One of the greatest personalities in horror fiction may also be one of the least understood. He wasn’t a drunk (a lightweight? Totally), he doesn’t seem to ever have used drugs (except for laudanum), and he was a successful man of letters during his lifetime (but he was terrible with money). Today he is more known for a single poem, a mythical backstory, and bad luck with keeping women alive than his astonishing philosophical vision (oh, and puns. Lots of puns. Winnie the Poe… Edgar Allan Ho… Hilarity manifest).
Edgar Allan Poe means a lot of things to a very wide variety of people. I notice this frequently online; to some he is a loner outsider, to others a rebellious nonconformist, to one group he is a doomed romantic in the Byronic hero/Phantom of the Opera/Heathcliff caste, while another batch see him as an expressive sufferer who embodies the wild emotions of depression, mania, and anxiety. All of these impressions are just that, and they are important not only for artistic reasons but (for a great many) for personal ones as well: those who view Poe as a patron saint of goths, emos, outsiders, loners, nonconfromists, weirdos, and romantics likely do so because of how his art spoke to them, and this is sacred.
Poe has, however, gone through something of a ravenous adoption by so many groups of people – from misfit lonely hearts to death metal headbangers – that I think it is worth taking some pause and looking at some of the more direct readings of his fiction – which is to say, let’s look at Poe the writer and philosopher rather than Poe the meme. His quotes adorn countless posts on Facebook walls, but where do they come from, and in what context where they generated? While it is entirely wonderful to find ourselves in what has come to be called the Myth of Poe (viz., that he was a romantic ne’er-do-well, unappreciated outsider, and a violent rebel rather than the frustrated curmudgeon, brilliant logician, and widely read celebrity that history tells us he was), fans from all walks of life may be interested in the philosophical genius that actually brewed behind the sad eyes and twisted grimace.
If you only know Poe as a meme – as a quote on your newsfeed, or as a plushie doll or a t-shirt, or as a pun (“I’m just a Poe boy, nobody loves me…” okay, that’s great, but let’s put that one to bed) – I’d eagerly suggest picking the man’s books up (they truly are inspiring, and our very own annotated and illustrated Premium Horror and Weird Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe was the second book we EVER published – couldn’t wait to!). If you’re interested, here’s a list of seven fascinating themes and motifs that Poe wove throughout his tales and poems – things that you can look for as you comb through some of the greatest contributions to American literature, and the horror genre as a whole.
7. The Soul-Crushing Perils of Idealization and Intellectualization
Most of Poe’s most famous stories involve a concept that he called the most poetic of all literary motifs: the death of a beautiful woman. So much has been focused on Poe’s personal losses of tubercular women (his mother, youthful crush, bride, and close friends), that it is often tempting to see him as a victim of fate. His writings are not so forgiving. A recurring, and disturbing theme in Poe is the artistically-inclined loner who is so obsessed with a woman’s ideal intellectual qualities (her beauty, intelligence, spirituality, uniqueness, or physical perfection) that he neglects her emotionally, physically, and socially until it is too late to make amends.
Sometimes this is truly tragic, as in “Lenore,” “Ullalume,” “The Raven“ and “To One in Paradise.” Other times it is more sinister: Morella is reviled by her husband, dying almost by his will, and reincarnating in her own daughter to spite him; Ligeia is so objectified and idealized by her husband (who doesn’t remember meeting her or anything about her past) that she wastes away, and her replacement – the unfortunate Rowena – is slowly poisoned to death and kept a virtual prisoner in a bridal chamber/tomb in order that Ligeia might be resurrected in her otherwise despised body; the painter of the Oval Portrait literally forces his bride to starve to death so that he can capture her likeness in oils, leaving him with a wonderful piece of art and a dead wife; worst of all, Berenice is the source of fixation on the part of her adoring kinsman, who cannot wait for her to be dead a full day before he violates her grave and takes possession of her beautiful teeth – to make matters worse, Poe’s uncensored original draft makes it clear that the protagonist knows full well that his beloved was buried alive, making the mutilation truly devilish. Poe returns time and again to the idea that it is unwise to boil your loved ones down to preferred traits or larger than life caricatures: take them wholly human – faults, needs, flaws, mortality, and all – otherwise prepare to be left alone.
6. Weird Fiction Aesthetics
Well before Machen, Blackwood, Hodgson, and Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe was formulating The Weird. Weird fiction is more than basic horror – more nuanced, more subtle, more artful. It is the combination of ghost stories, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, supernatural tales, and speculative fiction, all disconnected from a predictable pattern of literary rules: in these universes (there is no One) the ghosts are maybe not ghosts, the vampires can walk in sunlight, the gods are aliens, the undead cannot be explained or combatted by religion, and the magic does not conform to typical standards.
