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Illuminating Supernatural Fiction, Horror, and the Gothic

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The Nightmarish, Existential, Deeply Personal Horror Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: Oldstyle Tales' Macabre Masters

You have read Poe before. I say that with the authority of someone who was brought up in the American public education system. You have read “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” If your school was ambitious you have read “Annabelle Lee” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” If they were truly ambitious you may have read “The Bells” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But you have read Poe. Our annotated and illustrated collection of his best horror and macabre poetry hopes to trim away the romantic myth and water the obscure – sometimes tragic – truth behind the tales of Poe. We include stories you are quite familiar with, and stories that you may have read in a previous anthology as an enthusiast, or may never have seen on the printed page before.

 

These stories include tales of grisly revenge (as with “Amontillado” and the underrated “Hop-Frog” – a gruesome tale based on a horrific episode of French history), tales of the resurrection, reincarnation, and the chilling power of the will-to-life (such as “Morella,” “Ligeia,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” with its graphic depiction of a man’s sudden dissolution into a pulp of liquefied flesh), tales of otherwise sane persons driven to homicides and mutilations by their inner demons (as in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “William Wilson,” “The Black Cat,” and – not to be read before visiting the dentist – “Berenice”), tales of supernaturally sentient, cosmic landscapes of indifferent malevolence (“MS. Found in a Bottle,” “Descent into the Maelström,” “The Fall of the House of Usher”), and meditations on psychological terror (“Shadow,” “Silence,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”).

 

Several of these stories are uncommon to anthologies, even quite rare. “Metzengerstein,” “The Assignation,” and “The Man of the Crowd” are rarely if ever included in popular Poe anthologies other than completist compendiums, and the rarely discussed or read sketches “Shadow” and “Silence” are distinct both in that they tread the borderland between prose and verse, and that they have aroused intense controversy amongst literary critics concerning their genus classifications and philosophical interpretations.

 

POE THE CRITIC

 

These episodes – some mere sketches, others sprawling dramas – are among the most visceral of Poe’s oeuvre. They represent some of his thematically darkest writings and collectively are responsible for much of his reputation. It is incorrect to paint Poe as a horror writer, however. He was most known in his day as a scathing literary critic, a cynical humorist, a writer of hoaxes, a literary philosopher, a Romantic poet, and a caustic satirist who accumulated enemies through negative reviews and contributed the majority of his corpus to the genres of literary criticism, satire, and poetry.

 

I would not have this anthology – which focuses methodically on Poe’s macabre tales – give the impression that Poe was antebellum America’s Stephen King or P.D. James. His writings in the genre of supernatural fiction and psychological terror have, however, hand-over-fist overridden his critical, satirical, and humorist works, many of which are unfortunately bound into the era which produced them (just as satires of Jimmy Carter, Stephen Douglas, or Oliver Cromwell rapidly lose their mass appeal with every passing year, and eventually fall exclusively into the domain of historians and literati). While it may be unfortunate that Poe will not be remembered for his wit and satire, this volume does not apologize for further embracing the dark tales of Poe; we hope to delve deeply into the canon of his macabre writings and to illuminate their decades-long shadows with informed commentary.

 

POE THE MACABRE

 

The tales that made Poe an icon of the macabre contain the following qualities: a degree of psychological terror, the threat of insanity rending control and identity from the protagonist, a hostile or misanthropic landscape, population, or setting, the lurking threat of obliteration by death, and – in some – admittance to the unnatural extremes of excessive, unwarranted violence that even the most rational human mind is capable of conjuring. Oldstyle Tales usually shies away from weird poetry; poetry is a distinct study which requires a great deal of critical attention to matters that extend beyond simple literary criticism, word definitions, and historical contextualization. A thorough analysis of scansion, beat, meter, and lyricism is not necessary in detailing fiction, but verse is largely defined by these elements – almost more so (in some cases) than its literary content. However, with Poe, who was best known in his century as a poet first, a literary critic second, a horror writer third, and a humorist fourth, a respectable compendium of his macabre writings must include his poetry to be considered complete.

 

In the following section we will go into greater detail on how his short stories have been organized and catalogued. Suffice it to say, they have been arranged chronologically to allow for a progressive narrative that begins with “Metzengerstein” and concludes with the similarly-themed “Hop-Frog.” By beginning and ending in the order in which these tales are printed, you will have the ability to follow the themes that recur and develop throughout Poe’s literary career. The notes will assist in tying together shared themes by referring you to other stories (by Poe and others) which either influenced or were influenced by the story at hand. Additionally it should be noted that we have cataloged the tales into four sub-categories to engender comparative analysis.

