Tales of Terror from the House of Blackwood

Stephen Carver

Stephen Carver

Although any horror story might be designated a ‘Tale of Terror,’ this term has come to have a particular association with the short sharp shockers of Regency and early-Victorian monthly magazines — particularly Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine — a form most perfectly realised in the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

Unlike the subtler phantasmagoria of eighteenth-century gothic fiction, these tales thrived on sensational physical and psychological violence, often in contemporary settings. The characteristic style was one of grotesque and clinical reportage, the narrative constructed to convey exaggerated emotional intensity.

The point of view was usually the first person, and the observational detail (like the voice of a disembowelled surgeon naming each organ as it plops out) placed the reader behind the horrified eyes of the protagonist.

As Poe advised in his satirical homage ‘How to Write a Blackwood Article’: “Sensations are the great things after all. Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure to make a note of your sensations — they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet” (Poe: 1840, I, 218).

The modern magazine had been around since Edward Cave founded the monthly general interest digest the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1731, applying the term “magazine” (a military storehouse) to a publishing medium for the first time.

The magazine evolved from the political pamphlets and periodicals of Grub Street, with Tory affiliations and a format that included serial fiction, literary criticism, illustrations, news and commentary, combining original copy by a stable of regular contributors with extracts from other publications.

Samuel Johnson’s first full-time job as a writer was on the Gentleman’s Magazine. By the turn of the century, advances in papermaking and printing technology allowed copy to be produced faster and at a lower cost than its Augustan ancestors, while the growth of the industrial middle classes created the perfect market for a new generation of monthly magazines, with Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine setting the new standard and blazing an opportunistic and sensational trail which the London Magazine and the New Monthly Magazine soon followed.

William Blackwood (1776 – 1834), Edinburgh publisher, bookseller and Tory, established the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine in April 1817, his intention being to take on the Whiggish Edinburgh Review published by his business rival Archibald Constable.

Blackwood’s editors, James Cleghorn and Thomas Pringle, did not, however, deliver, and their disappointed publisher killed off the rather pedestrian periodical after six issues and, in October the same year, launched the first issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, taking the reins himself alongside John Wilson, James Hogg and J.G. Lockhart.

This was far from dull. The first issue contained a violent attack on Coleridge by Wilson, and the first of many virulent, class-based articles on the ‘Cockney School of Poetry’ (Hunt, Hazlitt and Keats) by Lockhart.

Most sensational of all was an allegorical broadside against Constable, and other Edinburgh Whigs co-authored by the editorial team and entitled Translation from an Ancient Chaldee Manuscript that resulted in an out-of-court settlement for slander.

Blackwood’s had arrived, maintaining a controversial reputation while redefining the modern magazine, a format essentially unchanged since Cave’s day. Coleridge would later describe the “maga” as “an unprecedented Phenomenon in the world of letters” (Griggs: 1971, I, 912).

Blackwood’s, meanwhile, modestly designated itself “a real Magazine of mirth, misanthropy, wit, wisdom, folly, fiction, fun, festivity, theology, bruising and thingumbob” that “unites all the best materials of the Edinburgh, the Quarterly, and the Sporting Magazine — the literature and good writing of the first — the information and the orthodoxy of the second, and the flash and trap of the third” (Anon: 1822, 105 – 106).

Literary fiction was a major ingredient of the Blackwood’s formula from the start, with a notable focus on the mad and the macabre. Blackwood’s positively celebrated the gothic, with lengthy reviews of Godwin, Maturin, and Galt.

Walter Scott’s review of Frankenstein, in which he outlined his theory of gothic fiction, first appeared in Blackwood’s in 1818, as did Thomas De Quincey’s ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ (1827), and Margaret Alterton has argued that the Blackwood’s analysis of Hoffmann’s ‘The Devil’s Elixir’ was a major influence on Poe (Alterton: 1965, 13 – 15).

