The Deathly Appeal of Edgar Allan Poe
How fear runs through his timeless short stories, and his only completed novel.
‘Horror and fatality’, writes Poe in ‘Metzengerstein’, his first published short story, ‘have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to this story I have to tell?’ Indeed, these were to remain the ghoulish hallmarks of much of Poe’s writing: as Marilynne Robinson writes in her introduction to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, ‘the word that recurs most crucially in Poe’s fictions is horror.’
Poe’s short stories conjure a world of nightmare, where gothic castles are shrouded in pallid mist, bodies (usually of beautiful young women) lie sprawled on marble slabs and gleeful ghosts taunt lovers into murder. The body count in Poe’s fiction is so high that he was accused after his death of inspiring Jack the Ripper. The villain of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is a gruesome figure wearing a mask to resemble a stiffened corpse, his face bloodied and his brow ‘besprinkled with the scarlet horror’. Regularly violent, Poe’s horror can be bizarre – in ‘Hop-Frog’, a disgruntled court jester forces the king and company to dress as orangutans before setting them on fire – or psychological: perhaps his most famous work, the narrative poem ‘The Raven’, traces a grieving lover’s descent into madness as a talking bird spurs memories of his dead beloved.
Poe’s novel, too, is full of disquietingly violent and otherworldly elements. Pym must confront a bloodthirsty cook who murders 22 sailors; he finds himself ‘entombed’ below deck, and at one point even appears as a dead man. Poe’s macabre fiction inspired the horror genre in literature, art and cinema – the master of the cinematic thriller, Alfred Hitchcock, was one of many influenced by him. Pym is a fascinating, intriguingly dark exploration of the same preoccupation with death and mortality which has made Poe’s shorter fiction so enduring.