You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view

Reviews

Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick, eds., Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-19-282366-3 (paperback). Price: £5.99/$11.95.Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick, eds., The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-19-283291-3 (paperback). Price: £5.99/$9.95.

  • Rebecca E. Martin

…more information

  • Rebecca E. Martin
    Pace University

Article body

These companion volumes admirably serve several purposes and will be of interest to a wide audience. Edited with outstanding introductions by Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick, Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine and The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre provide ready access to thirty-one stories important for their influence on later authors such as Dickens and Poe, for illustrating one line of mutation from the Gothic to sensation fiction, and for demonstrating the important role played by early nineteenth-century magazines as outlets for this type of short fiction.

The distinction made in the volumes' titles between "terror" and the "macabre" is unimportant; the tales are basically interchangeable, though the Blackwood's stories rely less on the supernatural for their thrills (James Hogg's "The Mysterious Bride" is the one exception) than do the tales of the macabre. The more significant distinction between the volumes is that Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine restricts itself to the single periodical published in Edinburgh and selects tales solely from the period between 1817 and 1832, while the other ranges among five magazines published in London or Dublin between 1819 and 1838, the New Monthly Magazine, the Dublin Literary Gazette, the Metropolitan, Fraser's, and the Dublin University Magazine. With its ability to present the best from a broader range of choices, The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre has the higher entertainment and artistic value, but between the two volumes a balance is obtained between scholarly illustration and the reading pleasures many of these tales still offer. If it is still available, Peter Haining's edition of Gothic Tales of Terror (1972), could be added to the mix to introduce similar fiction (and two stories that appear in the later volumes) published not in magazines but in collections during the same period. Haining's edition has the virtue of offering short works by Gothic greats such as Walpole, Maturin, Lewis, the less great, such as Thomas Prest, and the influential, such as Barbauld (represented by the fragment, "Sir Bertrand").

The two new volumes successfully demonstrate the growing interest of the period in extreme experiences and emotional states that could be conveyed most forcefully in the short form in which all the author's efforts may work toward a single astonishing or terrifying end, a technique that comes to its fullest fruition in the tales of Poe. At least four of the stories in Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine, "The Man in the Bell," "Buried Alive," "The Iron Shroud," and "The Thunder-Struck and The Boxer," are probable or confirmed influences on Poe's work. Many others would fit comfortably as tales embedded in Gothic novels either to convey the tragedy of tainted romance, the horrors of the conflicted mind, or the continuing threat posed by the sins of the fathers: a tale of a deadly love triangle as told by a Capuchin monk; of a single moment of indecision or indiscretion rewarded with a lifetime of pain; of a madman's philosophical argument to a priest on the question of divine and human judgment and ultimate culpability on the eve of his execution; or of familial sins of the past coming alive to destroy the present and the future. A special word of praise must be reserved for William Carleton's "Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman" (1830) appearing in The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. This story, set among men involved in sectarian violence in Ireland, powerfully conveys through its first-person narration the pity, horror and senselessness of the violence that it depicts. The construction of the final scenes of suffering—their formal framing, the vividness and pictorial quality of the writing—out-Maturins Maturin.

One especially useful function of The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre is in bringing together the principal documents in the confused and complicated literary inception of the vampire tale. The collection takes Polidori's "The Vampyre" as its starting point and furnishes in an appendix several related documents from the period of the tale's publication. The material traces the misidentification of Byron as the tale's author and the attempts of Polidori and Byron to clarify the tale's ownership and, finally, in "A Fragment" by Byron (here called "Augustus Darvell") displays what he claimed to be his original contribution to the ghost story competition at Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816. The fragment makes clear Polidori's close (the word "incestuous" does seem appropriate here) reliance on Byron's ideas, while excerpts of Byron's correspondence with John Murray make apparent his testiness toward that publisher for the fragment's appearance at the end of Mazeppa—"there you tacked it without a word of explanation and be damned to you." It is convenient to have so much of this material in one volume for those inclined to investigate the many questions about creativity and originality that the tales from Diodati, including Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, have raised for so long. In addition, a brief but excellent preface and editorial notes for each tale place "The Vampyre" and its companions in their specific context as well as the more general context of the ungentlemanly world of magazine publishing, early nineteenth-century short fiction, and its readership.

Present to a remarkable degree in both volumes are the inter-connected devices of premature burial and its accompanying possibility of return from the dead; certain types of living death (representing a different version of premature burial), such as the cataleptic trance or the sudden, inexplicable descent into madness (the title "Post-Mortem Recollections of a Medical Lecturer" says it all); and the murders and grave-robbing that were known to feed the need for medical research and dissection. This is, unmistakably, the period in which "burking" entered the language as a verb, in a salute to the dubious accomplishments of Burke and Hare who in 1828 were brought to trial, having smothered in excess of a dozen victims and sold the corpses to an Edinburgh doctor of anatomy. A concern with such extreme states and acts is not in itself surprising in this collection, but more interesting is the frequent appearance of medical doctors in roles that paint a fascinating picture of the web of conflicting functions and needs in which the profession existed in the early nineteenth century. The reputation of the profession remained fragile even in the late nineteenth century.

Doctors here are specialists in insanity; they are mad themselves or they are the struggling voice of objectivity and scientific inquiry in their attempts to define and treat madness. They are present in the stories where the living dead fear premature burial and premature resurrection at the hands of "resurrection men," grave robbers, who feed the need for scientific knowledge. A double revenge on the suspect profession is taken in stories such as "The Victim" and "Post-Mortem Recollections," both from The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, when two medical students find themselves preparing to dissect the "burked" fiancée of one—"I vowed from that day a renunciation of the scalpel for ever"—and when a doctor is unaccountably overcome by a dangerous madness. While its practitioners are punished within the tales, the profession is also held up to the judgment of a reading public whose resentment and fears are put on display.

Tales Terror from Blackwood's Magazine delivers three stories by Samuel Warren, the only author honored with so many selections, from his Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician, which appeared in Blackwood's between 1830 and 1837. These three stories, "A 'Man About Town,'" "The Spectre-Smitten" and the oddly-paired "The Thunder-Struck and The Boxer" allow ample range to examine, from a doctor-narrator's perspective, the professional struggle for objectivity and against ignorance, his own and that of others, and for readers to consume numerous scenes of violent, wicked and strange behavior. When confronted by extreme mental and emotional states, threatened violence, self-destructive behavior, moral and ethical quandaries, and the death of beauty, the doctor-narrator, though shaken, is portrayed as a compassionate savior and a moral judge. Throughout the century it would prove nearly impossible for doctors to escape the taint implied by their connection to the mad and the bad; the anatomist as homicidal maniac remained a popular theme. Considered sensational and tasteless by many when they were published, the Warren stories, and in fact most of the stories in both volumes, show sensational fiction grappling as it still does with the question of whether there is a place for a narrator to stand that enables the author to strike a balance between artistic integrity and the desire to reach from the page and take the reader by the throat.