 

Poe’s tales follow many strains, but the four we have isolated are: the Tale of Gender and Metaphysics (the binary relationship between a man and a woman is used to render a psycho-philosophical commentary on the balance between mind and matter, essence and form), the Existential Adventure (a situation of physical horror and natural sublimity is digested through the use of logic and ratiocination – leading to a conclusions about the vulnerability of humanity in the face of a hostile cosmos), the Revenge Fantasy (a relatively weak but relatively popular form: a malefactor is punished with impunity by a self-justified murderer), and the Tale of Psychological Duplicity (a character is faced with a symbolic or literal episode of psychosis, whereby their psychology is broken into two elements and they are plagued by their doppelgänger – usually an extension of conscience). If you prefer, reading stories from the same category can prove as useful and insightful as following their progress chronologically. Both systems are designed to help better understand the motifs and ideas that Poe saw develop throughout his career...

 

WHO WAS EDGAR ALLAN POE? 

 

“Edgar Allan Poe was a pedophilic anti-social who expressed the homicidal mania that slept restlessly in his soul by indulging his rampant alcoholism and occasionally binging on opium, after which he penned and published his narcotic visions under the guise of imagination.” This is the image of America’s first great participant in horror fiction that cinema, comics, and sensationalist biographic blurbs paint. It is woefully inaccurate, simultaneously over-romanticizing an ordinary life and ignoring the true demons, tragedies, and anxieties of a very complex personality. There is no need to cover the important points of Poe’s life. Any anthology can provide them in its introduction, or a quick perusal of Google’s top hits. Without dwelling on the dates or details, it is possible to glimpse into the man.

 

The demons which haunted Edgar Allan Poe were both less unique than his romanticized mythology suggests and more tragic than most readers may suspect. Social gossip, personal feuds, and petty rivalries – the stuff of high school cliques – followed him throughout his life, hamstringing his professional advancement, blackballing him from large portions of high society, and darkening his marriage and later romantic prospects. The threat of scandal, shame, and snubbing was far more dangerous to his life than the allure of any opium den or gin house. Society was both his ambition and his disdain: it simultaneously lured him with its promises of prestige and station, and revolted him with its ability to harbor and elevate petty, simple-minded fools simply due to their birth.

 

An elitist by nature, Poe was nonetheless rejected by many segments of high society, and remained relatively contemptuous of the aristocracy. His distrust of, hate for, and envy towards the upper echelons of fashionable society was woven into his short tales – “Metzengerstein,” “Berenice,” “Ligeia,” “William Wilson,” “Masque of the Red Death,” “Fall of the House of Usher,” “Cask of Amontillado,” “Hop-Frog,” and more – and his four so-called revenge fantasies (“Masque,” “Metzengerstein,” “Amontillado,” and “Hop-Frog”) have been argued to show direct corollaries to his real-life rivals, particularly the writer Thomas Dunn English and a ring of slanderous gossips headed by Elizabeth Ellet. Much of Poe’s violence in his later writings appears to derive (in some part) from a hate of his social enemies, manifesting in cathartic (and in English’s case, retaliatory) literary assassinations, rather than the narcotic-fed fancies of a true homicide. This is less sexy than the Poe myth relates its, but far sadder.

 

A HUNGER TO RESTORE HARMONY BETWEEN BODY AND SPIRIT

 

The pathological loss of women in his life has been similarly over-romanticized, though not without cause. It is certainly true that Poe had a slew of personal losses that deeply affected him, not the least of which was the gradual, inevitable decay of his tubercular wife (with whom, many scholars now believe, he likely had a relatively asexual relationship – much like the overly-intellectual narrators of “Ligeia,” “Berenice,” “The Oval Portrait,” and “Morella”). The losses of his mother, Mrs. Standard, and his wife cannot be trivialized, and yet, while the motif of “the death of a beautiful woman” is strongly fostered in Poe’s oeuvre, the philosophical meditations that these figures conjure have been overlooked by high school teachers and casual critics. Poe’s principle philosophical concern (in his horror fiction) was the relationship between the material and the mental – the physical and the psychical. What is the balance between the two? What is the result of imbalance? How can harmony be restored? Can the two be peacefully separated? How do they coexist? What are the weaknesses of pure physicality? Of pure thought?

 

Added to these musings are two throbbing threats to the harmony between body and spirit: desolation and oblivion. Perhaps most poetically depicted in “Silence,” and most explicitly in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Poe consistently places the mind/matter dilemma at a precipice between physical violence/discomfort/chaos and mental obliteration. Like the science fiction example of an imbalance between particular elementals causing a rift in the perceivable dimensions, Poe ponders the unimaginable vistas of oblivion opened by a rift between the physical self and the psychical self. This horror is apparent in “Ligeia” and “Morella” where the continuance of the spirit beyond the body claims a toll in the physical world, in “Usher” where the brother’s vain attempt to divorce himself from his mental fate (insanity) by burying the physical body of his doppelgänger sister causes both siblings and their avatar (the House) to be dragged into the tarn’s void, and in “The Oval Portrait” where the essence of the wife is infused into the portrait, demanding the collateral demise of her form.

