Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Edgar Allan Poe described the nature of the fare in which readers of such publications as The Southern Literary Messenger and Blackwood's were interested:
The ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought into the strange and mystical. . . . To be appreciated, you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity.
Unfortunately, he does not offer his own definitions of the terms he uses, implying, perhaps, that he has their standard dictionary definitions in mind, but his explanation suggests the common feature, in each pairing,” whether of “ludicrous” and “burlesque” or “singular” and “strange” and “mystical,” is exaggeration: the ludicrous must be “heightened” to become grotesque; the fearful must be “coloured into the horrible”; the witty must be “exaggerated” before it is burlesque, and the extraordinary must be “wrought” to become weird ad mysterious. It is this sort of exaggeration, these sorts of extreme, that, Poe found, interests and attracts readers. Poe's stories and essays themselves show how he accomplishes these exaggerations.
His tongue-in-cheek essay, “How to Write a Blackwood's Article,” in particular, explains the process of writing sensational fiction, if one reads between the lines, for, it is, after all, both a process analysis essay and a parody of the typical Blackwood's Magazine fare, and his “Loss of Breath: A Tale a la Blackwood's,” parodies the typical Blackwood's story itself, and is, therefore, also instructive in revealing the technique of sensationalizing incidents through exaggeration, its own parodic nature notwithstanding.
Published from 1817 to 1980, this British periodical was originally known as the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine.
In “How to Write a Blackwood's Article,” once Poe gets down to specifics, he has his caricature of the magazine's founder, Mr. William Blackwood himself, tell Signora Psyche Zenobia, who has come to interview him on behalf of an organization of which she is a member, exactly what comprises the typical Blackwwod's fare and how it is produced. First, each story is based upon an improbable, or, often, indeed, an impossible incident. He offers a few examples of such incidents:
“There was 'The Dead Alive,' a capital thing!—the record of a gentleman's sensations when entombed before the breath was out of his body . . . . Then we had the 'Confessions of an Opium-eater'— . . . plenty of fire and fury' . . . . “Then there was 'The Involuntary Experimentalist,' all about a gentleman who got baked in an oven, and came out alive and well . . . . And then there was 'The Man in the Bell' . . . . It is the history of a young person who goes to sleep under the clapper of a church bell, and is awakened by its tolling for a funeral. The sound drives him mad, and, accordingly, pulling out his tablets, he gives a record of his sensations.”
Second, a Blackwood's tale requires vivid descriptions of emotion, or “sensation.” “Sensations are the great things after all,” Mr. Blackwood tells Zenobia. “Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations—they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet. If you wish to write forcibly, Miss Zenobia, pay minute attention to the sensations.”
The typical Blackwood's article also delves into the supernatural, the paranormal, the mystical, or the spiritualistic, using the type of cant that Poe, in his poem “The Raven,” characterizes as the sort of “forgotten lore” that fills “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” There is, in such stories, a patina of the esoteric, the occult, the mysterious, and there are references to lost or little-known sources, such as confessions, diaries, historical accounts of past events, all set forth with “erudition.” Indeed, if the sources are unintelligible, so much the better—as long as they sound learned. These sources may be mentioned by the characters in the stories or in an epigram at the head of the story. (In Poe's article, he chooses the latter method, quoting the cry of a Turkish fig peddlar: “"In the name of the Prophet—figs!”)
The Blackwood's writer is careful to choose a tone appropriate to his other story, Mr. Blackwood tells Zenobia, as he identifies various choices:
“There is the tone didactic, the tone enthusiastic, the tone natural--all common-place enough. But then there is the tone laconic, or curt, which has lately come much into use. It consists in short sentences. Somehow thus: Can't be too brief. Can't be too snappish. Always a full stop. And never a paragraph.
“Then there is the tone elevated, diffusive, and interjectional. Some of our best novelists patronize this tone. The words must be all in a whirl, like a humming-top, and make a noise very similar, which answers remarkably well instead of meaning. This is the best of all possible styles where the writer is in too great a hurry to think.
“The tone metaphysical is also a good one. If you know any big words this is your chance for them. . . . I shall mention only two more—the tone transcendental and the tone heterogeneous. In the former the merit consists in seeing into the nature of affairs a very great deal farther than anybody else. . . . Above all, study innuendo. Hint everything—assert nothing.
“. . . As for the tone heterogeneous, it is merely a judicious mixture, in equal proportions, of all the other tones in the world, and is consequently made up of every thing deep, great, odd, piquant, pertinent, and pretty.”
'Und sterb'ich doch, so sterb'ich denn
Durch sie--durch sie!'
Durch sie--durch sie!'
Translated into English, the line reads, “'And if I die, at least I die for thee—for thee!” French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Latin offer other usable quotations that will give the story a sense of erudition.
The occasion that inspired the Blackwood story might be mundane, but if it is presented according to the principles, using the elements he has identified, Mr. Blackwood implies, it will be properly exaggerated to the point that it is worthy of inclusion in his magazine:
“It is just possible that you may not be able, so soon as convenient, to—to get yourself drowned, or choked with a chicken-bone, or—or hung, or bitten by a—but stay! Now I think me of it, there are a couple of very excellent bull-dogs in the yard—fine fellows, I assure you—savage, and all that—indeed just the thing for your money—they'll have you eaten up, auriculas and all, in less than five minutes (here's my watch!)—and then only think of the sensations!”
In short, it will fit the Blackwood's formula.
In “Loss of Breath: A Tale a la Blackwood's,” Poe furnishes a short story that, parodying those which typically appear in Blackwood's Magazine, also exemplify the principles and techniques he has outlined in “How to Write a Blackwood's Article” as forming the formula for such sensational stories.
For aspiring writers who would like to see a story in the genre itself, rather than a parody, they need seek no further than Poe's work itself, for, according to Paul Collins, the author of the critical study Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living, assures us that Poe's short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” constitutes “a Blackwood's story to top all Blackwood's stories”: Poe could mock sensational “predicament” stories . . . . but he also knew they sold readily, and he had a magnificent one in “The Pit and the Pendulum.”