Last Sunday, January 19, 2014, was the 105th birth anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe. Maybe you’ve read something by him, or at least heard his name. He was an American writer, poet and journalist. He is best known for his tales of terror, whose powerful, eerie atmosphere still fascinates readers. His stories are memorable, filled with vivid, disturbing scenes and provide readers with situations that are charged with emotional power. Rather than just throw a lot of ghouls and monsters at the reader, Poe went in for a more gradual and psychological build-up of terror.
In the story, The Fall of the House of Usher, for instance, it is the decayed state of the Ushers’ house and the oppressive sense of being cut off from the real, daylight world that strikes you from the beginning. From the beginning, as the narrator reaches his old friend Roderick Usher’s house, the building itself is seen as something ill-omened: ‘with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit’. Most strikingly, there is a single crack, slight but perceptible, running from the top of the building down to its base. Once we meet Roderick and his sister Madeline, it becomes obvious that they are like their house — there is a weakness in them, a crack that runs through their personalities. Roderick is unwell, pale, thin and nervous. His sister suffers from a mysterious wasting disease. They are both high-strung and depressed, and their behaviour only adds to the gloom within the house.
When at last the truly horrific incidents of the climax appear, they carry so much more weight because of the way a sense of strangeness, brooding insanity and decay has been so skilfully and consistently built up virtually from the first sentence of the story. Many of Poe’s other stories are justly celebrated for this finely-calibrated sense of strangeness and tension. These include The Masque of the Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado, The Tell-Tale Heart and many more.
But tales of terror and the supernatural were not all that Poe was good at. He may well be one of the fathers of the modern detective story. His stories The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter feature the amateur sleuth C Auguste Dupin, a man who solves perplexing crimes through the process of applying rational principles of deduction to the facts. Not only were these stories written before Arthur Conan Doyle created the character of Sherlock Holmes, they were written even before the word ‘detective’ was coined! These stories are low on action but high on dazzling displays of mental brilliance. Another mystery-adventure story, The Gold-Bug, features extensive use of code-breaking techniques, a device that continues to be a favourite device of thrillers and mystery stories.
Nor is that the end of Poe’s versatile genius. He also wrote several biting satirical stories which poked fun at the literary fads and figures of his time. Then there are his philosophical ‘colloquies’ or dialogues between imaginary characters in some vaguely defined ancient time which are unique of their kind.
Poe can even be considered a pioneer of science fiction. His story The Unparalleled Adventure Story of one Hans Pfall is a story about a fantastic balloon journey, written before zeppelins were invented.
The Facts in the Case Of M Valdemar combines horror and speculation to give a story of a man who is hypnotised as he is dying, and who remains in his hypnotic state, responding to his hypnotist, even after his body dies!
Poe may even have been something of a scientific visionary, if you consider his long essay on cosmology, ‘Eureka!’ which is rambling and often very weird, but also anticipates some of the aspects of relativity.
Finally, Poe was an accomplished and prolific poet. He believed that beauty of language and subject was a key attribute of poetry, and this has made some critics dismiss his poetry as lacking in depth. Yet, his poetry continues to find fans because of its rich emotional content.
The best known of his poems, The Raven, finds its narrator moping in his room on a dreary night, thinking of his lost lover. When a raven appears on his window sill and speaks the word ‘nevermore’ he no doubt realises that it is someone’s pet, trained to speak just that one word, but he nevertheless asks questions to which the answer ‘nevermore’ serves as a way of confirming his own fears and sorrows.
It is such a striking, memorable poem precisely because of the skill with which Poe handles words for the beauty of their sound and meaning — go find the poem online and read it for yourself to see what I mean!