While Hoffmann, Washington Irving, the Arabian Nights, and several other trail blazers began this path before Poe, no English-speaking writer commits so fully to the Uncanny before him. Is Ligeia a vampire, a revenant, a succubus, a hallucination, or a murderous invention? What is the strange, inexplicable sentience that empowers the water, vegetation, and masonry at the House of Usher – something ghostly, alien, pagan, magical, psychological? Is Morella’s reincarnation religious, imagined, willed, or vampiric? Is William Wilson a doppelganger, a stalker, a spirit, a ghost, a demon, a conscience, or a schizophrenic invention? Poe’s work is rife with otherworldly awe that refuses to tidily into categories, genres, or myths.
5. Symbols of the Unconscious, the Hidden, and the Repressed
Poe was first and foremost a psychological writer, and his work presages Freud’s theories of the Unconscious beautifully. To paraphrase Freud, man’s consciousness is divided into three registers: the disapproving, morally-motivated Super-Ego, the impulsive, animalistic Id, and judicious consciousness called the Ego -- the executive function. Sixty years before “The Interpretation of Dreams,” Poe was filling his fiction with symbols of these players, and was primarily fascinated by the disastrous results of the Super-Ego’s victory over the Id – a victory that was sure to be punished viciously when the Id inevitably escapes. Usher’s decision to bury his sister alive in order to snuff his family tree [read: repressing the unnatural urges of the Id into the vaults of the Unconscious] results in metaphorical madness and literal death as the House crumbles around him [homes represent the mind and reason].
William Wilson meets his Super-Ego doppelganger in a labyrinthine mansion [read: in his unconscious] and can only shake him off by murdering them both. “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” both follow men who attempt to hide their misbehavior [Id] from the authorities [Super-Ego] by burying them in the framework of their homes [mind] but are found out when the Ids rebel and expose them in a frenzy of literal and metaphorical madness [the repressed heart beats; the repressed cat skirls]. The list goes on and on… “Metzengerstein,” “Pit and the Pendulum,” “Ligeia,” “Lenore,” “Ulallume”… on and on… Poe truly hammered this lesson into his readers: find a balance between your shame and your sin – your morality and your carnality – or they will destroy you in the act of destroying one another [i.e., the Id and the Super-Ego will obliterate one another if left unchecked, leaving a compass-less Ego – in other words, a madman]
4. The Will to Power – Meeting-Place of the Spirit and Flesh
Willpower is just as crucial to Poe’s literary worldview as it is to Emerson, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. Will lives and breathes in his characters’ lives. This is no Tony Robbins seminar – no weightwatchers meeting – this is Lazarus self-motivated. In Poe’s fiction, the Will – the intellectual urge to thrive bodily – is the meeting ground of the spirit and the flesh – of imagination and reality (see number 1). The Will intercedes on behalf of mortal limitations, making the impossible achievable. However, the consequences are nearly always grave, and often catastrophic. In “Metzengerstein” the Will-to-Hate is so strong that after a man dies in a fire, he is reincarnated as a demon horse who mesmerizes his killer into riding him and gallops them both into an inferno.
“Ligeia,” “Morella,” and “House of Usher” each feature a woman who wills herself back from death in a feat that terrifies their mourners – through possession, reincarnation, and brute force respectively. “The Black Cat,” “William Wilson,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Imp of the Perverse” explore the Will-to-Expose – the urge of the conscience to bring the spirit to account for its crimes (confession) even at the expense of the body (prison and execution), achieving this in a variety of creative means: reincarnated/ghost cats, doppelganger consciences, auditory hallucinations, and spontaneous blurting respectively. Throughout his oeuvre Poe demonstrates that compromise must be made between the disparate factions of the human Self, otherwise calamity might befall. The Will is the supernatural zone upon which these calamities are orchestrated: the abused achieve revenge beyond the grave, the neglected assert their personalities in defiance of death and desertion, repressed urges are given voice, stifled consciences breathe deeply, and hidden atrocities are thrust into the public eye. It is Poe’s vehicle for karmic justice – a means of challenging denial, repression, and deceit with the Will to Power – the Will to Truth.
3. Sherlockian Deduction – Even in the Horror Stories
We all know that Poe dabbled in detective stories. Most fans know that Arthur Conan Doyle openly and reverently acknowledge