I’m a big fan of Mike Flanagan. His next series on Netflix is The Fall of the House of Usher, coming some time later this year. It will be based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is having a bit of a moment on Netflix right now with Wednesday and The Pale Blue Eye also invoking him, so now seems like a good time to revisit Poe’s work.
Poe sometimes quotes other languages without providing English translations, so it’s a good idea to have your phone handy while reading to translate for you. He sometimes blanks out the year or character names for some reason. I also noticed he uses lots of adverbs. (Supposedly, good writers don’t use a lot of adverbs, but I’m not convinced that’s true.)
The narrators of his stories often go unnamed. I wonder if this is because the reader is supposed to think Poe is the viewpoint character? This seems especially likely in stories where the narrator’s name is given as P. or P__. Some of his narrators marry their cousins, like Poe himself did.
Most of his female characters get killed off either by murder or illness. It’s interesting that he considers blood letting to be good for one’s health, but I guess that was a common belief at the time. Doppelgangers, mesmerism, and being buried alive are frequent themes, as well as hot air balloons, surprisingly. I was also surprised upon a reread by how much he’s against democracy (he considers it to be mob rule).
His sole completed novel, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket, is an adventure novel with mutiny on the high seas, a ghost ship, cannibalisms, shark attacks, a polar bear attack, savage natives, and a mysterious new land found near the South Pole. A lot of things about the story don’t make sense, such as the natives being afraid of the color white, Pym faithfully copying down marks on a wall that he thinks are naturally occurring, him forgetting that he has a dog, him forgetting they have a way to get food until after resorting to cannibalism, or him wanting to continue adventuring instead of going home after all the harrowing things that happened to him. It’s pretty racist, there are no female characters, and it drags at times, so I can’t really recommend it.
His writing hasn’t aged well in regards to his depiction of women, Native Americans, the Dutch, Jews, and Black people. He also ridicules people for being fat or short, or having big butts. However, some of his stories still manage to hold up. I’d say his best stories are Murders in the Rue Morgue, Ligeia, The Assignation, William Wilson, Berenice, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Masque of the Red Death. Honorable mentions go to The Black Cat, Ms. Found in a Bottle, The Cask of Amontillado, Metzengerstein, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.
He’s most famous for his horror stories, but he also wrote detective fiction, science fiction, philosophical dialogues, essays, and quite a lot of humor. I don’t think his humor holds up for the most part, but his funniest stories are the darkly humorous How to Write a Blackwood Article, Loss of Breath, and Never Bet the Devil Your Head.
The edition of Poe’s stories I read (published by Doubleday in 1966) divides Poe’s stories into four categories: Tales of Mystery and Horror, Humor and Satire, Flights and Fantasies, and The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket, so I’ll present my summary in the same order.
Tales of Mystery and Horror
Murders in the Rue Morgue
Some think of Murders in the Rue Morgue as the first detective story, however E.T.A. Hoffman’s Mademoiselle de Scuderi is decades earlier. Nevertheless, Poe’s detective at least predates Sherlock Holmes.
The narrator starts by comparing draughts, chess, and whist and says cards require more analytical skill. His friend Dupin uses deductive reasoning to correctly guess what he was thinking about as they walk down the street, showing off his analytical skills.
The two of them learn of a particularly gruesome double murder in the newspaper. One victim was strangled and stuffed up a chimney, while the other victim was decapitated inside a locked room. Gold was left behind, so robbery wasn’t the motive. Dupin thinks the police can’t see the forest by focusing too much on the trees. Since he owes a favor to the accused, and knows the Prefect of Police, he decides to look into the murders himself. I like that he points out how often coincidences happen without people noticing. One of Poe’s best stories.
The Mystery of Marie Roget
The Mystery of Marie Roget is another Dupin story, although I didn’t like it as much as Murders in the Rue Morgue. According to the footnotes, it’s based on the true story of Mary Rogers whose murder was not solved until after this story was published, but Poe says he basically got what happened right.
