Monday, 6 April 2015

Revisiting the Works of Edgar Allan Poe

From time to time, we like to re-print posts that have been extremely popular in this blog. At one point, we ran a "masters of horror" series which included such names as Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. By far, the most popular of these posts was the one on Edgar Allan Poe. So if you missed it the first time, here you go.

Poe's Writing

Although Poe was much maligned during his  lifetime and immediately following his death at age forty, he is now known for his profound influence on horror, science fiction, and detective fiction. Poe's short stories and poems are in the Gothic tradition, but he goes far beyond Gothic themes and conventions to focus on the psychology of fear: what Poe refers to as “the terror … of the soul”.

Poe is also a master of dramatic irony and first person narrative, which leads to a form of “dawning” horror as the reader uncovers the protagonist's intent prior to the victim. In his short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” the reader discovers with horror, as the story unfolds, that the narrator Montresor actually intends to "bury" Fortunato alive inside the wall in his cellar. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the unreliable narrator tries to convince us of his innocence and sanity while recounting his murder of an old man.

Poe's use of atmosphere and symbolism is also a hallmark of his writing. In his masterpiece “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the house itself becomes alive as a character in the short story, and its decay and destruction go hand in hand with the spiritual dissolution of its owner, Roderick Usher. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the heart which the narrator hears beating beneath the floorboards is a manifestation of his own guilt. In his poem “The Raven”—which many readers may now, for better or for worse, identify with The Simpsons parody in the Halloween special—the bird becomes a personification of loss, sorrow, and premature death, which are recurrent themes in Poe's work, frequently associated by critics with the early loss of his own wife to tuberculosis.

Poe's Legacy

Poe's influence on modern horror in literature and films is extensive. In literature, think of such novels as Peter Straub's Ghost Story and Stephen King's The Shining and Pet Sematary, and in films think of the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Roger Corman.

In popular music, Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination were the inspiration for the first concept album of the same name by Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson joining forces as the Alan Parsons Project. Released in 1976, the album features terrific vocals by Arthur Brown ("The Tell-Tale Heart") and John Miles ("The Cask of Amontillado"), among others.

Poe is also regarded as the father of modern detective fiction through such short stories as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter,” which influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and laid the groundwork for subsequent generations of fictional sleuths. In fact, the annual award to mystery writers of excellence is the Edgar award.

Poe's detective Dupin uses a technique he refers to as "ratiocination," in which he applies his considerable powers of reason and analysis to the solution of the mysteries. (Dare we say that Sherlock Holmes follows in Dupin's footsteps?)

Poe also had a strong influence on science fiction, including the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells.

Why We Admire Poe's Work

We admire Poe's story-telling skills and the psychology of his stories: the theme of terror as a projection of one's inner fears and turmoil.  "The Masque of the Red Death" and "The Cask of Amontillado" are two of the greatest horror stories ever written. As allegories that explore the fear of death, the futility of denying our mortality, and the terror that waits for us in the dark, they cannot be matched.
Internet Resources

If you're interested in [re]acquainting yourself with the works of Poe, there are many Internet sources available. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore at has an extensive list of his works, writings on Poe, and related websites. You can also visit to access his short stories and other works.

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