Edgar Allan Poe

	Through a circle that ever returneth in
	To the self-same spot,
	And much of Madness and more of Sin
	And Horror the Soul of the Plot.
				-- Edgar Allan Poe, Ligeia

	From childhood's hour I have not been
	As others were - I have not seen
	As others saw - I could not bring
	My passions from a common spring -  
				-- Edgar Allan Poe, Alone

	I dwelt alone
	In a world of moan
	And my soul was a stagnant tide 
				-- Edgar Allan Poe

I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank - God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink, rather than the drink to the insanity. -- Edgar Allan Poe, letter to an admirer

I was enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in company with my friend C Auguste Dupin ... For one hour at least we had maintained a profound silence ... -- Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter

"That is another of your odd notions," said the Prefect, who had the fashion of calling everything 'odd' that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of 'oddities'. -- Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter

"Why, yes; and not exactly that either. The fact is, we have all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and yet baffles us altogether." -- Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter

Poe is, to my mind, the supreme original short-story writer of all time. -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Through the Magic Door

If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay a tithe to a monument for the master, he would have a pyramid as big as that of Cheops. -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Through the Magic Door

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) - the master craftsman of mystery, suspense and Gothic horror.

Born Boston, Massachusetts, orphaned at the age of three. Adopted by his godfather, John Allan from whom he adopted the name Allan. Attended school at Manor House School, Stoke Newington, England (1815-20). Later years at university in the States, forced to leave by gambling debts. A brief spell at the military academy of West Point. Married 13 year old cousin Virginia (1836). Died in a semi-conscious alcoholic stupor.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination, a collection of short stories, are the gold standard by which all other horror is judged and generally found wanting. Edgar Allan Poe was the master craftsman of spine-chilling horror. Modern writers come nowhere close, stomach-churning blood and gore is no substitute for craftsmanship.

The only person to have come close to Edgar Allan Poe in the craftsmanship of spine-chilling horror was the master of suspense, the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

Claude Debussy was strongly influenced, if not haunted by 'The Fall of the House of Usher' and was working on a piece of music to conjure up all its horror, but died before its completion. In a letter to a friend Debussy described the enveloping madness:

I have recently been living in the House of Usher which is not exactly the place where one can look after one's nerves - just the opposite. One develops the curious habit of listening to the stones as if they were in conversation with each other and of expecting houses to crumble to pieces as if this were not only natural but inevitable. Moreover, if you were to presume I should confess that I like these people more than many others ... I have no confidence in the normal, well-balanced type of persons.

The approach towards the House of Usher as it looms out of the autumn gloom is the classic first glimpse of the house of horror.

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I knew not how it was - but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me - upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain - upon the bleak walls - upon the vacant eye-like windows - upon a few rank sedges - and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees - with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium - the bitter lapse into every-day life - the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart ...

Two of the ghost stories of Sheridan Le Fanu, 'Madam Crowl's Ghost' and 'Dickon the Devil', commence with a description of a house, which is but a pale imitation of The House of Usher.

Of the tales, one of the best is 'The Maelstrom'. Such is the power of the telling that the knuckles turn white as the book is gripped.

A measure of the success of Poe was the influence he was to exert upon a successive generation of writers: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes was in part modelled on C Auguste Dupin), Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne (Le Sphinx des Glaces was a sequel to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket), Herman Melville (Moby Dick owes much to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket), Joseph Conrad (praised the authenticity of descriptions of the sea), Mann (thought 'William Wilson' to be the classic Doppelganger tale). Poe's influence was strongest in France, where he was to have a direct influence upon Baudelaire, Mallarme, Verlaine and Rimbaud. In turn, Poe was influenced by an earlier generation of European writers: Coleridge, De Quincy, Byron, Shelley, Keats.

In The Poet, a well written, at times creepy novel, Michael Connelly makes full use of Poe's poetry as a central theme of the plot.

Richard Laymon (1947- ), in Dark Mountain, makes use of 'The Raven' to create atmosphere as a group of campers try to scare themselves with late night tales around the camp fire. Both Dark Mountain and Blood Games are set out in the wilderness. Richard Laymon is one of the few modern writers capable of telling a tale, both Dark Mountain and Blood Games are compelling reading, peopled with 'real' characters'.

