We begin with a mystery. In the autumn of 1849, having disappeared for a week, Edgar Allan Poe was discovered in a disturbed state at Ryan’s Tavern in Baltimore. He was wearing worn-out ill-fitting clothes that seemed to belong to someone else. He couldn’t account for his whereabouts or what had happened to him and raved incoherently, shouting out for someone called ‘Reynolds’. He was taken off to hospital but died shortly thereafter. The enigma of Poe’s last days and demise has never been solved.
It is believed that ‘The Light-House’ was the last thing Poe ever wrote. It is like a key to a lock that will never be found. Outside of the context of his last days, it would seem a minor work – incomplete and promising more than it delivers. Yet, given the nature of his end, there is something most intriguing and eerie about it. A chill wind blows through those diary entries.
My grandfather was a trawlerman. When I was a boy, I used to be desperate to hear his tales of the sea and, as fascinating as they were, they were always unromantic and even terrible at times because it was a place not of adventure for him but survival. He was risking his life to earn a living for his family while I was this bookish little kid with my head filled with voyages and strange creatures and mysterious islands. I still have that attraction alongside the knowledge that it is partly mythic. In a way ‘The Light-House’ embodies that. It’s an unresolved fragment of a dream or a nightmare, the kind of story you read at night, with rain lashing your window, and you realise how lucky you are not to be out there where the land ends.
First published in The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1909. Available to read here
“At first, I made an effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul. I walked vigorously— faster—still faster—at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for, alas! I well, too well understood that to think, in my situation, was to be lost.”
Though ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is likely my favorite Poe story—partly because I have a still vivid memory of closing my eyes with the rest of the students in an elementary school classroom at the behest of our teacher and listening for the first time with excitement and horror to the voice of Vincent Price intoning “‘Fortunado!’ No answer still”—I find myself drawn in near-equivalent measure to the lesser-known tale ‘The Imp of the Perverse.’ It is probably the least-read of his three main imp of the perverse stories (the other two being ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’), but it more directly interrogates the concept at its core because of its formal gambit.
Unlike those other two tales, which are fairly recognizable as the monologues of “mad” narrators from the outset, ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ rather perversely begins as a sensible scientific essay. We realize too late—once the story is half over—that we’re waist-deep in the ravings of another of Poe’s “mad” monologists. What is most notable here, though it is certainly true elsewhere in his stories, is that the supposed madman is more sane than we care to admit. The jargon-filled treatise of the story’s first half seduces us with its rational dissection of a pre-Freudian psychological concept. We may not have committed this narrator’s crimes, but we have no doubt felt the imp of the perverse gnawing at our consciousness. We too are in chains and know but one way to be fetterless. So why will we say that he is mad?
First published in the July 1845 issue of Graham’s Magazine, collected in just about any anthology of Poe’s stories, and available online at PoeStories.com as well as in many audio versions, including one by Vincent Price on YouTube
The first time I read ‘Hop-Frog’ was in a collection of Poe’s complete works. It was a hardback with a yellow paper cover, and my older brother, a teenager at the time, had neatly inscribed his name on the frontispiece in green ink. The inventor of the genre of detective fiction, and an early exponent of science fiction and horror, Poe was also a formidable poet and literary critic. Knowing that most short stories could be read at a single sitting, he aimed to control the reader’s attention and emotions by focusing on a single effect or impression, including only those events and situations in the story that contributed to the totality of that effect. This deliberative, rational method is evident in the tale of the court jester Hop-Frog. A ‘cripple’ and ‘dwarf’ kidnapped from a remote province, Hop-Frog is forced to amuse a dissolute king. When Hop-Frog’s companion the fellow-midget Trippetta is brutally humiliated by His Majesty during the preparations for a masquerade, Hop-Frog takes revenge by inventing a diversion called ‘The Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs’. Trust Poe, along with his detached narrator, to fill in the gory details in an impeccable manner. I am so glad my family considered this riveting story suitable material for young children!
First published in 1849. Included in numerous collections. Available online here
This story is pure allegory, and universally applicable. The Masque of the Red Death is always occurring somewhere, because somewhere, always, there is an empire about to topple, dancing its final mad debauched dance in a vampiric centre, as turmoil and death crowds in from an exploited periphery. It’s happening now, out in the world. “Voluptuous” walled-in masquerades conducted by collective entities embodied by Poe’s dreadful Duke, whose “plans were bold and fiery”, whose “conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre”. But great walls, ditches and fences will not keep out the monstrous ghostly forces that such systems ultimately necessitate. And, as sure as sunset, one by one, the dancers will drop “in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel”. Poe’s allegory, however, will never die.
First published in Graham’s Magazine, 1842. Collected in Selected Tales, Oxford University Press, 2008, and available online here
For a short while in my teens everything was rich and swirling and sinister in my reading and writing. We had to write Gothic fiction for A Level, and I wrote a story called ‘The Bride’, about a newly married couple who find a house full of strange paintings and cello music. The husband gets entranced by a figure in a painting and walks about the house look for him, forgetting his wife. By the end, she has disappeared and is now in one of the paintings, on a bed of nails. My teacher wrote, ‘I love the ambiguity of the man’s sexuality and his ultimate ambivalence for his wife.’ It was pretty much a copy of this story, when I think of it, but I was proud of myself as though it was all my own doing.
ANYWAY, I blame this Poe story (and The Picture of Dorian Gray) which I still dream about now, for all that. It’s so visual, and full of the strange spyglass of sulphuric detail that Poe’s fiction is full of, somehow exterior and interior. It’s the kind of story you read in the dark, even if you’re reading it on a park bench in the sunshine. I could say lots about it, about Poe, about writing that thrills, or disturbs, or about short stories that do that. But I won’t. We’ve all been there.
It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.
First published in 1839. My copy from The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin Classics; Rev Ed edition 2003
This is a story of paranoia, obsession and guilt, of post-Sophoclean horror and pre-Freudian psychosis.
True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
This is the first short story I remember reading that stayed with me, that I copied out to see how it was done, that – at the pretentious age of seventeen – I decided to turn into a play and got as far as ‘casting’ it. I disagree with Henry James who wrote, “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection. Baudelaire thought him a profound philosopher… Poe was much the greater charlatan of the two, as well as the greater genius.” Bitch.
First published in The Pioneer, 1843, and widely available in Penguin Little Black Classics, 2015 and online here)