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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 Most Underrated Tales of Poe (Part 2 of 3): 10 Best, Forgotten Black Humor Stories

In this three-part series we will explore the forgotten tales of Poe: stories of Gothic horror, black humor, and fantasy/suspense 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 always 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 toss in there "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 place, and there is little wonder why others have not enjoyed the same celebrity: naturally, "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Cask of Amontillado" are going to more easily draw in 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 when you actually sit down with them, 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 second part of our exploration of Poe's tales: ten of his most underrated tales of black humor...


In a bizarre tale, seemingly relevant to our own world of blustery news stories and bombastic public figures, Poe's narrator is a reporter eager to interview an enigmatic American general whose reputation as a war hero and statesman has ballooned to suspiciously immense proportions. Famous for having brutally fought two tribes of Native Americans (who had once captured and tortured him quite badly), he is equally well known for his powerful frame, flowing black hair, and gleaming eyes. When the reporter finally nabs an interview he walks into the general's room to the sound of his famously booming voice, but is surprised to see nothing but a pile of clothes and -- something else, seemingly -- cluttered in a corner. It is then that the absurd horror of the reality strikes him, just as the general's servant begins to assemble the hideously dismembered statesman from the stack of prostheses on the floor...



This snarky comedy does indeed begin on a fairly dark, alluring note (much like "The Assignation" or Washington Irving's "The Adventure of the German Student," to which this is an homage) filled with Continental glamor, romance, danger, intrigue, and mystery. A vain, social climbing Frenchman is at the opera when he spies a beautiful face in a box across from him using opera glasses, and falls in love immediately. His friend recognizes the woman as a wealthy widow and arranges an introduction. The young man is horribly nearsighted, however, and woos, courts, and becomes afianced to the lady without ever again being able to clearly see her face. He agrees, however, that he will don glasses on their wedding night. The wedding goes through, and he meets his bride in their bedchamber where he dons his spectacles. To his horror, she has completely transformed into a hideous, toothless old crone, and is mortified. The solution almost smacks of one of Dupin's mysteries -- watered down with some harmless farce and a bit of Schadenfreude -- but is still a memorable read...



In a tale that presages some of Charles Dickens' lighter ghost stories, an arrogant cynic scoffs at reading of the death of a man who swallowed a needle -- a story he considers a hoax -- but is almost instantly introduced to a phantom made of kegs and wine bottles who declares himself to be the Angel of the Odd: the creature responsible for all such hoaxes. He still disbelieves what he is told, but this is clearly to his detriment, because his life is suddenly beset by a series of unfortunate events: his house burns down, he is knocked off a ladder by a hog, and he is tripped up while trying to woo two beautiful women. Depressed, he decides to drown himself, but as he strips for his final swim, a cow runs off with his underwear and he gives chase, falls off a cliff, is saved by a hot air balloon, and comes face to face -- once again -- with the leering Angel of the Odd...



This bit of dark humor follows the eponymous French duke -- an arrogant and pretentious caricature -- as he has a stroke while eating dinner and wakes up in a room in hell. It is a strange setting, complete with a ceiling made of fiery, swirling clouds and excellent works of art hanging on the walls. Satan greets him and commands him to strip. Disinclined to this humiliation, he challenges the Devil to fence with him in exchange for his life, but Satan instead suggests a game of cards. The duke delightfully agrees to this because -- like Satan -- he is a great cheater. And so the game begins...