The narrator says some people believe in the supernatural because they find it more plausible than coincidence. I liked this quote: “It is not that the Deity cannot modify his laws, but that we insult him in imagining a possible necessity for modification.” I like his rant about the impossibility of finding solitude in the woods around Paris. Even in the densest forest, it won’t be long until a crowd shows up.
Marie goes missing and later a young woman’s body is found in the river supposed to be her. The newspapers get a lot of things wrong in their reporting. They claim it always takes days before a body will float and aren’t convinced the body is Marie’s. Dupin points out their errors and solves the case just by reading articles in the newspapers, so it’s not as exciting as Rue Morgue in which he actually investigates.
The Black Cat
In The Black Cat, a man who loves animals becomes alcoholic and physically abuses his wife and his pets. He cuts one of his cat’s eyes open, then hangs it from a tree just because he knows it’s wrong, like when a person breaks a law just for the sake of breaking it.
His house then burns down and the only wall still standing has the figure of a hanged cat upon it. He adopts another black cat with one eye which he grows to loathe because it adores him. A patch of white hair on the cat resemble the gallows. He fears to abuse this cat.
After the cat almost trips him down the stairs, however, he tries to kill it with an axe. His wife stops him and he kills her instead. He walls her body up, but the police find it due to the wailing of the cat that was walled up with her. Reminiscent of The Tell-Tale Heart, but this story is better because there’s more to it.
The Gold Bug
In The Gold Bug, our narrator befriends William Legrand who is accompanied by a freed slave named Jupiter (the same name as one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves). Jupiter remains loyal to Legrand and stays with him despite now being free and despite the horrible way Legrand treats him. Jupiter is the comic relief of the story, speaking in vernacular, not knowing his right from his left, and repeatedly referring to himself with the N word. This aspect of the story certainly hasn’t aged well.
Legrand finds a gold bug with black dots resembling a death’s head on it and becomes obsessed, thinking it’s made of real gold. The unnamed narrator thinks he’s acting crazy. Legrand has Jupiter climb a certain tree where he finds a skull nailed to a dead branch. He then instructs him to suspend the gold bug from a string to point the way to treasure.
The Gold Bug reads like a detective story with Legrand waiting until the end to explain how he figured out there was a treasure and where it was in a long monologue to our flummoxed narrator. Him explaining how he decoded the map and so forth takes as long as the action of the story does. While the story piqued my interest when Legrand was acting bizaarely, I ultimately wouldn’t recommend it.
In Ligeia, a man reflects upon his dead wife. He realizes he doesn’t know her patronymic or remember exactly how they met, only that he was madly in love with her. She was the most beautiful woman ever and stepped so lightly he couldn’t hear her footfalls. There’s something mysterious about her eyes he can’t quite put his finger on. They are larger than normal, but there’s more to it than that. She was more learned than anybody he knew. Although placid, she possessed a fierce energy.
As she neared death from an illness, she professed her love for her husband. She writes a really good poem about the Conqueror Worm. She attempts to resist death through force of will, but dies anyway. He grieves her loss and uses part of his fortune to refurbish an abbey. Then he marries Lady Rowena. He hates his new wife as he’s still in love with the former. He becomes an opium addict. His second wife gets sick and thinks she sees and hears things. He thinks it’s just the demonic decorations on the drapes blowing in the wind. She dies. Her body is reanimated, but it is Ligeia, not Rowena. The story ends there and I can’t help wonder what happens next. In my opinion, this is one of Poe’s best stories.
A Descent into the Maelstrom
Like Ligeia, A Descent into the Maelstrom starts with a quote from Joseph Glanvill. Fishermen on the Norwegian coast near a great whirlpool known as the Maelstrom get caught in a storm and dunked in. A fairly average story I wouldn’t bother reading again.
