“Learn how to THINK and you have learned to tap power at its source.”– Dr. J. Silence, A Psychical Invasion, 1908
‘Rich by accident and a doctor by choice, John Silence took only those cases which interested him.’
The above is from “A Psychical Invasion” (1908), the first of Algernon Blackwood’s stories to feature Dr. John Silence, the ‘psychic doctor’. Blackwood chronicled six of Silence’s cases, though only five appear in the initial collection, John Silence (containing “A Psychical Invasion”, “Ancient Sorceries”, “The Nemesis of Fire”, “Secret Worship”, and “The Camp of the Dog”; “A Victim of Higher Space”, the sixth story, was included in later collections) released in 1908 (then re-issued in 1942). Even if you can’t get your hands on one of the many reprint collections (or on the 1942 re-issue as I was lucky enough to do), you can rest easy…Blackwood’s work is in the public domain and is freely available from a variety of electronic sources.
The stories themselves are in the inimitable Blackwood style, seen at its most effective in “The Wendigo” and “The Willows”. The horrors that Silence faces are nebulous things, at once more vast than the horizon and smaller than the inside of a cupboard. They range from nightmare assaults out of deep time to unrequited yearnings gone impossibly savage, originating in both human action as well as from events far outside of human understanding. Time and space are suggestions at best, and as in the works of Hodgson and Lovecraft, reality itself comes under assault from outside entities which seek to impose themselves on their victims.
Enter John Silence, MD.
Described as a handsome man, bearded and kindly-eyed, Silence is an anomaly to his peers-a genuine philanthropist, accepting only pro-bono cases of peculiar (RE: psychic) affliction, the cases which, as stated above, interest him in some way. How Silence went from a simple medical man to the ‘psychical physician’ is a story never told, but the origins of which likely lie within the mysterious half-decade that Silence undertook his long and severe training.
We are not told where this training took place, or what form it took beyond being at once a strengthening of his physical, mental and spiritual muscles. For five years, Silence disappeared from the world completely and when he returned, he took up his investigations into the supernatural. And it’s at that point that Blackwood introduces us to him.
Despite his morbid sense of humor and his quirky impatience, at first glance Silence appears little different from his predecessor, Le Fanu’s Dr. Hesselius, another ‘psychic doctor’. But as his confrontation with the malevolent possessing entity of “A Psychical Invasion” progresses, Silence shows himself to be an altogether different sort of medical practitioner. To Silence, the loss of a man’s sense of humour (as in “A Psychical Invasion”) or persistent dreams of cats (“Ancient Sorceries”) are neither simple nor natural ailments brought on by a confluence of coincidence. Instead, they are spiritual cancers that must be rooted out of the minds and souls of the afflicted by any means necessary, though not, unfortunately, always successfully.
‘The Other’ is an infection in Silence’s view…a dangerous toy at best and a fatal condition at worst. Whether it takes the form of hapless Sangree’s lycanthropic night-wandering as in “The Camp of the Dog” or poor Mr. Mudge’s involuntary transportations in “A Victim of Higher Space”, it is something which must be excised from the body social for the benefit of everyone.
It his methods in regards to these cases which truly set Silence apart; less a doctor than a holistic shaman and more spiritualist than surgeon, he possesses a keen insight into human nature and an almost empathic grasp of his patient’s ailment, whether it’s ensorcellment or ectoplasmic manifestations. It is these two traits which form the basic tools that Silence employs. Where other occult detectives make use of science or magic to battle back the darkness, Silence employs only the power of the mind, whether channelled through the combination of a sensitive cat and protective dog as in “A Psychical Invasion”, or through the ‘good feelings’ of his occasional assistant, the ever-hapless Mr. Hubbard, as in “The Nemesis of Fire”.
This is not to say that Silence doesn’t confronts malicious psychic forces face-to-face; in both “A Psychical Invasion” and “Secret Worship”, Silence places himself in harm’s way to stare down respectively the ghost of a witch and the earthly manifestation of a fallen angel.
In all cases, however, Silence achieves his aims not through superior force, but through an almost Zen-like understanding which unravels the complexities facing him and reduces them to but the merest scraps of ill-feeling. For Silence, knowledge is indeed power and he employs his vast arsenal of the former with the deft touch of a scalpel, illuminating the darkness with the power of raw thought.
Unfortunately, as with any surgeon, his skills can only take him so far, a fact which Silence himself readily admits. Indeed, not one of the six stories ends on an unequivocal up-note. Silence triumphs (or at the very least, explains) but not without cost to either himself or others…bodies are battered, minds are strained, and souls are frayed by the presence of the infernal. The scars of surgery, whether psychic or physical, always linger. As with anything, there is always a price to be paid by those who pit themselves against the darkness.
Luckily, John Silence is always available for a free consultation.
*Author’s Note: This essay originally appeared in 2011, at Black Gate Magazine.*