 

Poe’s writing reflected the mind of a man torn between logic and imagination – the tangible realm of the physical and the romantic realm of the spiritual – and while his dying woman stories considered the metaphorical relationship between the two, the tales preceding his murder phase literally interwove the two genres: “Pit and the Pendulum,” “Man of the Crowd,” “Descent into the Maelström,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” posed rational detective writing (ratiocination) against supernatural or psychological terrors. Poe even observed the bipolarity of physicality and spirituality in horror fiction as it stood alone; he called the two sides of horror the Arabesque (terror: mental anguish) and the Grotesque (horror: physical repulsion).

 

While the two terms have incited a tremendous deal of critical discussion, the two essentially represent the two elements of fear – existential terror and corporeal ghoulishness. Although each of his tales deals (to some degree) with the interplay between material and mental existence, some are constructed to delve further into the material (e.g. the grisly body horror in “Berenice”) and others the mental (e.g. the existential terror of oblivion in “Descent”); these tales were classified as Grotesqueries and Arabesques respectively by the author. Poe frequently – almost chronically – delves into the bipolarity of human existence, the unstable relationship between binaries which represent the lofty idealism of imagination and logic, and the carnal disappointments of mortality and chaos. His tales rush through the no-man’s land between these two worlds: in some instances, sanity escapes (if by a thread) to live another day; in others it is dashed and irrecoverably entombed. 

 

THE FOUR KINDS OF POE'S MACABRE TALES

 

The horror fiction he developed fell into several categories of focus. The first substantial type of story was the Grotesquery which highlighted the struggle of a beautiful woman between physical and spiritual existence – the Tale of Gender and Metaphysics [e.g. The Assignation, Berenice, Morella, Ligeia, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Oblong Box, The Oval Portrait, etc.] – and pondered the consequences of divorcing essence from form (invariably on the part of their male counterpart who prizes their ideal self over their real self). Arabesques of mental terror and (self) exploration – the Tale of Existential Adventure [e.g. MS. Found in a Bottle, Shadow, Silence, A Descent into the Maelström, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, etc.] – examined the allure of existential curiosity and the threats of desolation and oblivion within fantastical or mythical landscapes. Several of these tales championed the conquest of grounding rationality over maddening imagination, providing (relatively) optimistic conclusions, while others delved into dark, hopeless cynicism. All involved the role of rationality in opposing death and insanity.

 

Poe’s tales later delved into two brands of murder stories. The first – the Tale of Psychological Duplicity [e.g., William Wilson, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Imp of the Perverse, The Black Cat, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Man of the Crowd, etc.] – featured a murderer driven either by an unconscious, not entirely established, or selfish motives to destroy their victim – a secret which is eventually flushed out by (apparently) either psychological or supernatural manifestations of conscience: doppelgängers which represent the repressed, denied, and avoided actions, emotions, and perspectives which the narrator is attempting accomplish: indeed, in several of these tales, the doppelgänger is literally entombed before being extricated and exposed. The second phase (which arguably began with several of his early stories) – the Revenge Fantasy [e.g., Metzengerstein, The Masque of the Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado, Hop-Frog] – featured homicides, or supernatural forces, who display no regret for their murderous influence and (in the case of the homicides) are allowed to punish “with impunity”. These tales are among the weakest of Poe’s horror bibliography, although they remain among his most popular works.      

 

POE: HIS INFLUNCES AND HIS INFLUENCE

 

Influenced by the early writers of the horror and science fiction writers [in particular, Coleridge, Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley, Keats, Blake, Washington Irving, Charles B. Brown, E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Monk” Lewis, Mrs Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, Friedrich Schiller, J.W. von Goethe, and G.A. Brüger], Poe continued to challenge, reset, and reanalyze the tropes they had developed, rejecting some as overly sensational, parodying some as ridiculous, and inventing others as original contributions to the literary fields he pioneered. Weird fiction, gothic horror, science fiction, psychological horror, psychological literary fiction, detective fiction, crime fiction, and body horror each drew inspiration from Poe’s originality (and, often without realizing it, his conventionality).

 

Wilkie Collins, M.P. Shiel, Lord Dunsany, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Oliver Onions, Bernard Capes, Henry James, Gaston Leroux, Guy de Maupassant, Charles Baudelaire, H.P. Lovecraft, E.F. Benson, Arthur Machen, Fitz-James O’Brien, Robert W. Chambers, Ambrose Bierce, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Fyodor Dostoevsky, H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, William Hope Hodgson, F. Marion Crawford, H.R. Wakefield, H.G. Wells, Agatha Christie, W.W. Jacobs, Algernon Blackwood, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Clark Ashton Smith (that is to name a very, very few, and even these only among the prewar masters) were indelibly influenced by Poe’s imagery, literary ethos, philosophical and existential concerns, ratiocination, Arabesques, Grotesqueries, and his mastery of mood, psychology, and setting.

