During childhood in the 1960s and early 70s I enjoyed horror films; especially the British Hammer movies or the Roger Corman variety. The latter frequently included adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe: for example, the 1961 version of “Pit and the Pendulum” which has always stood out in my memory. As a result, this iconic writer became one of my early literary loves.
I think I was in fourth grade when I first read Poe, beginning with “The Tell-Tale Heart”. And in high school, I must have read “A Descent into the Maelstrom” a dozen times. It is a strange and memorable story but many other Poe tales are just as good. There is “The Masque of the Red Death”, which concerns the arrogant elitist, Prince Prospero, whose carousing during a time of plague is quietly crashed by a mysterious and ominous figure—‘tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave’. This tale has the thought-provoking force of a Biblical parable. (The 1964 film adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death”, while interesting in its own right and visually beautiful, bears only a superficial resemblance to its literary source). Other Poe stories that are well worth reading are “William Wilson”, “Eleonora”, “The Oval Portrait” and “Ms. Found in a Bottle”.
Some of Poe’s fictional pieces are surprisingly humorous, like “The Spectacles”, which is about a vain young man who refuses to wear eyeglasses and as a consequence marries his great-great-grandmother without realizing it.
His poetry has been deservedly admired: for example, “To Helen”, “The Valley of Unrest”, “Ulalume”, “Alone”, and, of course, “The Raven”, with its often quoted (and sometimes parodied) opening:
‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping…’ etc.
But my favorite Poe poem is the one which begins:
‘It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me…’
One gathers that Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) lived a poverty stricken, tormented and sometimes tragic life. He died quite young and from causes that were never determined. However, he was not the alcoholic or addict that some have supposed him to be. His influence has been enormous. He was the forerunner of mystery and detective fiction; and Charles Baudelaire, who translated Poe into French, greatly admired him. Then there are the innumerable film adaptations of Poe’s work; some of which are good though most are not.
Poe shared with Nathaniel Hawthorne a distinctively American vision of darkness. And yet this vision was rendered artfully, not in a merely negative or pessimistic manner. That is why both authors are so enjoyable to read.