Undervalued Gothic Literature From Edgar Allan Poe

Alex de Borba
Alex de Borba

Ever since cinema began, it has been a platform to watch fiction films and used to escape from everyday routines, often initiating a journey through the charming world of science fiction and the more wicked, deadlier, and the quirkier, the better! The term “quirky” is something or someone, that is characterised by their peculiar traits; a definition that certainly refers to these directors and their range of eccentric work, which are perfect for viewing.

Born in Boston, United States of America, he was the second offspring of two actors. His father deserted the family in 1810, and his mother perished the following year. Thus orphaned, the child was taken in by John and Frances Allan, of Richmond, Virginia, although he was not adopted formally by the family he was taken into. He was with the family until adulthood. After that period, Edgar Allan Poe repeatedly ran himself into debt, including those incurred by gambling, and the cost of his secondary education. Edgar Allan Poe attended the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, for one semester but withdrew due to the shortage of funds. Edgar Allan Poe quarrelled with John Allan over the funds for his education and enlisted in the Army in 1827 under an assumed name.

In 1831, Edgar Allan Poe travelled to New York City where he had some of his poetry published. He submitted stories to a number of magazines and they were all rebuffed. Edgar Allan Poe had no friends, no career, and was in financial stress. He then decided to send a letter to John Allan pleading for aid but none came. John Allan died in 1834 and did not mention Edgar Allan Poe in his last will and testament. He had some publishing and editor roles in publishing companies. They were not long lasting enough for him to make a decent living.

In June of 1849, Edgar Allan Poe left New York City and went to Philadelphia, where he visited his friend John Sartain. He left Philadelphia in July and came to Richmond. He stayed at the Swan Tavern Hotel but joined ‘The Sons of Temperance’ in an effort to cease drinking. He renewed a boyhood romance with Sarah Royster Shelton and planned to marry her in October. On September 27th, Edgar Allan Poe left Richmond for New York City. He went to Philadelphia and stayed with a friend named James P. Moss. On September 30th, he meant to go to New York City but supposedly took the wrong train to Baltimore.

On October 3rd, Edgar Allan Poe was found at Gunner’s Hall, a public house at 44 East Lombard Street, in Baltimore, and was taken to the hospital. He lapsed in and out of consciousness but was never able to explain exactly what happened to him. Edgar Allan Poe died in the hospital on Sunday, October 7th, 1849. The strangeness surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s passing has led to many myths and urban legends. The reality is that no one knows for sure what happened during the last few days of his life. Did Edgar Allan Poe succumb from alcoholism? Did he have rabies? There are a couple of theories about his death, but non remain certain.

Edgar Allan Poe was indeed, recognised for contributing towards the improvement of the science fiction and mystery genres, and is quite known as a preeminent figure in the American Romantic movement. ‘The Masque of Red Death,’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ are obvious choices to read from Edgar Allan Poe, however if you wish to plunge into the depths of his less favoured works there are some undervalued tales to explore.

An examination of Edgar Allan Poe’s favoured theme of the death of a beautiful woman, ‘Berenice’ (1835) allows an surprisingly grisly alternative to ‘Annabel Lee,’ the last complete poem composed by him. The tale pursues the mental decline of the monomaniacal Egaeus, who is filled with an all-consuming neurosis regarding the teeth of his affianced, Berenice. Stumbling into one of his cataleptic fits after Berenice’s death, he awakens, bewildered and terrified, to the screaming of the maid, who has not only learned that Berenice was erroneously buried alive, but also that her coffin was subject to the outrages of grave-robbing. Dismayed, Egaeus turns to find, next to his bedstead, a dirtied shovel, thirty-two bloodied teeth, and a poem about “visiting the grave of my beloved.” Considered horrifying to its contemporaneous readers for its disproportionate violence, ‘Berenice’ is, in equal parts, a captivating and repulsive tale of lethal obsession.

‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (1845), narrated with the clinical detachment of a doctor’s report, Edgar Allan Poe had to release an acknowledgement, albeit reluctantly, that the tale was one of pure fiction, and not of biographical fact, as many members of the public genuinely accepted the story. Treading the fine line between sensationalist loathing and investigative science fiction, the story traces the narrator’s enchantment with, and investigations into, mesmerism, using his expertise to put a dying man, M. Valdemar, into a mesmeric trance. Seemingly innocuous, the narrative then goes into the macabre, as the dying man, in his trance, states that he is dying, and then, that he is dead. He proceeds in the state for months on end, before, being brought out of his trance, he becomes “nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putrescence.” Gory and disgustingly vivid, this tale is the testimony of Edgar Allan Poe’s enduring interest in, and knowledge of, the developing pseudo-sciences and human anatomy.

An explosive portrayal of a vendetta triumphantly fulfilled, ‘Hop–Frog’ (1849) ironically both belies and exemplifies the idiom that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Reported by a narrator essentially disjointed from all the real action, the narrative is set in the court of a jocularly cruel king, who prides wittiness over wisdom, and revels in laughing at those around him. The narrative takes its name from the misshapen dwarf who is kept, enslaved, harassed, and taunted by the king, until the climax of the narrative when, at a fancy-dress masquerade, the dwarf manages to exact his revenge for all the cruel excesses of by-gone days. Severe and frightful, ‘Hop-Frog’ is especially notable for the frightening and disturbing scenes in which a terrible and bone-chilling sound is heard — a sound which is revealed to be the awful grinding of ‘Hop-Frog’s teeth as he seethed with anger and loathing.

