Thursday, March 22, 2012

Story Review—The Testament of Magdalen Blair

"I was also a singularly good thought-reader, even at this time. The other girls feared me absolutely. They need not have done so; I had neither ambition nor energy to make use of any of my powers. Even now, when I bring to mankind this message of a doom so appalling that at the age of twenty-four I am a shriveled, blasted, withered wreck, I am supremely weary, supremely indifferent.

I have the heart of a child and the consciousness of Satan, the lethargy of I know not what disease; and yet, thank—oh!there can be no God!—the resolution to warn mankind to follow my example, and then to explode a dynamite cartridge in my mouth."
—"The Testament of Magdalen Blair, " Aleister Crowley

So my previous two reviews of short stories were by authors I'd read before, authors whose skill at the craft of writing is evident in large and significant bodies of work that have endured the test of a hundred years. Today's review comes from a man perhaps more famous than M. R. James or Algernon Blackwood... yet not for his horror fiction.

Aleister Crowley is known today as an occultist. I actually never knew he was also a poet and novelist... but after reading "The Testament of Magdalen Blair," I have to say... I'm intrigued!

The story itself is about a woman who can read minds. And the longer and more closely associated she grows with someone, the better her mind reading gets. When she marries a college professor, her ability to read his mind grows more and more potent... so that when he comes down with a particularly painful and eventually fatal illness, she ends up experiencing his sickness via her telepathic link—a link that to her makes her think of the sickness as a demon tormenting her husband.

Did his research!
But that's not the harrowing part. The harrowing part comes after her husband's life comes to an end... but her telepathic link to his mind does not.

One of the things that really hit me about this story, especially having read it in The Century's Best Horror Fiction (it's the entry for 1913) is how grim and depressing and stark and nihilistic the story is. The previous 12 entries all had about them a sense of doom and fear and horror, but even Blackwood's "The Willows" has an edge of hope to it if you look closely enough. "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" is the first story in this book that really feels like it would do quite well adapted to the modern "torture porn" genre of film—not necessarily because the story is grisly (it is at points, though), but because it resolves on a depressing note of no hope. And then adds a coda that makes things even darker than you thought they were.

"The Testament of Magdalen Blair" is...
  • ... not a story to read if you're already depressed.
  • ... not a story to read if you're afraid of dying.
  • ... the best example yet as to why The Century's Best Horror Fiction is such an excellent book; it introduced me to a story I'd never heard of that is exactly the type of disturbing thing I enjoy reading. I've got 87 stories to go, and that fills me with dread and delight!
Grade: A+

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