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 acknowledged Poe’s Dupin as the literary inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. “The Gold Bug,” “Marie Roget,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Rue Morgue” are among the first mystery stories in the English language, exhibiting Poe’s method of “ratiocination” – using logic to eliminate options and bring clarity to a world of shadows. But ratiocination is not just for the detectives – it features prominently in his horror fiction, and with good reason. “Descent into the Maelstrom” is the story of a man who overcomes nature’s punishment with keen observation and logic. “Pit and the Pendulum” is told by a narrator who avoids psychological torment a la “Saw” by keeping his wits about him and being aware of his surroundings. “The Sphinx” sees a ghastly monster reduced to a moth. The sailor in “MS Found in a Bottle” is helplessly taken aboard the Flying Dutchman’s eternal voyage, but uses his intellect and curiosity to keep from being sucked into the crew’s mindless detachment.
“The Man of the Crowd” follows a proto-Sherlock (deducing occupations via outward appearances) in his shocking quest to identify a figure who appears to be the supernatural Spirit of Crime. And so on. Poe employed logic and detective tropes in his horror to play rationality off of madness – and when madness inevitably comes close to winning, that’s when the real horror begins: the prisoner nearly surrendering to the unspeakable nature of the Pit, the sailor barely avoiding the Dutchman’s soul-aging spell, the fisherman hardly avoiding the madness that threw his brother into the clutches of the Maelstrom, even – silly as it seems – the neurotic hypochondriac who is saved from insanity when his friend points out that the Genius of Pestilence he sees crawling up the Hudson Valley is just a moth on a curtain. The spirit can succeed against all manner of physical torments – pits, pendulums, whirlpools, cholera, phantom ships, and crime – so long as the mind can identify its surroundings, locate and name them, and reason an escape. Even if that escape is death.
2. Madness – Betrayal of Reason and the Deception of the Senses
Madness runs throughout Poe’s oeuvre like a lunatic with a hatchet – always lurking, and often leaping out. The narrators of “Tell-Tale Heart,” “Cask of Amontillado,” “The Black Cat,” “Berenice,” “William Wilson,” and “Ligeia” are all either mad, or seriously compromised as a reliable narrator. Characters in “Metzengerstein,” “MS Found in a Bottle,” “The Sphinx,” “The Premature Burial,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “Descent into the Maelstrom,” and “The Spectacles” either seem to go mad or are teetering on the brink before a breakthrough snaps them back to reality. While many have read this as an autobiographical narration of Poe’s alcohol-drenched, opium-gassed insanity spiral (he was addicted to neither), I see this motif as a broader commentary on the source of human identity and purpose: our reason.
Reason is the peg upon which our worlds hang, and once it is compromised, a strange thing happens: everything is simultaneously lost and possible. The dead can return, death loses its terror, and egos are limitless. But the cost is steep: our ability to navigate the world, understand it, and – by context – understand ourselves. Insanity terrifies Poe’s characters as they tread its edge (literally in “Pit”), but it bolsters and inflates them after they fall in. “Maelstrom” is a perfect example, where one brother is swallowed by the sea a smiling and clueless lunatic, while the other martials his reason and finds a way out.
He enlisted his senses and they told him the way to reorder his chaotic world. But senses are treacherous in Poe: vision fails the moth-watcher in “The Sphinx” and the nearsighted suitor in “The Spectacles,” threatening each with lunacy; sight and touch and smell betray the claustrophobic neurotic in “The Premature Burial”; the prisoner in “Pit” is barely saved by his sense of touch when robbed of his sense of sight; devilishly acute sound is the enemy of reason in “Tell-Tale Heart” and “House of Usher”; and the list stretches on. And so our senses – the key to reason, which is the key to self-understanding – must also be suspected. Poe’s is a universe that is racked with self-doubt, paranoia, and deceit. The senses alone must guide us to spiritual authenticity, but even they are capable of cruel betrayal. Poe most heartbreakingly depicts the betrayal of the senses in “The Haunted Palace,” an allegorical poem which metaphorically describes a person who once spoke beautifully until their mind betrayed them, leaving them rushing madly about laughing without smiling.
1. The Terrifying Balance between the Mental and the Physical
In “Premium Horror and Weird Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe,” I highlight all of the above-mentioned themes, but none seemed so pervasive and unavoidable as the interplay between the mental and the material – the psychical and the physical. Whole stories are devoted to this jarring clash (especially those with dying women – see number 7) between the world of imagination and that of reality. Poe’s protagonists are often tortured by the struggle of the spiritual unconscious to dominate and shape the conscious realm of life (see number 5), which places the burden of self-understanding and existential truth on the five senses (see number 2). Mankind, Poe suggests, is dual. We are partly flesh and partly spirit.
To be all flesh is to be a ham hock in a freezer. To be all spirit is to be a deity. And yet we are both. I cannot emphasize the following claim enough: THE CENTRAL STRUGGLE IN ALL OF POE’S BEST STORIES IS THAT BETWEEN THE SPIRIT AND THE FLESH. Ligeia, Morella, Berenice, Annabel Lee, Lenore, Ulalume, and the Oval Portrait sitter are all beloved for their spirits (the idealized impression worshipped by their admirers) but rejected bodily. As such, they are neglected physically, wither, die, and rot. The central theme in “Pit and the Pendulum” is the perils of spiritual terror (the nameless, existential anxieties of the pit) and bodily horror (the flesh-carving threat of the pendulum). Roderick Usher is a spiritual schizophrenic torn between a life of the flesh (a life doomed for demise) and one of the spirit (a life haunted by terror). His mostly spiritual sister shares a soul with him and their manor, and when he tries to divorce himself of his spirit by entombing her, he is killed twice: first spiritually by terror, then bodily by horror.
Poe’s central tenet seems to be that compromise between the imagination and reality is a must if existentially-necessary sanity is to be preserved (you see how that sentence alone covers nearly all of the previous six concepts): you should not treat your wife as a figment of your imagination – a poetic perfection – because she is flesh, and doomed to die (Poe is widely suspected of never having deflowered his wife, by the way) and while she may be immortalized in spirit (Art), she will be lost to flesh (Life). In fact, this precarious dichotomy – art/life, spirit/flesh, unconscious/conscious, psychical/physical, mental/material, imagination/reality – defines nearly every work of horror or the macabre that Poe ever wrote. Within it he seems to find the terror that electrifies so much of his fiction, and haunts us still today.