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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 3 of 3): 10 Best, Forgotten Fantasy 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 final part of our exploration of Poe's tales: ten of his most underrated tales of dark fantasies and science fiction...


This strange story details a conversation had between two spirits who had been in love in life. Exploring Poe’s infamous fixations on both obsessive love and live (or in this case conscious) burial, he has Monos – who died first – describe how he died but was still aware of his surroundings as he was lowered into the ground and buried. As his body decomposed – he can feel the worms moving through his corpse and eating it – he feels the then-still-living Una’s spirit laying beside him until she too died and they were finally fully reunited in the spiritual plane…


This is another ghostly dialogue between two spirits. After the apocalypse, two spirits – Eiros, who died in the cataclysm, and Charmion, who died a decade prior – discuss how the world ended. An unknown comet had been detected heading to earth, which initially fails to concern astronomers, and in fact it causes nearly all civilization to become enamored with it and obsessed with its arrival. As it draws nearer, humanity becomes strangely euphoric, but this is followed shortly by a horrifying pain and terror as the comet evaporates the nitrogen in the air, leaving pure oxygen which spontaneously turns to fire upon the comet’s impact…


Using a similar conceit as “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Poe tells us of a Mr. Vankirk, who is hypnotized while he lies dying on his bed. The narrator conducts the hypnosis, which goes in a strangely philosophical direction: far from the "nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putrescence" that M. Valdemar became, Vankirk's vision of the afterlife is far more mysterious, spiritual, and oddly comforting (for Poe). He describes his impressions of human spirituality, the afterlife, God, and what Ralph Waldo Emerson would call the Oversoul that envelops and connects all mankind. It is, however, not without its darker moments, and ending is fittingly ambiguous...


One of Poe's six sardonic literary hoaxes, this story was written in a journalistic style during the peak of the '49 Gold Rush, when Americans -- and indeed the world -- seemed to become utterly obsessed with striking it rich in California by finding gold nuggets. Poe viewed the fixation as hardly more enlightened than the alchemists' determination to transform lead into gold, and wrote this "report" about a German scientist who finally succeeds in solving the centuries' old riddle. The twist of the dagger, of course, is that the price of lead in Europe has now increased by 200%. Poe delighted in the satire, writing to a friend: "My sincere opinion is that nine persons out of ten (even among the best informed) will believe the quiz (provided the design does not leak out before publication) and that thus, acting as a sudden, although of course a very temporary, check to the gold-fever, it will create a stir to some purpose..."


One of Poe’s final published stories, this science fiction tale is set in the 29th century, where a philosopher-explorer named Pundit has launched a sort of dirigible which he intends to fly deep into space and time: he is both an astronaut and a time traveller. He writes his observations which are peppered with intentionally humorous comments about the “bigoted” scientists and philosophers of old (referring to the “Hindoo” thinker, “Aries Tottle”), but also contains some intriguing descriptions of telecommunications and an H. G. Wells-esque take on a future society which has become so utterly communal and anti-individualistic, that he stoically shrugs off the shocking death of one of the passengers on the ship as a natural happenstance by which earlier generations would have been naively disturbed. The story ends in a cataclysm intentionally like that in “MS. Found in a Bottle” (his first published story), so much so that they both end with the manuscript being bottled and thrown overboard...


Poetic and haunting, this existential sketch describes how the narrator was once traveling through a quiet countryside when he found a small, circular island at the center of a river. Enchanted by it, he observes that the western side of it seemed to be drenched in golden light and glowing with an atmosphere of joy and life, while the eastern side was shrouded in gloomy murk and a sense of depression. Pondering this odd duality, he is suddenly aware of a beautiful fairy circling the isle in a tiny canoe, which causes her to experience life and death equally depending on where she is in relation to the isle. Poe connects this vision to his views on metaphysics, God, and philosophy, which may sound boring (or not, perhaps), but it is truly a lingering, haunting allegory on life, richly colored by Poe’s metaphors…


