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Algernon Blackwood’s The Empty House: A Two-Minute Analysis of the Classic Haunted House Story

Blackwood’s most famous ghost story is also one of the most excellent examples of the haunted house genre. It is not a story about ghosts, however; it is a story about fear. Like “The Willows,” “The Empty House” features two adventurers finding themselves locked in a battle for their sanity, desperately employing psychological gambits to maintain their self-control and avoid the madness that runs at them full tilt. Supposedly a relic from Blackwood’s ghost hunting days with the Society for Psychical Research, it is informed by intimacy with terror, and while lacking in horror (no gross-outs, blood, or rot) the mood swarms with anxiety building into a fever pitch of self-doubt. Blackwood’s recurring spook-investigator Jim Shorthouse (who also appears in “A Case of Eavesdropping,” “With Intent to Steal,” “…Adventures of a New York Secretary,” etc.) is goaded by his elderly aunt into investigating the source of a local legend, and the two quickly descend from curiosity into a deeply emotional dependence upon one another: Jim’s aunt relying upon him for physical support and company, and he strangely propelled on by her (albeit quivering) bravery. The result is an emotionally complex, psychologically chilling study in fear and the critical human need for interdependence.
Certainly one of the most famous haunted house stories of all time, “The Empty House” demonstrates Blackwood’s precise knack for showing only just enough and allowing atmosphere to do the rest. Even more so than M. R. James, Blackwood excels at discipline, and only hints at the violent specters in this wonderful tale based on an real-life experience as a member of the Society for Psychical Research. Jim, a seasoned ghost hunter, joins forces with his elderly but tenacious aunt (Blackwood’s women are almost always strong, hearty, and driven) when she asks him to spend the night in a haunted house with a murderous past. The story is less about plot and more about atmospheric artistry, as Blackwood’s prose illustrates a spiritual journey as the two characters are symbolically reborn through the terrifying experience (at one point, blood-freezing terror causes the aunt to physically appear young again – something which Blackwood personally witnessed during a night at an infamous derelict). Wandering from the top to the bottom of the musty edifice, the pair suffer from waves of intense fear, paranoia, and confusion, encountering ghostly faces, phantom footsteps, and numbing horror. The story focuses on psychological responses rather than paranormal happenings, and as a result it hits the heart of terror in an uncommon and inspired manner.
Haunted houses are often overstated in modern media: they are towering Queen Anne-style Victorian mansions crawling with ironwork, gargoyles, and leafless trees, complete with a private graveyard, faded gingerbread trim, and a one-eyed turret. In Blackwood’s day they were Georgian manor houses (typically circa 1720) with elderly tenets and a family ghost conjured by an extramarital sexual liaison, greed-inspired murder, or bout of madness. But Blackwood oversteps the romance and the purple details. Rather than focusing on the tabloid-like backstory or the Halloween-cliché architecture, he surges to the psychological effect of these surroundings. Rather than representing the eternal struggle between two star-crossed lovers, he hones in on the relationship between the two mortals shivering in the corner, hoping desperately to maintain their claim on sanity.
Algie was not alone in his craft: Ambrose Bierce wrote several extraordinary haunted house stories (“Some Haunted Houses,” “The Middle-Toe of the Right Foot,” “The Night-Doings at ‘Deadman’s’”); W. W. Jacobs wrote one of the best ever penned (“The Toll House”); H. G. Wells composed the unparalleled treatise on terror’s shapelessness, “The Red Room” which closely mirrors the psychology of “The Empty House”; J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s unsettling“Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” inspired the less artful but more popular “Judge’s House” by Bram Stoker. Perceval Landon’s “Thurnley Abbey” is one of the most anthologized tales in the language; Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” is a staple of Victorian horror; and Rhoda Broughton’s “The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth” was so realistic that to this day many people mistakenly continue to cite its plot in the folklore surrounding the hauntings in 50 Berkeley Square. The last hundred years have produced some very fine pieces as well: H. Russell Wakefield’s “The Red Lodge” is a grisly tale of a manor with a history of suicides at dawn and drowned children; H. P. Lovecraft wrote a bizarre vampiric tale called “The Shunned House”; Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King’s The Shinning were milestones in horror; and finally, Manly Wade Wellman’s “Where Angel’s Fear” tells virtually the same story as Blackwood’s (a man and a woman explore a haunting) – but with a far grimmer ending.
And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Blackwood’s best ghost stories and weird fiction HERE