The Tell-Tale Heart
The unnamed narrator somehow murders an old man by putting his bed on top of him. He’s not sure why he killed him at first, then decides it’s his weird-looking eye. When police come, the narrator snaps and confesses to the crime, thinking he hears a watch sound under the floorboard where he put the man’s body. This is an incredibly short story and would probably be classified as flash fiction today. It’s similar to The Black Cat, but much less substantial, so between the two, I’d say The Black Cat is the superior story.
The Purloined Letter
Dupin is asked once again to solve a mystery by the incompetent Prefect of the Parisian police. An unnamed royal is being blackmailed by a minister who stole a scandalous letter from her. The police search his premises thoroughly, checking for secret compartments, using microscopes, examining every square inch, but find nothing.
The prefect assumes the minister is a fool because he’s a poet, but Dupin knows that not all poets are fools. Knowing the minister is too clever to hide the letter in a usual place, he finds the letter hiding in plain sight. He rants against mathematicians for a bit. (They think they’re smarter than poets, but strict logic doesn’t apply to real life.) At one point, he has a man fire a musket into a crowd to create a distraction for him, but since the musket wasn’t loaded, the authorities assume he’s either a drunk or crazy and let him go! Times sure were different back then.
In Venice, a child slips from its mother’s arms and falls from a window into a canal. A stranger rescues the child and our narrator gives him a ride home in his gondola. The mother is the Marchesa Aphrodite. The stranger has a painting of her and seems to be pining a lost love. They both poison themselves. This story ends abruptly, but I like that it doesn’t overexplain. The prose is exquisite, making it one of my favorites.
Ms. Found in a Bottle
During a storm, our narrator is thrown from his ship and winds up in another. The crew either can’t see him or don’t acknowledge him. They’re all old and speak an unknown language. They’re headed to the South Pole.
William Wilson (not his real name) attends a boarding school where all his classmates defer to him except for one who has the same first and last name as him. They both started school the same day and were also born on the same day. They were rivals, but also friends.
Wilson takes advantage of the other Wilson’s inability to speak louder than a whisper with practical jokes and the other Wilson retaliates in kind. Wilson hates that others think they’re related, so the other Wilson, who is already physically similar, dresses, acts, and speaks like him (at least, as well as he can in his whisper voice.) No one else realizes his impersonation but our narrator.
Wilson changes schools. Years later, at Oxford, he’s winning at cards when someone enters the room and reveals he’s cheating. Wilson leaves Oxford, but the other Wilson follows him around the world, stopping him from doing great harm. Wilson eventually challenges the other Wilson to a duel and kills him, but the other Wilson says he’s also killed himself for they have the same face. Is Wilson his conscience? A long-lost twin? Someone who coincidentally looks like him? I love that it’s not spelled out.
“Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.” Egaeus has a memory of existing before his birth. His cousin/fiancé Berenice used to be vivacious, but disease changed her. She’s no longer as beautiful and goes into trances. Egaeus has a disease that makes him focus for hours on small details like a shadow, or flame, or a scent, or a word. He becomes obsessed with her teeth. She dies of epilepsy. He experiences amnesia, only later realizing that he dug up her grave and took her teeth. Also, she was still alive. What a messed up ending! I love it.
The Fall of the House of Usher
Our narrator visits his friend Roderick Usher. The House of Usher itself gives him the creeps. Roderick has wasted away much since our narrator last saw him. Roderick’s malady involves sensory overload. He’s only comfortable in the dimmest light and only enjoys bland food. Most sounds and smells disgust him. He lives in fear and hasn’t left his house in years.
His twin sister Madeline is his last living relative. She is gravely ill and soon dies. Fearing grave robbers, Usher intends to intern her body in a vault inside the house for a fortnight before final burial.
Usher believes his house is sentient. One night, a storm rages outside and a strange light is seen. Our narrator reads a story about a knight and a dragon. Coincidentally, when he reads a passage about noise, he hears a similar noise in real life. It turns out Madeline was buried alive. She has just enough energy to collapse upon her twin who also dies. Narrator runs from the house, which is utterly destroyed by the storm.
