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Master of Creep: Edgar Allan Poe

October 16, 2012 in American Authors, Edgar Allen Poe, Fiction, Horror, New England Travel, Stephen King

As Halloween draws near, and ghostly decorations and leering jack-o-lanterns begin to appear, I find myself thinking about the Master of Gloom, Doom, and Murder: New England’s very own, Edgar Allan Poe.

I didn’t start to read Poe’s short stories seriously until college. (Before that, I only dabbled, like many, with The Raven sometime around the seventh grade.) The delicious darkness of his stories was a welcome change from Melville’s Benito Cereno or Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass.

But I was never a fan of horror stories. I could never get through a Stephen King novel, and the infamous Chuck Palahniuk’s fiction goes somewhere over my head. I read six or seven chapters of Brett Easton’s Ellis’ American Psycho before giving up in horror and sheer repulsion. Poe, on the other hand, doesn’t repel me–he delights me.  And, there are few stories in which he doesn’t even mention murder, insanity, ghosts, haunted houses or, god forbid, being buried alive.

What he does manage to do with his collection of stories–the element  that makes each one ‘a Poe’–is take a snapshot of the mind of a deeply disturbed individual who does something equally disturbing. Without being gory, Poe’s stories make your skin crawl. Without being graphic, Poe’s stories make your hair stand up on end. Poe created complete universes in which the reader starts to believe the narrator.

One of Poe’s most genius skills is his artful handling of the narrator’s voice. He convinces us for a while that the mad man is a sane man. At some point in the story, we may even find ourselves empathizing with the narrator’s actions–even as he removes a cat’s eyeball, or hacks his wife into pieces with an ax in The Black Cat. How does Poe get us there?!

In Poe’s The Telltale Heart, the narrator has a clear and rational way of telling his tale. In the beginning he even speaks to the reader’s assumption of his madness, saying, “How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” Herein is Poe’s genius: he allows the narrator to tell us why he does what he does, and as we read, we too begin to lose our grip on reality. In The Tell-Tale Heart, when the narrator hears the dead old man’s heartbeat from beneath the floorboards, we can hear it thumping too!

Poe didn’t write with a singular task of frightening his readers, like many writers of the “detective fiction” genre, which he’s credited for creating–instead, he writes with the intention of making us understand his world.

Poe lived a hard, often reclusive life, riddled with drug and alcohol abuse. In photographs of Poe, it’s seems  as if he was haunted–those sad dark eyes and somber expression lead readers to wonder how much of what he wrote was autobiographical. Was his mind as dark as his characters’? Poe’s stories linger, and remain somewhere in the back of your mind, where you turn them over and over, looking for an answer.

This sense of ambiguity runs through almost every one of Poe’s stories. As soon as you have concluded something is an indisputable fact, Poe manages to upset your opinion. In The Fall of The House of Usher, the reader cannot make out whether or not Madeline is dead. The narrator sees her dead body, but is thrown off by her rosy and lifelike complexion. What the narrator sees, we see. Has there been a mistake? Is she being entombed alive? Poe builds in our imaginations the “what ifs?”, and constantly addresses the shared human emotion of fear, and our desire to snuff it.

As Roderick Usher says, “I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect – in terror. In this unnerved – in this pitiable condition – I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.” You cannot reason with fear.

Unlike the unflinchingly descriptive gore of Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk, Poe hovers somewhere above the proverbial dead bodies, inviting the reader to fear what will come next at every turn.

So dust off the Master Of Creep’s stories, and take each heavy step into the darkening days of October with him.

Don't Judge a Writer by His Genre

July 19, 2011 in Horror Writers, Short Stories, Stephen King

I always disregarded the works of Stephen King. Despite (or perhaps due to) his wild popularity, I always thought of him as a “sell-out,” an author willing to rely on cheap cliffhangers and deliciously revolting subject matter to keep the reading masses turning page after gruesome page. Plus, I don’t enjoy being scared. Haunted houses and the Saw movies are on my list of things to avoid, so why would I read a book of the same ilk?

My father, on the other hand, is a big Stephen King fan. I believe he’s read just about every King book there is and pretty much enjoyed them all. He would often recommend the books to me after he was done, but at that time I only made room on my bookshelf for books considered “literary” or “classic”.

Just a few weeks ago, however, I found a copy of King’s newest book, a collection of short stories calledFull Dark, No Stars, on my kitchen counter. I was intrigued, because a collection of short stories seems a vessel more suited to noble literature than trashy horror. I also recalled a college professor whom I greatly admired had recommended King’s work (she was reading Carrie), so I gave it a shot and read the first story, “1922.”

I have to admit: the book wouldn’t let me put it down (as if it possessed me). I read all 128 pages in two sittings, and it wasn’t the result of gratuitous cliffhangers as I imagined. The events of the tale were gripping, but what kept me reading was the narrator’s voice. Within the first few sentences, Wilfred LeLand James, or “Wilf,” makes it clear this story is his confession of the murder of his wife, Arlette. Throughout the narrative, my feelings towards him oscillated between revulsion and pity. The perversity of his thoughts and deeds, though horrifying, were grounded in humanness, and through his telling I became thoroughly acquainted with his mind, a mind quivering with fear, paralyzed by obstinacy, and wracked by guilt.

Near the beginning of his confession Wilf states, “I believe that there is another man inside every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man.”

Throughout the story, Wilf refers to things the Conniving Man does or says and we come to see this evil figure as a separate entity, an evil twin or counterpart. It seems it’s human nature to feel like this when we make mistakes in our own lives; however, the story’s chilling finale is a reminder that cannot ignore the evil inside (or it will lead to our destruction).

I have to put my foot in my mouth, because I found “1922” haunting, provocative, and (dare I say) literary. Stephen King will probably never be my favorite writer, since I am a wimp when it comes to things that go bump in the night, but I have learned not to judge a work by its genre. It is the writer (and sometimes the lesson we learn from his demented character) that truly makes the work.

 

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