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Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine
Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Michael Cornett
Rating: none given

Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine, an anthology from Oxford University Press, is an intriguing collection of stories from a very influential magazine. Blackwood's Magazine, founded in Edinburgh in 1817 and published until 1980, was notorious in its early days for slander, sensationalism, erudition, buffoonery, and right-wing politics. Satires and character assassinations were normal offerings in its pages, along with stories designed to shock.

This collection draws from the years 1817 to 1832, a time when the short story itself was growing and developing as a literary style. The stories collected here were also influences on such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Robert Browining, and the Bronte sisters.

The stories themselves are mostly tales of peril, madness, and revenge, dominated by narratives of people trapped in dangerous and life-threatening situations. People are buried alive, lost in the Roman catacombs, trapped underneath a tolling bell, and held prisoner on a ship with two murderers.

Some stories are of particular interest to modern readers. "Narrative of a Fatal Event," a very early story by Sir Walter Scott, is the tale of a man paralyzed by his own phobias and helplessly watching a friend drown. William Mudford's "The Iron Shroud" was an enormous influence on Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." "The Mysterious Bride," the sole supernatural tale, is an eerie story of ghosts and ancestral curses (with echoes of Hitchcock's Vertigo!) in an atmosphere steeped with superstition. (Its author, James Hogg, is a fascinating character himself: an illiterate shepherd, he taught himself to read and write at the age of thirty, and went on to become one of Scotland's most respected authors; and he is still highly regarded today.) "The Last Man," an anonymous bit of science fiction, is about a man who dreams he is the last human alive in the far future, with scenery prefiguring Wells' The Time Machine.

Also offered are three chapters from Samuel Warren's serialized novel Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician. "A 'Man About Town'" is notable for its graphic depiction (for the time) of a man dying from alcoholism and syphilis; and it influenced Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. (Author's note: Tenant is a damn fine book. Read it.) "The Spectre-Smitten" is a grotesque depiction of insanity; it was an influence on Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. "The Thunder-Struck & The Boxer," about a woman falling into a mysterious coma, is a source for Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."

After 1832, the earlier recklessness of Blackwood's gave way to moderation; and the magazine published works by such notables as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Joseph Conrad (including the classic Heart of Darkness), Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, and Oscar Wilde.

This collection, Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine, is not for everybody; but those interested in seeing what influenced many great writers will find it fascinating.

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