Friday, 28 January 2011


The tales are gruesome; morbid. We tremble as our lungs expand horribly, inhaling the stench of death; of putrication. The vile stink makes us retch. Yet, the stories are compelling, the reader is helpless, caught up in the powerful strokes of Edgar Allan Poe’s pen. The reader shudders at the thought of being buried alive or of digging up a corpse to gloat in the face of death. In the worlds that Poe creates, the Id is out of control.

Poe’s own life seems to have been plagued with death, love, unrequited love, abuse of alcohol, abuse of opiates and poverty. His stories tell of sex and death; the horrors of the grave, the vomit at the back of your throat, choking your scream.

From Wiki
“The works of American author Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849) include many poems, short stories, and one novel. His fiction spans multiple genres, including horror fiction, adventure, science fiction, and detective fiction, a genre he is credited with inventing. These works are generally considered part of the Dark romanticism movement, a literary reaction to Transcendentalism. Poe's writing reflects his literary theories: he disagreed with didacticism and allegory. Meaning in literature, he said in his criticism, should be an undercurrent just beneath the surface; works whose meanings are too obvious cease to be art. Poe pursued originality in his works, and disliked proverbs. He often included elements of popular pseudosciences such as phrenology and physiognomy. His most recurring themes deal with questions of death, including its physical signs, the effects of decomposition, concerns of premature burial, the reanimation of the dead, and mourning. Though known as a masterful practitioner of Gothic fiction, Poe did not invent the genre; he was following a long-standing popular tradition.

Poe's literary career began in 1827 with the release of 50 copies of Tamerlane and Other Poems credited only to "a Bostonian", a collection of early poems which received virtually no attention. In December 1829, Poe released Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems in Baltimore before delving into short stories for the first time with "Metzengerstein" in 1832.His most successful and most widely-read prose during his lifetime was "The Gold-Bug" which earned him a $100 prize, the most he ever received for a single work. One of his most important works, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", was published in 1841 and is today considered the first modern detective story. Poe called it a "tale of ratiocination". Poe became a household name with the publication of "The Raven" in 1845, though it was not a financial success. The publishing industry at the time was a difficult career choice and much of Poe's work was written using themes specifically catered for mass market tastes.”

Biographies are interesting, yes? But let’s talk about the stories! In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the tale opens with the unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, having received a letter from him in a distant part of the country complaining of an illness and asking for his help. Although Poe wrote this short story before the invention of modern psychological science, Roderick's symptoms can be described according to its terminology. They include hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to light, sounds, smells, and tastes), hypochondria (an excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness), and acute anxiety. It is revealed that Roderick's twin sister, Madeline, is also ill and falls into cataleptic, death-like trances. Roderick then tells the narrator that he believes the house he lives in to be sentient, and that this sentience arises from the arrangement of the masonry and vegetation surrounding it. Roderick later informs the narrator that his sister has died and insists that she be entombed for two weeks in a vault (family tomb) in the house before being permanently buried. The narrator helps Roderick put the body in the tomb, and he notes that Madeline has rosy cheeks, as some do after death. They inter her, but over the next week both Roderick and the narrator find themselves becoming increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. A storm begins. Roderick comes to the narrator's bedroom, which is situated directly above the vault, and throws open his window to the storm. The narrator notices that the tarn surrounding the house seems to glow in the dark, although there is no lightening.

The narrator reads to Roderick, as cracking and ripping sounds are heard somewhere in the house. When metallic and hollow noises can be heard, Roderick becomes increasingly agitated and hysterical, and eventually exclaims that these sounds are being made by his sister, who was in fact alive when she was entombed and that Roderick knew that she was alive. The bedroom door is then blown open to reveal Madeline standing there. She falls on her brother, and both land on the floor as corpses. The narrator then flees the house, and, as he does so, notices a flash of light causing him to look back upon the House of Usher, in time to watch the house break in two, the fragments sinking into the tarn.

In "Supernatural Horror", H.P.Lovecraft solved a problem in the interpretation of Poe," by arguing that "Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, and the house all shared one common soul". This notion has probably influenced later writers. I am thinking of Shirley Jackson’s excellent, “The Haunting of Hill House”, and Stephen King’s “The Shining”. In these stories, the houses have a consciousness and actively work against, and manipulate the characters. The explicit psychological dimension of “The Fall of the House of Usher, has prompted many critics to analyse it as a description of the human psyche, comparing, for instance, the House to the unconscious, and its central crack to the personality split which is called dissociative identity disorder. Mental disorder is also evoked through the themes of melancholy, possible incest, and vampirism. An incestuous relationship between Roderick and Madeline is not explicitly stated, but seems implied by the strange attachment between the two.