The Cask of Amontillado
Montresor wants revenge against Fortunato, but doesn’t specify why. It’s carnival season in Italy, so Fortunato is dressed like a motley fool with bells on his cap. Montresor wears a black mask. There’s some funny moments such as the mason/masonry joke. Montresor uses reverse psychology on both Fortunato (tells him the catacombs are too damp, they should leave, which makes him press on) and his servants (tells them to not leave the house knowing they will.) Unlike the narrators in many of Poe’s other stories, this murderer gets away with it. A good story, but it felt too short.
The Pit and the Pendulum
Our narrator, a victim of the Spanish inquisition, is sentenced to death and passes out. He has vague memories of being carried while unconscious. Instead of being burned like he expects, he finds himself in a dungeon so dark he can’t see anything. He discovers there’s a deep pit he was meant to fall into. After another bout of unconsciousness, he finds himself strapped down with a razor-sharp pendulum swinging above him. He can’t stand the tension of its slow descent and wants it to just hurry up and kill him already. He plays dead so the rats will chew the rope that binds him. He escapes, but the walls then close in, pushing him towards the pit. Right when he’s about to die, the French show up and save him in a deus ex machina.
A Tale of Ragged Mountains
In Virginia, Augustus Bedloe is so sickly he has a personal physician, Dr. Templeton. Templeton is a mesmerist who can make Bedloe fall asleep. Bedloe also consumes much morphine due to his ailments. He often goes for walks in the Ragged Mountains. One day, he encounters a hyena, sees an Indian city, takes part in a battle and dies, before returning to himself. Dr. Templeton explains that his friend Oldeb, who looks just like Bedloe and whose name is his spelled backwards, died in battle in India. Later, our narrator learns that Bedloe died when a venomous leech was mistakenly used on him instead of a medical leech.
The Man of the Crowd
In London, our narrator sits in a coffee shop watching the crowd. He sees a singular man who isn’t easy to peg and decides to follow him. The man goes to and fro throughout London seemingly aimlessly. Our narrator follows for a while, then finally realizes the man can’t stand to be alone. He goes wherever there’s a crowd.
Narrator forms an intense, non-romantic friendship with Morella. She suddenly becomes his wife without explanation. Narrator grows to hate her and wish her dead. She gets sick and dies, while also giving birth to a daughter even though we weren’t told she was pregnant before. She says our narrator will live the rest of his days in sorrow. His daughter grows up and resembles Morella to a remarkable degree. He names her Morella as well, but doesn’t know why. He keeps her isolated from society. In the last sentence, the daughter suddenly dies and the body of her mother disappeared. This reads like notes for a story, not a story proper.
“Thou Art the Man”
Barnabas Shuttleworthy, the most wealthy man in town, goes missing. His horse returns with a gun shot wound. Although new in town, his friend Charles Goodfellow is trusted by everybody except Shuttleworthy’s nephew Pennifeather. Goodfellow leads a search for the body and finds Pennifeather’s bloody coat and a bloody knife belonging to him, among other evidence. Pennifeather is found guilty. Goodfellow receives word that Shuttleworthy ordered a big box of wine for him before he died. He invites half the town over to help him drink it, but when the box is opened, Shuttleworthy’s corpse is inside and he accuses Goodfellow. Goodfellow confesses to everything, then dies. The narrator then tells us he found the body, made it spring up with whale bone, and used ventriloquism to make the body speak. A silly, almost humorous story.
The Oblong Box
After booking passage on a ship, our narrator realizes his friend Cornelius Wyatt is also on board, but has strangely reserved three rooms for himself, his wife, and two sisters. Surely they only need two rooms? The ship’s departure is delayed for unspecified reasons. Wyatt is moody when our narrator meets him, but that’s normal for the artist. Our narrator is surprised to meet Wyatt’s wife for she was described as being beautiful, but is actually ugly. Wyatt must have been exaggerating how good she looked. However, she also proves to be uneducated, vulgar, and not rich, so why did Wyatt marry her? He has an oblong, six-foot long, box, that our narrator guesses is a reproduction of “The Last Supper”, although it has a foul smell.
