Edgar Allan Poe is a writer whose reputation rests solely upon a handful of short stories and a poem; there are very few writers in the Western canon, or anywhere really, where this is the case. There’s usually a novel that they’re famous for and while Poe wrote a novel “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym”, it isn’t particularly good and doesn’t hold up to the short stories.
But what stories they are! They’re all filled with madmen, murder, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, magic, death, hatred, ghosts, haunted mansions, talking dead, hypnotists, and jesters – all the elements that went on to make up the horror genre that exists today. Poe is the grandfather of horror whose imagery still captures peoples’ imaginations today.
The creepy old man with the one large eye in “Tell-tale Heart” whose still-beating dead heart drives his murderer insane; crazy Roderick Usher who sits in his crumbling mansion haunted by his dead sister’s ghost; the figure of death who intrudes upon a prince’s party in a locked up castle while all among the countryside reigns the Red Death; the nightmarish swinging pendulum; the living death of “M. Valdemar”; the sweet revenge of “Cask of Amontillado”; the immolated bullies of “Hop-Frog”; the murderous doppelganger of “William Wilson”; and the early template for the detective stories of later years in “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “Mystery of Marie Roget” and “Purloined Letter” – these are all first class stories that hold up superbly today.
The appeal of these captivating stories goes hand in hand with knowledge of Poe’s own tortured life that contained numerous instances of heart-ache, loneliness, and loss, tinged with addiction to alcohol and drugs, and a mysterious death that remains unexplained to this day.
While the majority of the stories aren’t as brilliant as “Amontillado” or “Usher”, those few stories that are more than vindicate Poe’s status as a great writer. And while the lesser stories like “Gold Bug”, “Black Cat”, and “Descent into the Maelstrom” feel slower, overwritten, and less interesting than the best of Poe, there are moments in them that stand out and make reading them worthwhile.
Then there is the poetry. “The Raven” stands head and shoulders above the others, and remains a startlingly arresting poem to read to yourself or aloud to others. It’s sing-song quality is what keeps it so popular and its legendary images of a demented Raven saying “Nevermore”, and entrancing lines “Once upon a midnight dreary…”, make it a poem that people will willingly read, and keep returning to, until the end of time.
As with the stories, few other poems manage to reach the heights of “Raven” but there are a few gems in the poems, some excellent lines and images such as in “Lenore”, “The Conqueror Worm”, “Spirits of the Dead” and my favourite “Annabel Lee”.
Poe’s stories are a must-read for all fans of literature, whether horror, gothic or otherwise, as they’re not only fascinating and well-written but are also, most importantly, great fun to read. So go on, turn off the lights, and by the glare of the silvery moon open up the pages to one of his stories, and scare yourself like it’s 1842… nevermore.