Imitations soon sprang up. The London Magazine was originally a rival of the Gentleman’s Magazine, which was revived under the editorship of John Scott in 1820, following the format, but not the politics, of Blackwood’s.

It published Wordsworth, Shelley, Clare, and Keats, as well as De Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ (although De Quincey defected to Blackwood’s in 1826).

The New Monthly Magazine and Universal Register began as a hardcore Tory rival to Sir Richard Phillip’s Radical Monthly Magazine, with a similar format to the Gentleman’s Magazine.

Its co-founder, Henry Colburn, responding to the success of the Blackwood’s formula, toned down the politics and recast it as the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal in 1821. Regular contributors included Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Noon Talfourd, and William Hazlitt.

Blackwood’s approach to political and publishing rivals was brutal, and Morrison and Baldick have argued that “the first few years of the magazine reads like a Gothic tale of violence and revenge.” (Morrison and Baldick: 1995, xii).

Lockhart’s vituperative attacks on many of the London Magazine’s regulars, particularly his persecution of Leigh Hunt, resulted in a duel between the rival publication’s editor, John Scott, and Lockhart’s London Agent, J.H. Christie, when the latter was shot and killed. Christie was acquitted of murder, and Blackwood’s subsequently described Lockhart as “wet with the blood of the Cockneys” (Anon: 1821, 62).

A similarly gallows style characterised Blackwood’s tales. John Wilson’s ‘Extracts from Gosschen’s Diary’ (1818) is a nasty confession of obsession, murder and necrophilia (anticipating Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’); in ‘A Night in the Catacombs’ by Daniel Keyte Sandford (1818), a tourist recounts the terror of being lost in the vaults beneath Paris; while John Galt’s ‘The Buried Alive’ (1821) describes just that, with a leitmotif later expanded by Poe.

William Maginn’s ‘The Man in the Bell’ (1821) is cited by Poe in ‘How to Write a Blackwood’s Article,’ and is the narrative of a trapped campanologist driven mad by the sound of the bells.

Alongside Maginn’s story, William Mudford’s claustrophobic tale of creative torture, ‘The Iron Shroud’ (1830), is a forerunner of Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’

‘The Metempsychosis’ by Robert McNish (1826) is a tale of one soul possessing the body of another; while Henry Thompson’s ‘Le Revenant’ (1827) describes the protagonist’s last night in the condemned cell, and has echoes in both Dickens’ Sketches (‘A Visit to Newgate’) and Oliver Twist.

In a longer, later series, Samuel Warren used his ‘Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician’ (1830 – 37) as a frame for tasteless tales of disease and insanity. Galt’s ‘The Buried Alive’ sums up the common feature of these tales: as the narrator succumbs to narcolepsy and is presumed dead, “The world was then darkened, but I still could hear, and feel, and suffer” (Galt: 1820, 262).

The sincerest form of flattery followed, with Henry Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine, in particular, running regular tales of terror, most notably ‘The Vampyre’ by John Polidori (1819).

As Leigh Hunt wrote in ‘A Tale for a Chimney Corner’ (1819): “man who does not contribute his quota of grim stories now-a-days seems hardly to be free of the republic of letters. He is bound to wear a death’s head, as part of his insignia. If he does not frighten every body, he is no body” (Ollier: 1890, 74).

Poe’s burlesque of the Blackwood’s style, ‘How to Write a Blackwood Article,’ is an astute critique of the form as much as it is pastiche. The piece is a mock interview between William Blackwood and the hack writer ‘Psyche Zenobia’ on the subject of writing “intensities”.

“If you wish to write forcibly,” advises Poe’s version of Blackwood, “pay minute attention to the sensations” (Poe: 1840, I, 218).

Miss Zenobia assures him that she will. Later, when her eyes pop out and roll away during decapitation by the minute hand of a cathedral clock, she precisely records her sensations.

The story is called ‘A Predicament.’ Poe’s very serious understanding and application of this device was to have seismic consequences for the short story in English, and continues to resonate to this day in his iconic tales of mystery and imagination.

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