In this three-part series we will explore the forgotten tales of Poe: stories of (1) Gothic horror, (2) black humor, and (3) strange fantasies that are often overlooked (even at times by stalwart fans of his writing). Ever since he rose to literary prominence in the 1830s and 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe's body of work has been noted for its stand-out fan favorites: "Usher," "Amontillado," "Tell-Tale Heart," "Pit and the Pendulum," "Masque of the Red Death," and "The Black Cat." Some might also toss in "A Descent into a Maelstrom," "Ligeia," "Murders in the Rue Morgue," or "The Gold-Bug," but the majority of Poe's readers rarely venture beyond these unquestionably powerful pieces.
There is no doubt that they have earned their prominence, and it makes sense why others have not enjoyed quite the same level of celebrity: naturally, "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Cask of Amontillado" are going to more easily engage readers and linger in their imaginations than, say, "Landor's Cottage" or "X-ing a Paragrab." However, some of his lesser-known works are stunningly unique and chilling, and will easily make you wonder why they don't enjoy wider acclaim.
Some, of course, lack this because they have genuine problems with their structure, pacing, or overall conception, and are undeniably held back by weaknesses, but even those featured in this series with such deficiencies make up for it with some other strength (usually mood, creativity, or sheer creepiness). So, without further ado, let's plunge into the first part of our exploration of Poe's tales: ten of his most underrated stories of Gothic horror...
10. THE ASSIGNATION
This strange and dreamlike story is set in Venice where the dark mood of the notoriously atmospheric city broods heavily over the drifting waters of the canals. The narrator is being rowed under the Bridge of Sighs when he hears a splash and a scream, and his gondolier drops his oar in surprise. They look ahead to see a beautiful woman in a gauzy nightdress hysterically reaching out to the water below her balcony where her child has fallen into the water.
A rescue seems impossible as servants helplessly peer into the black depths, and her leering, emotionally abusive husband watches the efforts with disinterest (he clearly doubts the parentage). The narrator would help, but without their oar, they, too, are hopeless.
Suddenly, a stranger in a cloak dives into the water, finds the child, and restores it to the mother. They share a pregnant moment: they know each other and her husband is bitterly familiar with him. She knowingly tells him that by saving her (their?) child, he has finally "prevailed" and that she will meet him one hour after dawn. This is all so strange and salacious, and the narrator must meet the strange man (a handsome, British ex-pat), who takes him to his house, which is a veritable museum to the bizarre, eccentric, and decadent.
They waste away the early morning discussing art and philosophy, but the Englishman seems in no rush to make his assignation with the beautiful mother: dawn comes and he stays put and pours himself a glass of wine. Suddenly, a servant rushes in with horrible news: the woman has been found dead at her palazzo -- poisoned. The narrator turns to observe his new friend's reaction, but finds that he is in no state to respond.
9. THE OBLONG BOX
A classic macabre tale, "The Oblong Box" produces where similar stories about suspicious objects or situations ("The Spectacles," "The Sphinx," "The Premature Burial") only turned out to be cheeky jokes. A ship is being loaded up with passengers in South Carolina, headed for New York City, and among the travelers is an eccentric artist named Cornelius Wyatt, accompanied by his wife and her two sisters. The narrator knew him in college and his interested to see his unusual baggage: a six-foot long pine box with a odd odor and the suspicious dimensions of a coffin.
The man claims that it holds a copy of Da Vinci's "Last Supper," but the narrator finds his behavior strange and is surprised that his wife -- a renowned beauty and intellectual -- is remarkably plain and dull. What's more, she sneaks out of their room every night at 11, and the narrator overhears Wyatt opening his pine box when he is alone, and sobbing over the contents. Things take a dark and unexpected turn when a storm threatens to sink the ship, and the passengers are forced to load into lifeboats. Wyatt refuses to part with his pine box, and the mystery is tragically decoded in an ending that is both bizarre and sadly pathetic...
8. SHADOW - A PARABLE
Extremely brief -- a mere poetic sketch of prose -- "Shadow" is set during the height of a plague in Greco-Roman antiquity. A group of friends have locked themselves away in an eccentric hideout (much like Prince Prospero in "Masque") where they stare at their reflections in a polished, black table, illuminated only by flaring lamps (one for each guest), since the windows are covered with heavy, black drapes. One of their party had recently died from the plague, and his corpse is stretched out in front of the locked doors, and they drink and mirthlessly laugh while trying to avoid thoughts of mortality.
Meanwhile, something dark and gruesome slips from behind the curtains -- an anthropomorphic Shadow -- and seems to emanate from the spot where the corpse is laid out. Their laughter fades away as they wonder how this entity got into the locked room, and as if it's answer isn't chilling enough, its psychedelic voice thunders with all the voices of the partiers' many dead loved ones...
7. THE IMP OF THE PERVERSE
Like so many of these less-known stories, "Imp of the Perverse" seems to partner with a more popular, later story: "Shadow" pairs with "Masque," "The Oblong Box" with "The Oval Portrait," and "Imp of the Perverse" with "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat." This story, (also like a third tale, "The Premature Burial") begins with an essay on human psychology before launching, unexpectedly, into a story meant to illustrate the essay's point.
The narrator is convinced that human beings are plagued with an "imp of the perverse" -- a sort of impulse to say or do inappropriate things in spite of themselves. While it in part sounds like Tourette's syndrome, we eventually get the idea that he is referring to something more like an evil conscience that delights in exposing its host's wickedness (very similar to Freud's version of the Super Ego).
Then we get into the actual tale: the narrator has craftily murdered another man by giving him a poisoned candle to light his room while he reads at night in a poorly ventilated bedroom. He is killed by the vapors, with no clues for the cause of death, so the murderer should be able (a la Montresor) to get off scot free.
But one day, as he is walking through the sunny streets, he is overwhelmed by an urge to scream his crimes to the public. He fights the urge and tries to escape, but the voice inside is growing louder, and louder. He begins behaving suspiciously and is now attracting attention -- a crowd begins to follow him and even though he has done nothing outwardly wrong, he finds himself being chased by policemen. And what will he say if they catch him?
Written in the style of Washington Irving (a la "The Spectre Bridegroom," "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and "Tom Walker and the Devil"), this early tale of Poe's describes a feud between two German barons whose castles face one another: young Frederick Von Metzengerstein and the elder Wilhelm Von Berlifitzing. Legend had it that the two families were under a curse which came with a bizarre prophecy: “A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing.”
The families hate each other so much that when Berlifitzing's stables catch fire, the whole neighborhood immediately suspects Metzengerstein of arson. Before the fire started, Metzengerstein was studying an ancient tapestry that illustrated a gigantic, fire-colored horse, whose rider (a Berlifitzing) has been stabbed with a Metzengerstein dagger. The young man ponders this illustration seriously, and when he steps outside, is surprised to find his servants wrangling just such a horse: unusually large and powerful and orange-colored.