Never Say Nevermore: Edgar Allan Poe's 10 Best Stories
Edgar Allan Poe endures as an artist who made his life's work a deeper than healthy dive into the messy engine of human foibles, obsessions, and misdeeds.
If Edgar Allan Poe -- and his writing -- has not aged well and seems more than a little passé for 21st century sensibilities, it's not entirely his fault. Like others who have done things first, and best, it's likely we grow more impatient with their imitations than the original.
In any event, Poe was a pioneer in almost too many ways to count. If his work and his life (and most especially his death) seem clichéd, dying young, debauched and with too little money was not yet the career move it would eventually become for other artists. With vices and an intensity that would give even a young Charles Bukowski pause, and would have buried the punk rock poseur Sid Vicious, Poe managed to be for literature what Miles Davis was for jazz: he didn't merely set new standards, he changed the course of subsequent art, perfecting entirely new paradigms in the process.
Some might claim Poe gets too much credit for perfecting (if not inventing) the American short horror story and detective story. The fact is, he doesn't get enough.
Perhaps the best way to gain historical perspective on the proper scope of Poe's achievements and influence is to consider an abbreviated list of legends who stood on his doleful shoulders: French poet Charles Baudelaire (who both championed and translated Poe), H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and a trio of tolerably impressive non-Americans: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Oscar Wilde and Sigmund Freud. Suffice it to say, if your work has any part in shaping or inspiring authors who make significant contributions to the canon, your status is more than secure.
Arguably, no American figure has influenced as many brilliant -- and imitated -- writers as Poe. The entire genres of horror, science fiction and detective story might be quite different, and not for the better, without Poe's example. More, his insights into psychology, both as narrative device and metaphysical exercise, are considerable; he was describing behavior and phenomena that would become the stuff of textbooks several decades after his death.
He also happened to be a first rate critic, and his insights are as astute and insightful as anything being offered in the mid-19th Century (his essay “The Poetic Principle" comes as close to a “how to" manual for aspiring writers as Orwell's justly celebrated “Politics and the English Language"). Oh, and he was a pretty good poet, too.
When assessing Poe, 150-plus years after he died, it's imperative to interrogate and untangle that fact that not all clichés are created equally. Or, put another way, we must remember that before certain things became clichés, they were unarticulated concerns and compulsions.
When we talk about old school we typically call to mind an era that was pre-TV and even pre-movie. Well, Poe was writing in an era that was pre-radio and practically pre-daguerreotype. With no Snopes or MythBusters, encyclopedias not readily available and religion the common if inconsistent arbiter of moral guidance, Poe was not after cheap frights so much as uncovering the collective unconscious. Put more plainly, this was a time when being accidentally buried alive was something that could conceivably occur.
The reason Poe remains so convincing and unsettling is because he doesn't rely on goblins or scenarios that oblige the suspension of belief; he is himself the madman, the stalker, the outcast, the detective and, above all, the artist who made his life's work a deeper than healthy dive into the messy engine of human foibles, obsessions and misdeeds. He stands alone, still, at the top of a darkened lighthouse, unable to promise a happy ending and half-insane from what he's seen.
Here we celebrate Poe's ten greatest tales, but first, a brief sample of tales that don't quite make the cut, but warrant attention and approbation.
First and foremost, the almost unclassifiable (and Poe's only novel-length work) “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket". Jorge Luis Borges loved it, Jules Verne was undoubtedly influenced and without this model, we may not have gotten our great (white) American novel. If it's good enough for Melville, it's good enough for everyone.
“Berenice" and “Eleonora", two character studies of doomed women, both epitomizing some of Poe's most persistent fixations (teeth, premature burial). There's also the whole “cousin thing".
The type of story O. Henry would make a career of, “The Oval Portrait" is an early “shocker" even though contemporary audiences will see the conclusion coming a mile away. Like “Pym", this one makes the cut if only for the eventual masterpiece it influenced, in this case Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It might be a stretch to say that “Hop-Frog" presaged all the slasher dramas of the '70s and '80s, but it's definitely a quite satisfying prototype of the abused outcast getting his revenge, equal parts Michael Myers and (Black Sabbath's) Iron Man --with grating teeth.
Finally, “A Descent into the Maelström" is rightly credited as being an early attempt at a proper science fiction study, and the technique of an older, wiser sailor recounting his tale as narrative is an obvious antecedent to Conrad.
10. “The Gold Bug"
You almost have to transport yourself back to a time without electricity to fully appreciate Poe's achievement here. In terms of influence, Robert Louis Stevenson merrily declared he “broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe" (for the creation of Treasure Island), and the bug bite instigating heightened awareness anticipates both “Spiderman" and “The Fly". The extensive use of ciphers -- cryptography being a big fad of the time -- also may have inspired Zodiac (the killer and the subsequent movie). Even the appallingly dated dialect of Jupiter is a prelude for the cruder moments of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The sheer effort of imagination alone in seeing this one through requires that it be regarded as an important work.
9. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"
Another one that must be properly appraised as a product of its time, the fact is that, upon publication, this tale caused a public uproar because it was sufficiently believable. This tale employs the ostensibly scientific case study of a hypnotized patient who, in his mesmerized state, is able to exist in a surreal, inexplicable condition where he's dead but… still alive. Once again, as preposterous as this sounds, today, and as outlandish as it clearly was, even in 1845, it's a credit to Poe's masterful description, pacing and use of suspense that he actually pulled it off.
8. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue"
Celebrated as the first modern detective story, Poe's hero C. Auguste Dupin is featured in two subsequent tales, “The Mystery of Marie Roget" and “The Purloined Letter", but “Rue Morgue" is the most famous, and best of the three. One of the many Poe efforts made into an inferior, and terribly dated, film, it works best on the page. Using his powers of deliberation, Dupin is an undeniable model for Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Poe is in full command of his considerable powers here, employing the process of investigation and discovery, cleverly employed humor and terror, and a character who proves he's smarter than everyone else.
7. “William Wilson"
It seems impossible to prove that Dostoyevsky was directly influenced by Poe, but it's difficult to believe early novel The Double was not in some way informed by this compact tale that manages to invoke class, the concept of the doppelgänger, split-personality and the self-corrective of one's conscience (all themes Dostoyevsky would make his calling card, culminating in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov).
In only a handful of other stories was Poe so deftly able to balance shock and humor, albeit of a very dark variety. Cognizant that the narrator is a scoundrel, it's difficult to pity his plight even as we shudder at the humiliation he suffers. Although not often described as such, “William Wilson" is a tour de force psychological case study of an unreliable narrator tortured by a deservedly conflicted sense of self.
6. “The Pit and the Pendulum"
Darkness. Torture. Rats. Any questions? How about a slowly descending, foot-long razor ever-so-slowly descending from the ceiling, giving you plenty of time to think about how it will eventually (and ever-so-slowly) slice open down the middle? And that's just a basic summary.
Here is a one of Poe's most fully realized attempts at “totality". Poe creates a complete atmosphere of terror, where the narrator and reader understands it's not random, his captors are very aware of the conditions they've created, making the tension difficult to endure. Where other stories describe, in often excruciating detail, the anguish inflicted on an overly sensitive individual, in this one Poe makes the reader acutely aware of their own senses: unable to see inside the pit, smelling the rats as they gnaw at the ropes, hearing the deliberate hiss of the pendulum, feeling the sweat frozen by the fear of death.