 

Poe has been treated very poorly by popular culture, however. While his influence has been felt deeply in the world of literature, music, drama, and art, it remains soft and fluffy in the world of cinema, popular music, and internet culture. Hardly any acceptable adaptations of his works have been admitted to screen – some of the strongest have ironically been the campy Vincent Price/Roger Corman B-films from the 1960s. Poe’s tales are usually over-inflated by screenwriters, who taxidermy them: rendering a stiff recreation that contains none of the vital spirit, stuffed with insubstantial Gothic clichés, overstated sexuality, and extravagant violence. It appears that most of Poe’s adherrants cling possessively to the Poe myth, adoring him as an eccentric, slightly unhinged, theatrical substance abuser who was consumed with fits of genius intermingled with deep feelings and despair. While this approaches the truth, it forces an intelligent, complex man of the world into a cartoonish caricature through which he is used as a mute mascot for socially awkward, artistically-inclined teens and adults who feel detached from a world that doesn’t seem to “get” them.

 

The truth is that Poe was not an emo punk, a theatre nerd, or a sexual deviant. He was more Ambrose Bierce or Mark Twain than he was Victor Frankenstein or Phantom of the Opera. But it is this colorful, campy fabrication that continues to haunt pop culture. While it may be useful for therapeutic means – to have a famous icon who one can relate to as being misunderstood, hard to get to know, or socially rejected – it is a great impediment if one’s goal is to try to understand and appreciate the work which made the man famous to begin with. Like Lovecraft and his Cthulhu (who has been popularized and essentially castrated as a plush toy, bumper sticker, and internet meme), Poe’s genuine grip on our spirits and imaginations is ironically being eroded by his fans, and it requires a level of objectivity and focus to transform the fan-boy who is wild about “The Raven,” live burials, and pulsating hearts to become an genuine, thoughtful appreciator of a man who suffered for his vision of art, culture, and humanity in a way entirely different from that which is spoon-fed to us by consumeristic Café Press shops, melodramatic DeviantArt pages, and click-mill Facebook groups.  

 

THE LEGEND OF POE

 

The legend of Poe – the incestuous pedophile, the alcoholic opium addict, the madman encased within an increasingly yielding membrane of normalcy – was the result of wishful thinking (on the part of twentieth century horror fans) and intentional defamation (on the part of his enemies – among them, his first biographer). The truth is much duller and much more heartbreakingly human. A passionate and principled man, he enjoyed a loving (and fittingly, more spiritual than physical) relationship with his young wife. His adoration of his tubercular wife, bordering on worship, undoubtedly contributed to his meditations on essence and form: what would be left after her body had been entombed in six feet of moldering clay? His weakness for alcohol bordered on childish and would be humorous were it not for the profound bouts of self-loathing that followed them: a single glass of wine was known to leave him excitably drunk and manic (far from the brooding madman of legend), and it was not uncommon for his “friends” to encourage him to drink for their amusement.

 

In reality, he only drank – after his marriage – in moments of severe distress and depression, almost exclusively resulting from his wife’s physical deterioration and later death. As for opium, his only recorded experience with the drug was a failed overdose on laudanum. Other than this pathetic anecdote, there is no indication that he was closely acquainted with narcotics. While his later stories often featured manic murderers, critics generally agree that his stories of madness were intended to challenge a society which viewed madness as a form of criminality rather than unwilling physical affliction, and his revenge fantasies were responses to a society clique which spread slanderous and false rumors of an affair between Poe and a married woman while Virginia Poe continued to suffer from debilitating consumption.

 

Even the final episode of his life has been commonly misrepresented. Poe’s death (often described to school children in the following manner: he was found wandering drunk in Baltimore, and expired in a gutter outside of a bar) was typical for a man whose greatest inner demons were his susceptibility to peer pressure, a sensitivity to social criticism, and a tendency to fall prey to manipulation. While theories abound, the most widely agreed-upon account is that he was a victim of voter fraud. During elections it was not uncommon for gangs to kidnap strangers, intoxicate them, and send them through lines multiple times (changing their clothes each time), under orders to vote for the gang’s sponsor politician. Found dirty, insensible, and in strange, poor-fitting clothes – apparently suffering from abuse and a fever, not intoxicated as is often reported. He died there in a drunk-tank. He had been planning a visit to his new fiancée, a childhood sweetheart.  

 

 

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