One of Poe’s weirdest supernatural tales, this ghost story has more in common with the spook stories of Ambrose Bierce and Algernon Blackwood, who delighted in strange freaks of metaphysics: uncanny omens, ghostly visions, and disturbing coincidences. The story begins with Augustus Bedloe, a bedridden aristocrat, who is trying to treat his chronic pain with hypnotism. One day, after taking a large dose of morphine to dull his neuralgia, Bedloe decides to hike through North Carolina’s Ragged Mountains, a “chain of wild and dreary hills.” As he wanders through a foggy valley, the morphine kicks in and Bedloe is shocked to watch a strange scene unfold before him: a Middle Eastern man runs past him, followed by a hyena, after which he finds himself under a palm tree, and sees an Oriental city looming in the mists before him. A battle seems to be raging in the town, and as he stumbles upon a group of redcoat officers under attack behind a barricade. Before he has a chance to understand it, he is killed by an arrow.

Bedloe returns home, disturbed, and tells the story to his hypnotist/physician who seems to know the story’s details as they are told, and his visibly frightened by it. As it turns out, many years ago – shortly before Bedloe was born – the hypnotist had a friend in the British Army who died in a battle with Indian sepoys. He, too, was shot in the head with an arrow. His name was Oldeb (read it backwards). As if all of this wasn’t strange enough, with its hints of reincarnation and ghostly visions, Bedloe’s story isn’t finished (and it doesn’t end well)…


Another one of Poe's cheeky literary hoaxes (though not as famous as the similarly-themed "Balloon Hoax"), this sci-fi adventure begins with the eponymous astronaut who leaves Holland by a cutting edge balloon and a device which allows him to breathe in space. He floats up for over two weeks before landing on the moon’s surface, which he finds to be volcanic and hellish. His descriptions of the moon’s geography and civilizations are limited with a promise for more details to follow on one condition: that he be pardoned for a series of murders that he committed before he fled the earth…


One of my very favorite of Poe’s stories, this nautical adventure begins with a ship in the Southern Pacific being overwhelmed by a monstrous typhoon that kills all but two of the passengers. The vessel is dismasted and driven into the Southern Ocean by the supernaturally powerful storm, tossed up and down mountainous waves. Suddenly the narrator sees a massive, black galleon rising above them on a towering wave, which mows them down. The smaller ship and the other survivor are lost in the waves, but the narrator leaps aboard the strange ship, which he finds crewed by impossibly old men using antique maps and navigational tools. None of them speak or seem to notice him, even when he sits across from the aged captain in his cabin. While it is never stated explicitly, it is implied to be the Flying Dutchman, and although the narrator is intoxicated by the thrill of his new adventure, there is a sense that this (apparently) centuries’ old voyage is quickly nearing its conclusion, and when it does, it is predictably mysterious and haunting...


Poe’s only novel is a strange blend of Moby-Dick, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Gulliver’s Travels, an 18th century picaresque, a Dickensian bildungsroman, and a Stephen King novel. It follows the ghoulish misadventures of an unfortunate sometimes-sailor named Arthur Gordon Pym (Edgar Allan Poe) who is repeatedly shipwrecked: first after his yacht is sunk in a collision with a whaler (while he is drunk), then as a stowaway on a different whaling vessel which is overtaken in a bloody mutiny. The mutineers – who make him their prisoner – are eventually killed or captured when the four loyal hands fight back, but the ship is dismasted in a storm and they begin to die of starvation and thirst. Eventually, they encounter a series of horrors. First, they spy an erratic-sailing merchantman steered by a grinning man bobbing his head cheerfully, but the wind shifts and the stench reveals that he is a corpse (one of many on board) who has been lashed to the wheel and is only grinning because his rotten head is mostly a skull, and bobbing his head because seagulls are violently feeding on it. It is a ghost ship (and, fittingly, it is Dutch).

Now truly desperate for food, they draw lots and one of their number is chosen to be killed and cannibalized (which they do, to their horror). Later, they are saved by the captain of a British whaler, whom Pym strangely convinces to sail further south into the Antarctic. While hunting seals on an island, the British sailors are murdered and cannibalized by a South Seas tribe who trick them into a feigned friendship. Pym survives the attack, of course, along with the only other survivor from the mutiny. As they try to escape the island and return to the sea, things become increasingly surreal and mysterious. The ending remains one of the most debated, controversial, and misunderstood in American literature…


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