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.
The fire is still raging at Von Berlifitzing's and it is suspected to be one of their escaped horses: it has "WVB" branded on its forehead (plus a creepily human expression and grotesquely massive teeth), but Metzengerstein orders it taken to his stables when none of the Berlifitzing grooms recognize the spectral animal. Shortly thereafter, he learns that Von Berlifitzing was killed in the fire, and Metzengerstein's days become troubled: he begins obsessively and violently riding his new horse, especially far from other people and in the dead of night. One night, his own house catches fire, and he is nowhere to be seen. As the blaze rages, the servants suddenly spot him: clinging helplessly to the massive fire-colored horse as it charges straight at the burning castle...
5. THE MAN OF THE CROWD
A decadent parable of human evil, this strange and hauntingly dream-like tale follows a narrator who is idling the afternoon away in a London coffee shop where he loves to people-watch. He observes the crowds in Sherlock Holmes-fashion: deducing who they are and what they do by simply noticing their dress, posture, and habits. One of them, however, seems to allude him: it is a nasty-looking old man -- short, emaciated, and feeble -- dressed in rags which appeared to once be made of fine cloth, and sporting a diamond ring. Surprised and intrigued, the narrator leaves the coffee shop to follow him around town, all while keeping his distance.
The man tramps all over London -- from the fashionable parts to the slums -- and doesn't stop moving once as the dusk waxes into the evening and the evening into the dawn. Exhausted and confounded, the would-be detective throws himself in front of the old man in hopes of solving the mystery, but he doesn't even notice. It is then that the narrator -- who has observed the old man clutching a hideous dagger secretively under his cloak -- makes a startling conclusion about the figure's real nature...
4. WILLIAM WILSON
In some strange ways, "William Wilson" pairs elegantly with the far more ferocious and cinematic "House of Usher." It, too, is obsessed with doppelgangers and the idea of the spiritual double. The rather Dickensian story begins with William Wilson's childhood in a dreary, British boarding house where he meets another boy with the same name and birthday (which they share with Poe: January 19). This William Wilson becomes attached to him, but he quickly grows to loath him as the other William tends to give him sound moral and philosophical advice which he constantly ignores. One night he steals into the other William's bedroom and is horrified: they now also share a face.
The narrator leaves the boarding school and follows and elite course of education (Eton/Oxford), but becomes addicted to gambling, scandal, and theft. Throughout his life, he finds himself running into the other William at moments when he is about to do something evil, and while the sight of his old classmate is enough to strike him with guilt and rage, he never changes his ways.
One night he is attempting to seduce another man's wife at a masqued ball when he spies the other William wearing the same costume as him. He has had enough of this and wants to live a life without consequences or guilt, so he chases the other William into an empty room and challenges him to a duel -- with truly strange and metaphysical results...
3. SILENCE - A FABLE
Easily Poe's most psychedelic work -- and one which presages the cosmic horror of Blackwood, Machen, and Lovecraft -- "Silence," like "Shadow," is a short, poetic essay which uses a Greco-Roman setting to speak to mankind's existential desperation. The action begins with a demon placing its hand on the narrator's head, and proceeding to describe a setting that will illustrate the picture it wishes to paint of the universe for its frightened guest. He describes a wilderness in "a dreary region" of the North African deserts where there is "no quiet there, nor silence."
He describes a sickly, yellow river under a burning, red sun, and an "oozy" riverbed populated by enormous, otherworldly, poisonous flowers which appear to nod and murmur to themselves. On the edges of this strange world is a towering, black forest of pines that prevents anything from getting out or in, and even though there is no wind, the trees rock back and forth.
One night, as the demon was lounging there, it began to rain blood and the poisonous flowers mumbled and sighed to each other while a scarlet moon rose over the scene. As he watches, a noble man in Roman garb appears (representing the best of Mankind), and mounts a great rock where he looks over the desolation. The man stoically withstands the terrors of the swaying trees, bloody rain, sighing flowers, and more, but the demon knows what will undo his resolve: it is the silence -- the nothingness -- that will slowly creep in and crush the man's resolve to live. And now it is on its way...
Once again we find a lesser-known story with a better-known parallel: "Morella" is often compared to "Ligeia" and shares elements with several of Poe's mourning poems ("Ulalume," "Lenore," "The Raven") due to its subject matter: a dead wife who can't quite stay dead (at least in her husband's mind). The story follows a haunted man whose beautiful, raven-haired wife, Morella, is obsessed with death and the afterlife.
She pores over German philosophers from her sickbed where she wanes away increasingly, becoming skeletal and luminous as her spirit grows stronger than her ailing body. The narrator begins to wish for her death (both to end her physical misery but also to be rid of her shocking declarations and fearsome intellect).
Eventually, Morella finally dies in childbirth: her last breath coincided with their daughter's first, and because of his inability to properly mourn the loss, the narrator refuses to christen his daughter, who goes nameless through life for ten years. By this point, however, she has begun to look exactly like her mother, and the narrator decides that she must be baptized and christened to expel her mother's evil spirit, whom he suspects to be inhabiting her body. Without a name in mind, he takes her to a church, and when the priest requests her new name, only one fortuitously springs to mind -- with tragic consequences...
It is certainly possible that this story may be cutting it close in terms of a "lesser-known" tale of terror: to some it is one of Poe's seminal horror stories, but in my experience, it is rarely read, and tends to be acclaimed only by devoted fans of either Poe or the genre of Gothic fiction. In either case, while the obscurity of some on this list is understandable, there is no question that "Hop-Frog" is an underrated masterpiece and has become something of a cult favorite among horror fans.
Sharing its lineage with "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Masque of the Red Death," it follows two bullied slaves -- the disabled dwarf, Hop-Frog, and the diminuative ballerina, Trippetta -- who have been taken captive by the arrogant, prank-loving king of a vaguely Central European, vaguely Medieval country. Hop-Frog is made to serve as a jester and Trippetta serves as a court dancer, and they develop a deep affection for each other and a longing for their distant homeland.
The king delights in making Hop-Frog the but of his jokes, often getting him drunk on wine, but one day he goes too far: the king is humiliating Hop-Frog by plying him with drink in front of his seven boon courtiers, and Trippetta intervenes to beg for mercy, but the king tosses a cup of wine in her face and blows her off. A switch flips in Hop-Frog -- who is heard grinding his grotesque teeth in rage -- and he decides to take his revenge.
A ball is coming up and Hop-Frog advises the king and his courtiers on how they could prank the guests: by dressing up as wild apes who have escaped from captivity, complete with hairy costumes and a chain linking them together, and bursting unexpectedly into the hall. The king loves the idea and agrees, but when they make their grand entrance -- although they do truly terrify the guests -- something seems off.
A hook is discreetly lowered from the ceiling, and as Hop-Frog leaps around the "apes," lashing a torch in their faces to see what or who they are, he slips the hook to the apes' chain and someone up above turns on a winch which pulls them high over the ballroom. They squirm in their dry, flaxen costumes witch Hop-Frog still holding on tight and still flailing a torch over their heads. Then the jester's teeth start grinding again and they suddenly can tell what the punchline will be of Hop-Frog's last jest...