You just can’t get more gothic than E A Poe. What makes it great for us was that, not only did he have the most twisted imagination ever, he was also an incredible writer.
I should probably confess that I haven’t actually read ‘Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque’ as a complete book. This is because I first encountered Poe through a big edition of ‘The Complete Works’ and so I’ve never got straight in my head which stories originally belonged in which collection. Once he is claimed as Gothic however, he can be used to further my arguments that all genres come from one, because he wrote science-fiction, detective, adventure as well as the most chilling horror stories. There was nothing this man couldn’t do and he wrote too much me to even pretend to cover his work in detail, but below are my personal top 5 E. A. Poe reads:
1. The Raven – Poe at his best
If I ever feel like I want to read something that will impress me, I turn back to ‘The Raven’. Poe’s use of sibilance, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia and repetition are staggeringly good. Of course, I just want to copy and paste the whole thing here and now, but I’ll limit myself to one verse
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
’tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door–
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;–
This it is – and nothing more”
The poetry is wonderful and is reason enough to love Poe, but I also read it for the horror. I’m the only person I know who’ll confess to this, but I find ‘The Raven’ terrifying. This isn’t because of a bird-phobia or because I’m overly sensitive to atmosphere, it’s because of the depth of despair that strains just below the clever rhymes. We start with our hero consumed with grief at the death of the beloved Lenore. There is a sense that he hopes her ghost will come to visit him and he is torn between fear and hope, especially as the ideas of ghosts and other terrors starts to work on his imagination. If you’ve ever managed to work yourself up to a gibbering wreck because of an overly active imagination you’ll identify with how he feels at the start of the verse above. Then we meet the Raven, who is, admittedly, a comic touch. Even the narrator tells us that he smiles at the incongruity of the sight, but soon his despair gets the better of him. The raven only says ‘nevermore’ ‘as if his soul in that one word he did outpour’ and this is where I start to get scared. We’re told that the bird must have learned this word ‘from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster / Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore / – Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore / of never – nevermore’. He’s left to our imagination but I’m extremely scared by the man so crushed by trouble he can only repeat that word. I’m working myself up just writing about it, because the psychological torment it evokes is so extreme, but seems everyone in the poem shares it with me. I really it’s important to get into this state to really enjoy the poem because, on first reading, ‘The Raven’ can seem silly – if you know the Raven’s always going to give the same answer why not ask the right questions: ‘How long will I miss Lenore?’ – ‘Nevermore!’ ‘Will I keep on feeling so depressed?’ – ‘Nevermore!’ It could be a very different poem.
‘The Raven’ is about a soul in hell. It’s all very well to tell the speaker to ask the right questions. He can’t, he can only ask the questions that will give him the most depressing answers and he can’t escape these answers – even stupid birds will become terrifying reminders of his unending grief. ‘The Raven’ is self-indulgent in its poetic virtuosity and in its narrator’s inability to just get over it, but all consuming fear and sadness is, by its nature, self-indulgent. ‘The Raven’ is a masterpiece and shows Poe at his tormented best.
2. The Masque of the Red Death – Poe and the fantastical
This short story just sticks in the mind, I think because of its simplicity. I’m not going to give away the ending if you haven’t read it yet. Still, I defy anyone not to work out what’s going on because, like the best horror stories, it’s not the final bang but the spooky build-up that provides the drama.
The setting is opulent and fantastical. It’s like Poe had read Vathek and wanted to show Beckford how sensory descriptions should really be done. It’s a simple idea. The prince and his court are living a life of happy selfishness despite that fact that ‘the “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal –the redness and the horror of blood. The great masked ball is the zenith of this insensitivity and most of the short story is a description of the party, a bit like chapter 2 of the ‘The Great Gatsby’ but with an less-subtle social message.
Unlike ‘The Raven’ I don’t really find this frightening, but I love build up of atmosphere, the clear and sparse structure and the idea that Poe also does social criticism. It also stuck in my mind because it felt so different from what I was expecting. It’s a fairy tale or a fable, not a modern short story, and I love it for this.
3. Annabel Lee – Poe as a poet
Sometimes you just need a bit of uncomplicated romance and death-defying love. When coupled with Poe at his poetic best you know you’re onto a winner. It’s also shorter than the Raven, so if you’re in a rush it’s a good substitute for my number one read…
4. The Purloined Letter – Poe and detective fiction
This is a story that kind of passed me by when I first read it, but you can’t study English at University without encountering Lacan, and you can’t read Lacan without finding out that he loved this story. I had such difficulty understanding any of Lacan’s essays I found myself re-reading Poe instead as ‘essential research’ and escape from psychoanalytical post-structuralism. I never really came to terms with Lacan, but I learned to love this story, firstly because it shows Poe as a writer of detective fiction (there really is no end to his talents!) and secondly because it’s so full of poetic justice and double-crossing. I’ve come to realise that my first, unimpressed, reading was wrong and that this story utterly deserves its classic status.
5. The Pit and the Pendulum – Poe does action and adventure
Following popular myth, when I read this I thought Poe only wrote horror and was really confused by the lack of psychological terror in this great short story. As, with me, a little terror goes a long way, I was delighted to find that my ‘Collected Works’ also contained some lighter relief. I know that this story is normally classified as horror, but that just doesn’t work for me. To misquote Mark Kermode, the horror genre can explore deep human fears about identity and loss of identity, fears about existential angst, life, death, the universe etc, or it can explore the fear of being cut to pieces by a giant razor and pushed by shrinking walls into a fiery pit. I find the first type of horror scary; I find the second silly. The good news is that James Bond has shows us the action potential of the slow death device, when the hero is locked away in a room with something that will definitely kill him…unless he manages to escape…which is impossible because time is running out… I’m sorry, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is classic action, and all the better for it.