely a reflection of the author’s own sensibility. If only the fractious animosities of our society were so easily banished. In his sobering essay on the roots of the Holocaust, historian Richard L. Rubenstein, discussing Christianity’s role in European history and the emergence of the Third Reich, warns of what he calls the “night side of religion” (93). He observes, “There is no escape from the self-defeating ethos of exclusivism and intolerance . . . as long as our fundamental culture is derived from a religious tradition that insists upon the dichotomous division of mankind into the elect and the reprobate” (93). Perhaps, in a sense, we are all inhabitants of The Towers.


1. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss the relationship between late Victorian and early twentieth-century feminism and the contemporary interest in spiritualism and the supernatural: “[F]eminist thinkers from Elizabeth Barret Browning to Maud Gonne had long identified their work for women’s rights with such related challenges to patriarchal authority as spiritualism. . . . [T]he very idea of the New Woman was . . . so threatening that her aspirations might indeed tend to evoke all the other subversive aspirations that were suddenly . . . being voiced throughout the empire and the [page 58] New World, with some even being conveyed from the invisible realm of the dead” (32).

2. This becomes especially clear in Frances’s final remarks on this matter toward the end of part IX (160-61).

3. c.f. Matthew 10:42 and Luke 16:24.

4. See Matthew 8:12.

5. Norman O. Brown observes, “Erich Fromm, in one of his real contributions to psychoanalytical theory, showed the connection between Freud’s anal character—with its orderliness, parsimony, and obstinacy—and the sociological type of the capitalist as delineated by [Werner] Sombart and Max Weber. And Weber, of course, followed by [Ernst] Troeltsch, [R. H.] Tawney, and others postulated a far-reaching connection between the capitalist spirit and the ethic of Protestantism” (203).

6. As is usual with regard to the question of sexual relationships among his characters, Blackwood leaves the matter open to speculation. For a discussion of the role of sex in his work, see Graf, pp. 89 ff.

7. The motto is the subtitle of Helena Blavatsky’s germinal work of Theosophy, Isis Unveiled (Graf 12). Gilbert and Gubar remark, “[T]he appearance of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (1877), . . . must have . . . emphasized the link between, on the one hand, the alternative historical and theosophical possibilities propounded by spiritualism and theosophy and, on the other hand, the possibilities of disorderly female rule” (29). According to Ashley, Blackwood joined the Toronto Branch of the Theosophical Society in 1891 (50).

Works Cited

Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas: A Companion for the Modern Reader of Victorian Literature. W. W. Norton and Co., 1973.

Ashley, Mike. Algernon Blackwood: An Extraordinary Life. Carroll and Graf, 2001.

Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. 1982. Penguin Books, 1988. [page 59]

Blackwood, Algernon. “The Damned.” Tales of the Mysterious and Macabre. 1967. Book-of-the-Month Club by arrangement with A. P. Watt, Ltd., 1993, pp. 79-164.

Brown, Norman O. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Wesleyan UP, 1959.

Fitzgerald, Frances. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. Simon and Schuster, 2017.

Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. 1955. Holt Paperbacks, 1990.

Georgoudi, Stella. “Creating a Myth of Matriarchy.” A History of Women: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, edited by Pauline Schmitt Pantel, Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1992, pp. 449-463.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, volume 2, Sexchanges. Yale UP, 1989.

Graf, Susan Johnston. Talking to the Gods: Occultism in the Work of W. B. Yeats, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Dion Fortune. SUNY Press, 2015.

Houston, Gail Turley. Victorian Women Writers, Radical Grandmothers, and the Gendering of God. Ohio State UP, 2013.

Joshi, S. T. The Weird Tale: Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft. U of Texas P, 1990.

Punter, David. “Algernon Blackwood: Nature and Spirit.” EcoGothic, edited by Andrew Smith, Manchester UP, 2013, pp. 44-57.

Rubenstein, Richard L. The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future. 1975. Harper Torchbooks, 1987.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Methuen, 1986.

Trotter, David. “A Horse is Being Beaten: Modernism and Popular Fiction.” Rereading the New: A Backward Glance at Modernism, edited by Kevin J. H. Dettmar, U of Michigan P, 1992, pp. 191-219.

Varnado, S. L. Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction. U of Alabama P, 1987.

Kirk R. Swenson earned a Ph.D. in American and English literature from Washington State University in 1994. He is a professor of English at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College and has published previously on Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.”

MLA citation (print):

Swenson, Kirk R. "'The Great Mother Look': Harrowing Hell in Blackwood’s 'The Damned.'" Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 8, no. 1, 2022, pp. 35-59.