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In Praise of Minor Talents

The Good Doctor Ruffled a Few Feathers, Including Mine

As part of my annual Halloween reading, I just finished the Oxford World’s Classics Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine. In the early decades of the 19th century, that’s where budding writing talents turned for examples of tales of horror. Among the most devoted readers were Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Browning, and—most particularly—Edgar Allan Poe.

Of the seventeen stories in the collection, I had only heard of two of them before: Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, a.k.a. the Ettrick Shepherd. The other writers (who were all new to me) were Patrick Fraser-Tytler, John Wilson,Daniel Keyte Sandford, John Galt, John Howison, William Maginn, Henry Thomson, Catherine Sinclair, Michael Scott, William Mudford, William Godwin the Younger, and Samuel Warren. All of their stories were first class.

Now I understand why Poe wrote him famous essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” And why Leigh Hunt wrote in 1819:

A 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 nobody.

Well, I could testify that I was frightened by this collection—by a bunch of “minor” writers who knew what they were doing. The credit for this collection goes to the two co-editors, Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick.

I was particularly entranced by the three selections from a long-running serial in Blackwood’s entitled Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician (appearing from 832-1837) by Samuel Warren (1807-1877).