Rediscovering Edgar Allen Poe

Photos and illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe

Photos and illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe is well known as America’s most preeminent writer of gothic horror. In The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator fiercely proclaims his own sanity, even as he describes his perpetration of a murder: “It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! — would a madman have been so wise as this?” [1] In The Cask of Amontillado, the narrator – after suffering the last of “[t]he thousand injuries of Fortunato” – encounters the latter, drunk, on the streets during Carnival, and, plying him with alcohol, leads him deep into his underground wine cellar where he then entombs him alive. “I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within,” the narrator writes, in a chilling final passage. “There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells.” [2] In Berenice, the story’s narrator observes as his lover Berenice – once “agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy” – deteriorates at the hands of a hideous mysterious disease. The narrator, himself overcome with insanity, awakens from a trance-like state on the night of her burial – he finds that mud and gore cover his clothes, and scratch-marks indent his skin – and struggling to open a small box he encounters on his nearby table, he accidentally drops it, breaking it and scattering to the floor thirty-two white, shining teeth. [3]

Reopening my massive volume of Poe stories recently, then, I was surprised to discover a few stories about vastly different topics – encompassing adventure, humor and love. These, Poe’s unknown stories, will bring fascinating insight to Poe’s literary legacy.

Glimpses into a few of Poe’s non-horror stories

Adventure

The Assignation [4] is a remarkable work. It’s a tale, not of terror, but of an intriguing courtship among royalty during one Venetian night. A shriek rends the air as the baby of the Marchesa Aphrodite, “the adoration of all of Venice”, slips from its mother’s arms and falls into the waters of the dark canal below. “Many a stout swimmer,” the story proceeds, fails to recover the child, until a cloaked figure emerges and plunges into the canal; within seconds “he stood with the still living and breathing child within his grasp.” “Thou hast conquered,” the Marchesa whispers, nearly inaudibly, to the child’s deliverer, and though the she’s married – to the old, wealthy Mentoni – she continues deliberately, “one hour after sunrise — we shall meet — so let it be!”

The Assignation is interesting for a number of reasons. First is the immediate fact of its subject matter, which – though surely still somewhat unclear to the reader – is a far cry from the psychological horror we typically associate with Poe.

Moreover, The Assignation features unusually intricate language. The story’s opening paragraph – in which the narrator delivers a passionate address to the story’s hero and to Venice itself – exhibits language uncharacteristic of Poe’s other work. It’s grandiose and elaborate, rife with poetic allusions:

Once more thy form hath risen before me! — not — oh not as thou art — in the cold valley and shadow — but as thou shouldst be — squandering away a life of magnificent meditation in that city of dim visions, thine own Venice — which is a star-beloved Elysium of the sea, and the wide windows of whose Palladian palaces look down with a deep and bitter meaning upon the secrets of her silent waters.

The mystical quality of the writing persists even past the introduction.

The Assignation is eschews terror and suspense in favor of what we might call thrilling adventure. The cloak of the deliverer becomes unfastened and falls, to reveal a very young man – “with the sound of whose name the greater part of Europe was then ringing” – whom our passing narrator soon accepts into his gondola. The man proves to be an English nobleman of staggering wealth. The story’s adventure – and the role of the Marchesa Aphrodite – has only just begun, and I’ll leave the rest to the interested reader.

Humor

King Pest [5] is absolutely hilarious, and in a sophisticated, literary way. Its humor places it among but a few of Poe’s collected short stories.

The story follows two ludicrous, caricatured drunken sailors as they stage an unpaid escape from The Jolly Tar. One, named only “Legs”, is “six feet nine inches” with an incredible stoop, and “large hawk-nose, retreating chin, fallen under-jaw, and huge protruding white eyes”; his companion, Hugh Tarpaulin, “could not have exceeded four feet,” and has “unusually short and thick arms… dangling from his sides like the fins of a sea-turtle.” Dashing hastily from the pub, and pursued by the landlord, the pair eagerly leaps a wooden barrier in the street – a barrier, unbeknownst to them, erected by the township against plague. Stumbling into the forsaken district, where “[t]he paving-stones, loosened from their beds, lay in wild disorder amid the tall, rank grass, which sprang up hideously around the feet and ankles” and where “[t]he most fetid and poisonous smells every where prevailed,” the pair’s misadventures soon take a turn for the bizarre.

King Pest is, again, noteworthy first for its subject matter, which departs from what we’ve come to expect from Poe. (Poe’s other humor stories include Bon-Bon, The Angel of the Odd, The Duc De L’Omlette, and more that I haven’t read.)

