I’m going to do something a little different this time; I’m not going to review a story. Criticism on Poe more in-depth and well thought-out than I can provide here and now abounds, and it better serves my purposes to ruminate on the experience of reading, after so much horror, the totality of Poe’s writings (well, that I hadn’t already read).
EDGAR ALLAN POE
What can I say about Poe? Popular consciousness has a tendency to boil down the history of literature into a few key names—Homer, Shakespeare, etc—and Poe seems to be one of those names that have survived this process. While plenty of other important names in the genre—E.T.A. Hoffmann, M.R. James, Arthur Machen—seem to be relatively unknown, pretty much anyone off the street has heard of Poe, and has probably read some key stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He has therefore taken on the position of being the sort of originator of the horror genre, although that’s really a ridiculous idea, since it had its predecessors in the gothic and Romantic literature of the early 1800s, which itself takes classical inspiration—but, on the other hand, something is to be said for the degree to which Poe, as a figure, isolates this horror, makes it a focus unto itself.
Except that in reading the complete works of Poe, that’s not really the impression that I get. Sure, he has a tendency to focus on the macabre in various form, but he also has a tendency towards social satire, mystery stories, and early science fiction (of a rather tedious sort, in my opinion). Not only that, but his horror is widely varied, from narratives of insanity like “The Tell-Tale Heart” to the supernatural bizarre like “The Masque of the Red Death” to the speculative like “MS. Found in a Bottle.” I would like to hazard a suggestion that this image of Poe we’ve been given is something of a construction, a way of trying to pin down to a certain person what was in fact a widespread movement. Why, look at some of the fiction that appeared from other authors around the same time—before or after—that Poe was writing: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel” by Coleridge; the Elizabeth Gaskell stories we looked at earlier; likewise, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s works; “The Vampyre” by John Polidori; the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne; The Purcell Papers by Sheridan Le Fanu. There was a general trend of the gothic and the grotesque in fiction, although most of it does trend toward a certain sort of romanticism that Poe leaves behind, and perhaps this is what we can finally credit him with.
Although plenty of Poe’s writings, especially his poetry, does trend towards romanticism, there’s a vulgar cruelty in a few of his works, generally those that have become well-known, strong enough to affect even readers today. This isn’t an insult to Poe; rather, it seems to me to be something severely lacking from the majority of these other works (with the exception of the Marquis de Sade, who was quite comfortable with it, but who never had the sort of popular acceptance Poe received). Indeed, it’s this cruelty that helps tie Poe’s name to Baudelaire, so that so often a dark soul in the literature of the late 1800s can be identified by the volume of Poe and the copy of Les Fleurs du Mal lying open on their desk. And it ties into the mythology of Poe, the man who mysteriously ended up dying in a gutter in Baltimore at the age of 40, probably from depression and alcoholism.
Of course, one of the strongest impulses for mythologizing Poe is the desire for a beginning, particularly for an American beginning. Alongside Hawthorne, Melville, and, a little earlier, Washington Irving, Poe represents the origin of the dark side of American literature. While Whitman was finding himself in the experience of all reality, Poe finds something similar, but it is an experience of revulsion and mania. Poe writes of horrifying events, but almost always that is secondary; it is primarily of the self, of the experience of consciousness, that he writes, and in some stories, like “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Premature Burial,” that takes such a center stage that it’s hard to imagine really considering these as being the ‘short stories’ Poe is supposedly a master of. Not to say they’re not good writing—many of them are wonderful—but they seem to be more a model for current developments of postmodern fiction than most of the horror short stories I’ve been reading, which seem to be derived from cut-and-dried ghost stories like “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Gaskell. Poe’s satirical writing in particular seems reminiscent of contemporary humor in its abuse of the ludicrous; some stories put me in the mind of early Peter Jackson films, or the grotesque erotic comedy of Shintaro Kago. So Poe, as this initial American writer of dark experience—of the dark mind—finds his place at the head of the American horror tradition, even as he seems to be in many ways more engaged with literary developments in France and England. We mythologize him as an original figure of American literary history, ignoring the fact that his writing is littered with untranslated French, Latin, Greek, etc.
It seems, now, impossible to just read Poe; he is too historicized, too bound into our understanding of what and how we read. Still, an attempt to strip away this perspective finds someone uninterested in narrative, that all-controlling god of twentieth-century literature. Proof enough of this should be apparent to anyone who has read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a wonderful story I shouldn’t like to spoil here, but that has profoundly postmodern tendencies. I see Poe not alongside figures like Richard Matheson and Stephen King, but alongside Algernon Blackwood (for his interest in the characteristics of mental excitation), Paul Auster, Thomas Ligotti—those for whom horror is not a subject matter but an existential condition to be plumbed by writing. It is unfortunate that this is the part of his writing that has been neglected by so many supposed imitators, because coming to what seems to me to be a crisis of genre fiction—narrative is all used up, and there’s little more to explore in terms of transgression—I can only hope that writers (and readers) will rekindle the curiosity about the human condition that has been lying dormant all this time. Poe explores the ridiculousness of our world, the revulsion in it, obsession, fear, torment, grief, guilt, disgust, terror, absurdity, longing, mystification, revelation, horror— Poe explores a huge topography of human experiences throughout his work, and this is primarily where the interest in it, for me, lies. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is not about solving a specific mystery; it is about the idea of solving mysteries, hence the long introduction. “The Premature Burial” is about the idea of fear. “The Cask of Amontillado” is about vengeful mania. “The Spectacles” is about judging other. “X-ing a Paragraph” is about egoism. “The Raven” is about mourning. These aren’t moral stories or allegories—Poe reportedly hated such techniques (although I quite enjoy them, in the right hands)—but are instead explorations of what it means to be human. Horror can offer us this exploration just as easily as any other writing, and easier sometimes, because it necessarily strips away a great deal of cultural baggage. Like a medical student cutting open the corpse and applying the galvanic charge only to discover the body coming back to life, horror exposes to us the gruesome elements of life and revivifies it. Even the most absurd, most outlandish horror—if it can affect us, then it has touched on something inside us, helped to make us aware of that thing. For its ability to open up new moments of existence, horror is a vital part of the exploration of the human condition, a vital and necessary part of this grand beast known as Literature.
And lastly, do I recommend Poe? Is this really a necessary question? Whether or not he is the father of horror fiction, Poe’s writings have survived the years due to their skill. Poe is a great writer, and like all great writers he should be read and reread, discussed, disagreed with, lauded, and finally passed on to further readers—and so, now, I pass him on to you.
Poe’s writings can be found just about anywhere, for any price. I read most of this in the large Doubleday collection pictured, but some of it in an Oxford World’s Classics edition I had purchased for a class, and others on my phone (including the entirety of Pym) with the aid of a very handy complete works of Poe app that I believe is still available for free. For uncertain readers, I recommend starting with the more well-known writings and moving on to other works, although you would do well to check out some of his often skipped-over satirical writings as well.
Copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.