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.