The piece is funny because of the contrast between its precise, complex, and indeed beautiful language and the ridiculous things this language depicts. This contrast gives the narrator an air of preposterous solemnity.

The content of the story, independent of this contrast, becomes so ridiculous as to itself invite hilarity. The story’s absurdity culminates in (I won’t give too much away) the pair’s sentencing to death – by drinking – at the bidding of the ghostly circle of rulers of a massive, untapped alcohol cellar. I’ll leave the rest, again, to the interested reader, and I highly recommend this excellent piece.

Love

Eleonora [6] is a love story between the unnamed narrator and his mysterious cousin, Eleonora. (I’ve been told that Eleonora memorializes the actual romance that took place between Poe and his cousin Virginia Clem, but Eleonora doesn’t mention Poe’s relationship explicitly, and I prefer to understand the story in its own right.) The story depicts love, and indeed of a vivid, intimate, and emotional sort, and in this sense it departs from Poe’s usual work.

The story is also unique for the magical fantasy world it depicts; it deals heavily in what some call magical realism. “We had always dwelled together,” the narrator writes, “beneath a tropical sun, in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass.” He continues:

No path was trodden in its vicinity; and, to reach our happy home, there was need of putting back, with force, the foliage of many thousands of forest trees, and of crushing to death the glories of many millions of fragrant flowers. Thus it was that we lived all alone, knowing nothing of the world without the valley, — I, and my cousin, and her mother.

In Eleonora, the themes of love and magical realism are closely connected. After the two fall in love – “It was one evening… that we sat, locked in each other’s embrace, beneath the serpent-like trees,” the narrator writes – the Valley begins to change.

Strange, brilliant flowers, star-shaped, burst out upon the trees where no flowers had been known before. The tints of the green carpet deepened; and when, one by one, the white daisies shrank away, there sprang up in place of them, ten by ten of the ruby-red asphodel.

These characteristics make Eleonora – unique, as far as I’ve seen, among Poe’s short stories – depart vastly from the gothic horror novel.

Others

Poe also wrote the first among what have come to be known as detective stories. See, for example, the fascinating The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter, and The Mystery of Marie Roget.

Also excellent were Poe’s critical essays and reviews of other literary works. For more about these, see the introduction of the Complete Tales and Poems [7].

What these non-horror stories tell us

It should be no surprise that a writer as talented as Poe wrote about other things.

But why, in the first place, do we so readily associate Poe with the horror genre? “[T]hose we most immediately associate with him are the frightening tales,” [7] admits one introducer; Poe’s “more typical works include horror tales,” [8] another writes. A discussion of Poe among friends is likely to corroborate the prevalence of this conviction.

It may be a simple lack of information. People tend to become famous for particular things; the awareness of these things comes perhaps at the expense of that of others.

But perhaps it’s easier for us, intellectually and emotionally, to brand Poe as just a horror writer. In doing so, we make his horror simple: plain, purposeless, and cartoonish — something like Scooby Doo, The Addams Family, or Scream. Horror of this cartoonish sort is no such thing. It’s cheap; we expect a few minor frights. We’re not going to really get scared.

By treating Poe statically, we brand his work as cartoonish. Cast as cartoonish, it ceases to inspire fear. We perhaps mischaracterize Poe to protect ourselves.

Horror writing, understood as the product of a real person who writes real things, can begin to seem scarier. Understanding Poe in this way, we more closely face the realities of his mind. What, after all, could incite someone – a real person – to write a story as vividly, artfully, purely terrifying as The Fall of the House of Usher? [9]

At the same time, acknowledging Poe’s diversity adds depth to our understanding of Poe as a writer. It creates that joy, present in many intellectual pursuits, of learning things — of discovering unforeseen intricacies in flavor and texture.

Finally, it shows positivity among the difficult body of Poe’s works. Though this writer had a talent for horror – and, after all, he had to make a living – in his mind, simultaneously, there resided feelings of adventure, humor, and love. Edgar Allen Poe was someone real.

References

  1. The Tell-Tale Heart
  2. The Cask of Amontillado
  3. Berenice
  4. The Assignation
  5. King Pest
  6. Eleonora
  7. A modern compilation. Edgar Allen Poe: Complete Tales and Poems
  8. Unexpected and highly entertaining: Poe writes about interior decoration. The Philosophy of Furniture. See this for the full text.
  9. The Fall of the House of Usher
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