American contemporaries of Poe were Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) and Herman Melville (1819-1891). Whereas Poe concentrated on Aesthetics, Hawthorne and Melville concentrated on the Romantic ideal of Beauty. Melville's Captain Ahab, the heroic loner, the madman, has many echoes in the tales, a voyage to ultimate destruction. Poe concentrated on Ethics, Hawthorne on Sin. All three descended into blackness, what Poe described as 'the blackness of darkness' and Melville defined as 'the power of Blackness', though none descended into the pit of blackness of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a place that only the Russian soul can truly know and manic-depressives catch a too frequent a glimpse.

Although primarily associated with horror, Poe also produced other work: detective stories, science fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, literary criticism.

Poe's poetry was published as the collection The Raven and Other Poems (1845), 'The Raven' is probably the best known poem.

Edgar Allan Poe was the master of plot. He was able to predict the entire development and outcome of Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge (1841) from the opening chapters.

Poe created the Parisian detective C Auguste Dupin. The French detective Dupin is little remembered today, but his spirit lives on in the most famous and successful of consulting detectives, Sherlock Holmes. As Watson was to remark 'You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin.' Dupin and Edgar Allan Poe were to strongly influence Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the creation of Sherlock Holmes. The opening pages of the second Dupin story 'The Purloined Letter' is pure Holmes, Watson and Lestrade.

'Ha! ha! ha! - ha! ha! ha! - ho! ho! ho!' roared our visitor, profoundly amused, 'Oh Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!'

Albert Einstein is widely recognised as a scientific genius, within the scientific community his theories of relativity are widely recognised as not only revolutionary, but something that may still lie undiscovered, but for Einstein. Or in other words the theories of relativity were not lying around to be stumbled across, and even when explained they are still not immediately obvious and appear to defy the senses. Unlike Newton's theory of gravity and motion, which was there for all to observe. In fact Newton's main contribution was not the explicit statement of the laws of motion, but to express the thought that the laws were universal, that is to say the laws were equally valid in Cambridge as they were the other side of the Universe. It is therefore all the more remarkable that in the essay 'Time and Space', first published in Democratic Review (1844), Poe discussed the equivalence of space and time 'Space is precisely analogous with time', and in Eureka he discussed the intrinsic nature of matter.

This process of 'discovery' always raises the question, did the laws of the universe exist before they were discovered, do they only come into existence at the moment of discovery, do they not exist until discovered, or if not, what governs the Universe and where exists the laws whilst awaiting discovery? Once 'discovered' do they become part of a universal subconscious, which thus explains secondary, often near simultaneous discovery. This philosophical dilemma is discussed at length in Robert M Pirsig's semi-autobiographical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974).

Although Poe achieved fame in his own lifetime he never managed to climb out of poverty. On the death of his wife all she had for warmth was Poe's old army coat and a large cat. The death of his wife Virginia hit Poe badly and he died two years later in a drunken stupor. The death of Poe was announced in the New York Tribune in a singular vindictive vein (the piece was penned by Poe's editor, Rufus Griswold):

Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the States of Continental Europe, but he had no friends ...

Under the guise of editing the works of Poe, Griswold did his best to destroy Poe's reputation. Griswold's crimes included destroying letters, falsifying manuscripts, faking correspondence.

One of the best available Poe collections is the Penguin The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, which includes a selection of tales, poetry and essays. Alternatively, for a more comprehensive collection of tales, the illustrated Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Probably the most comprehensive collection available is that published by The Modern Library The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

Selected Poetry

Web Resources

Suggested Reading

BBC, Elementary My Dear Rankin, Radio 4, BBC, 5 July 1999 {repeat of earlier broadcast]

Michael Connelly, The Poet, Orion

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Through the Magic Door

Richard Laymon, Dark Mountain

Richard Laymon, Blood Games

Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, The Modern Library

Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Wordsworth

Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin

Edgar Allan Poe, Comedies and Satires, Penguin

Edgar Allan Poe, The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, Penguin

Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Penguin

Robert M Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Corgi

Literature ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ Sheridan Le Fanu ~ Herman Melville ~ Mary Shelley ~ Bram Stoker
(c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- July 1999 rev 4