From Suite 101.

In Berenice, Poe reveals his ability to imply extreme violence without actually depicting it. The short story, begins with the narrator’s complaint that “Misery is manifold.” He wallows in his self-pity, extrapolating that man’s fate is to always find ‘what is’ to be an agony and to find pleasure in what ‘might have been.’ He tells us that his first name is Egoeus and declines to tell us what his family name is. He suggests that his family is a prominent family and describes the richness of their family home, in particular the library.

Egoeus’ private residence is the library and he describes it as the location of his physical birth, the site of his intellectual growth, and the place where he existed as a non-entity before birth. The library is his entire life.
Berenice was Egoeus’s cousin. Their lives were opposite in every way. While Egoeus was dark, gloomy and sickly, Berenice was beautiful and energetic. Egoeus describes Berenice’s life as “the ramble on the hill-side - mine the studies of the cloister.”

Egoeus describes how Berenice’s carefree existence was destroyed by a mysterious malady, which ruined all that was fair and beautiful in his cousin. The disease left her subject to a form of epilepsy, which usually concluded with a deep trance that mimicked death.

During Berenice’s decline, Egoeus experiences a rapid progression in his own illness, which takes the form of obsessive monomania. This monomania allows him to fixate obsessively on one small, often inconsequential, object or detail for vast amounts of time.

Egoeus confesses that when Berenice was beautiful and healthy he did not love her. She, however, had loved him for a long time. When Berenice’s appearance was destroyed by disease Egoeus proposes to her out of a perverse remembrance of what had been.

At this time, Egoeus notices that Berenice’s teeth are the only part of her untouched by her disease, he then develops an obsession with them and imagines being able to hold them in his hand and examine them separately. As a result of his monomania, Egoeus enters into a long trance in which he contemplates Berenice’s teeth.

Egoeus recalls the servants notifying him that Berenice has died during one of her epileptic fits.

The next lucid recollection of Egoeus is when he is sitting in a chair. He recalls a woman’s scream and he has the feeling that he had completed some ‘deed,’ but he can not recall what it was. He notices a small box on the table; the box is like the box which doctors carried.

A servant arrives and tries to explain the situation to Egoeus. He tells Egoeus of wild cries during the night that roused the household. The members of the household discover the violated grave of Berenice and Berenice herself alive but disfigured. He indicates to Egoeus to examine the state of his own clothes, which were covered with blood and dirt. He points out to Egoeus the dirt covered spade leaning against the wall. Suddenly, Egoeus screams and grabs the box. When it falls open, dental tools and 32 teeth fall onto the ground.

"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" is a horror short story. I am including it here as a tribute to my Dad; he was an avid reader of Poe, and he told this story to my sister and me, one Sunday lunchtime as he was carving the roast beef. He also told us about the headless man he saw in our back yard. Mum was not pleased.

From Poe-stories

A noted doctor of worth, the honourable Dr. P_____, is fascinated by the art of mesmerism or hypnotism with respect to its rumoured ability to suspend a patient in a state of hypnosis to escape death. He describes his old friend, M. Ernest Valdemar, as a person "particularly noticeable for the extreme spareness of his person." It is this man who has graciously volunteered his body and mind for Dr. P_____'s experiment in mesmerism. On the very eve of his death, Valdemar calls upon and receives Dr. P_____. Dr. P______ describes Valdemar's condition as ever-worsening and predicts his death to be forthcoming. Just before Valdemar's death, Dr. P_____ places him under hypnosis and maintains this state of mesmerization for seven months during which he visits Valdemar and asks him questions about his current comfort. Throughout first few days of mesmerization, Valdemar's condition deteriorates physically to the point that death is reached: "There was no longer the faintest sign of vitality in M. Valdemar: and concluding him to be dead, we were consigning him to the charge of the nurses." Horrifically, although his body was dead, Valdemar's mind was still in contact with the world and was also demanding, with increasing insistence, to be allowed to die: "Yes; --no;--I have been sleeping--and now-- now---I am dead." At this point, Dr. P_____ and his colleagues, Dr. F_____ , Dr. D______, and Mr. F______, decide to keep Valdemar in hypnosis for an indeterminate amount of time, believing that since death was halted due to the hypnosis, Valdemar would remain in his that state. For seven months, Dr. P______ continues to pose questions to Valdemar about his condition, questions to which Valdemar answers with increasing intensity and desperation until Dr. P_____ becomes unnerved by Valdemar's final answer: "For God's sake!--quick!--quick!--put me to sleep--or, quick!--waken me!--quick!--I say to you that I am dead!" The doctor rapidly performs his waking motions and witnesses the accelerated decay of a seven-month dead body:

“As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes, amid ejaculations of 'dead! dead!' absolutely bursting from the tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole frame at once--within the space of a single minute, or less, shrunk--crumbled--absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome--of detestable putrescence.”

"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" was one of Poe's great hoaxes. During Poe's time mesmerism was in vogue as a subject of medical and psychological investigation in Britain and the United States. Stories of its medical benefits had circulated, backed strongly by the Rev. C. H. Townshend--Facts in Mesmerism ( London, 1840)--and, ironically, by Poe himself--"Mesmeric Revelation," (1844). Poe created disgust and horror by his otherwise successful methods of creative writing. Judging from its immediate success and the seriousness with which it was taken, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" struck fear into its audience and conveyed the human dread of and morbid fascination with death and the decay that accompanies it. Poe shocked his audience with his gory imagery of fetid decomposition the impact of which was intensified by the public's belief that what they were reading was truth. He created such a fervour of reaction that on March 14, 1846, Poe included in an expense accountability letter the following disclaimer: "P.S. The 'Valdemar Case' was a hoax, of course."

But as I said earlier, Poe is not just famous for his horror stories, and “The Purloined Letter” is an example of a modern mystery story.


Modern mystery writers owe a debt of gratitude to Edgar Allan Poe. Although he is primarily known for his horror stories, Poe also wrote a series of what he called, ‘‘tales of ratiocination,’’ which helped define the conventions used in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes detective stories, and which helped influence the development of the modern mystery. One of Poe's most popular detective stories is "The Purloined Letter.'' Originally published in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present for 1844, an annual magazine, the story was reproduced in Poe's Tales by Edgar A. Poe the following year. Today, a copy of the story can be found in The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales, published in 1998 by Signet Classic. As with the other stories that feature C. Auguste Dupin, Poe's famous detective protagonist, ‘‘The Purloined Letter’’ emphasizes the use of deductive reasoning—a specific type of logic that examines all factors in a case objectively— to solve mysteries that have stumped others.

In this story, as in other Poe detective stories, among the people stumped are the members of the French police force, who attempt to find a stolen letter which is being used for political blackmail. The police launch a series of scientific and precise, but misguided, investigations by using logical methods that are based solely on past experience and established systems of thought. Their investigative methods reflect the types of rational thought prevalent in the mid-nineteenth century. In the end, the police are unsuccessful in finding the letter because the thief has hidden it in the most unexpected place—right under their noses. Dupin figures this out and recovers the letter, turning the political tables on the thief.

So without Poe, there’d be no Miss Marple, no Hercule Poirot. Even “Murder She Wrote owes its existence to Poe…

He died in 1849, when he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in distress, wearing tattered clothing that was not his own. He died four days later.
His final words were: "Lord, help my poor soul.”

In an aptly mysterious postscript to Poe's life, an anonymous visitor has brought three red roses and a bottle of cognac to Poe's grave at Westminster Church in Baltimore on the anniversary of the writer's birthday every year since the 1940’s. Although, according to what I read on the web, the anonymous visitor has been absent for the past two years.

I wonder what we’d think of Poe if he were alive today? The doctors would probably send him to rehab, give him Prosac -- certainly he’d have some serious therapy. But then, we probably wouldn’t have the stories.

My own story Winnat's Pass was influenced by Poe's "Berenice" I am delighted that it made a dear friend, Gary Walker, recoil in horror. You can find Winnat's Pass in my Fetish Transcendence collection.

This blog post has been put together with sources from the Web, my friend Jan Vander Laenen and my own ideas.

You can find my Fetish Transcendence collection via my Author page at Amazon

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