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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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The Nightmarish, Deeply Personal Horror Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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.


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.


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...


“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.


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 relativel