A storm forces them to abandon ship, but Wyatt insists on not leaving without the box. In a twist everybody can see coming, the box contains his real wife’s body, but Wyatt had to hide it or none of the other passengers would want to get on board the ship.
The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion
Dialogue between two beings in the afterlife after the destruction of earth by a comet. Short. Not much to it.
In Hungary, two families were hostile to each other: Metzengerstein and Berlifitzing. Frederick, Baron Metzengerstein, upon his inheritance at 18, engaged in all sorts of debaucheries. The castle of his rival, Wilhelm Count Berlifitzing, catches fire. The Baron looks at a tapestry, and to his surprise, the horse moves when he looks away. Going outside, he sees the same horse which seemed to come from Berlifitzing’s stables, but they say the horse isn’t theirs. A portion of the tapestry is suddenly missing. The Count dies in the fire. The Baron becomes obsessed with the horse and shuns all social engagements only to ride. His palace catches fire one night while he was riding. The horse takes him into the burning palace and he’s unable to stop it. I don’t remember reading this story before, a pleasant surprise.
The Masque of the Red Death
A pestilence called the Red Death causes sharp pain, dizziness, bleeding from the pores, and then death in half an hour. Prince Prospero summons a thousand friends to seclude themselves in one of his estates, welding the gates shut to prevent anyone from coming or going. It’s well-provisioned and there’s much entertainment to wait out the plague. After a few months, the prince throws a masked ball. He sets up seven rooms with no light inside. Each has light from outside shining through a stained glass window, giving each room a different tint. Few dare set foot inside the black room with the blood red window. There’s a black clock in the room that agitates everyone everytime it strikes the hour.
At the stroke of midnight, the guests notice a masked figure they hadn’t noticed before which fills them with horror and disgust. The figure is dressed like a corpse who succumbed to the Red Death. Angry, Prospero orders the figure to be unmasked and hanged at sunrise, but none dare approach. Wielding a knife, Prospero charges at the figure himself, but falls down dead. The revelers remove the costume, but there’s no one underneath. They all die, as does the clock. One of Poe’s best. This story actually gave me chills when I was reading it.
The Premature Burial
This is a collection of very short stories describing several instances of people being buried alive. One woman is saved by a man who dug up her grave because he wanted to keep her hair. Another man is dug up by medical practitioners. Our narrator then shares his story. He has catalepsy, which makes him appear dead from time to time. He was terrified of premature burial. He remodeled his family tomb so he’d be able to open it from inside, but he finds himself buried alive anyway. He then remembers that he spent the night in the berth of a ship which resembles a coffin. Kind of a punchline ending.
The Imp of the Perverse
A man kills another with a poisoned candle just because he knew it was wrong. Then years later, he confessed due to the same perverse desire. Most of the story is a meditation on the impulse to do what we know is wrong, such as procrastination.
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
Our narrator is a mesmerist named P__. (Poe?) He wants to see if mesmerism at the point of death will extend life, so he mesmerizes Valdemar upon his death bed. He lives longer than expected in a peaceful sleep and he’s able to respond to questions by talking in his sleep. He then dies, but continues speaking. They leave him in this state for months. They finally awaken him from the trance and his body immediately decomposes into liquid.
The king and his seven ministers are all corpulent jokers. His jester Hop-Frog was a dwarf and a cripple, but had great upper body strength. He befriends another dwarf, Trippetta. They were both forcibly removed from their homelands by one of the king’s generals. The king holds a masquerade and wants Hop-Frog to come up with a costume for him. He makes the dwarf drink wine even though he doesn’t like it. He pushes Trippetta and throws some in her face when she asks the king to take it easy. Hop-Frog convinces the king and his ministers to dress as chained ourang-outangs. At the party, he ties them up and lights them on fire. Basic revenge story.