A chilling investigation of human idiosyncrasies, ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ (1845) in no less frightening than its supernatural counterparts in its distinct lack of the phantasmagorical. Narrated from the point of view of a death-row criminal, he inadvertently sets the scene by going into a philosophical discourse about man’s perversity, before telling the reader how this perversity is to be his downfall. Having murdered a man for his estate, a crime that went entirely unsuspected, the narrator then describes how he agonised over the question of his “capability to confess;” he then, at the “instigation” of this “imp,” confessed all to the public. Though less well known than ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ this is an equally compelling portrayal of inherent perversity, and of the debilitating effect of the guilty conscience.

Yet another literary investigation of the death of a much loved beautiful woman, ‘Ligeia’ (1838) is a more nuanced and subtle exploration of the boundaries of Death, than its counterpart ‘Berenice.’ Narrated in the first person, with a certain air of retrospective nostalgia, the narrative opens with the speaker waxing lyrical on the many accomplishments of the unparalleled ‘Ligeia,’ and continues onwards to tell of her matrimony, and her ultimate death. Mad with grief, the narrator promptly remarries, though the wife dies shortly after. It is then that the gruesome culmination of the story is revealed; for, whilst keeping vigil, the narrator realises that, not only has the corpse reanimated itself, it has done so in the form of Ligeia, who has broken the fetters of death. Profoundly disturbing and passionate, the tale has also become known for the inclusion of the poem ‘The Conqueror Worm’, which the dying Ligeia wrote.

The first of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories to be published, ‘Metzengerstein’ (1832) is a horrifying tale of dementia and pyromania that has many elements of Romeo and Juliet, except without the romance or the melancholic reconciliation at the end. Named after the Metzengersteins, this family has had a bitter enmity with the Berlifitzing family for centuries. The tale accompanies Frederick, the last of the Metzengersteins, detailing his cruelty, his slump, and the strange circumstances of his death, in which he, unable to control an untamed horse, literally rides to his own death by flames; this is deemed to be a fitting punishment for the previous overruns and heroic cruelties he practiced throughout the narrative. Both adhering closely to and exaggerating the popular Gothic conventions of the time, Metzengerstein has often been under considerable debate by Edgar Allan Poe scholars as to whether it is satirical or sensationalist.

Blending many previous ordinarily prevalent elements in other Edgar Allan Poe short stories, such as the presence of an ‘oblong box’ (which evidently turns out to be a coffin) and a harmful sea voyage. ‘The Oblong Box’ (1844), traces the mysterious circumstances and suspicious behaviour of the Wyatt family, who have boarded on the same sea voyage as the unnamed narrator. Though essentially grotesque, is delightfully absurd in its portrayal of an utterly moronic and thick-witted narrator, who, despite all the evidence indicating the presence of a dead body inside a coffin, believes the box with “the peculiar shape” and the “odd odour” to be a particularly valuable copy of ‘The Last Supper,’ which his jealously possessive and secretive friend has acquired and refuses to show. With the narrator acting as an amateur sleuth, The Oblong Box´ is considered Edgar Allan Poe’s continued examination of the detective genre, which he first debuted in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841).

Remembered as one of the shorter stories in Edgar Allan Poe’s collections (in its initial publication, it only filled two pages), and for being the inspiration for the band of the same name (now disbanded), ‘The Oval Portrait’ (1842) is a novel and an unsettling examination of the relationship between art and life, which was eventually more fully elaborated and investigated in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’ (1891).The protagonist of the story is a negligent, selfish, and obsessive artist, who in his pursuit of perfection, allowed his wife to waste away as he assiduously laboured over her portrait, and thus allowed his life-like art to suck away, almost literally, the life-force and vitality of the compliant and loving wife. Using the death of a beautiful woman once again in its climax, the short story recounts the deadly consequences of addiction in any form, the addiction, in this case, being the artist’s obsession with creating hyper-realistic art.

Tapping into the almost obsessive concern with ‘The Premature Burial’ (1844) at the time (indicated by the alarming proliferation of inventions which were created with a view to prevent such a situation), Edgar Allan Poe’s story is a disquieting examination into the hypochondria and neurosis of one exceptionally fearful individual, who spends his entire life prophesying, fretting over, and trying to anticipate the possibility of being buried alive. His alarm is in part caused by his propensity to lapse into periods of catalepsy, in which he exhibits all of the symptoms of being dead without actually being dead. Ironically enough, though the protagonist is hysterical and fearful for a considerable length of the plot, it takes the actual discovery that his worst nightmares have been fulfilled (and he has been buried alive), for him to overcome and dismiss his fanciful delusions.

‘William Wilson’ (1839) is almost a reverse ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886), the narrator, who refuses to give his actual name, details descent into criminal debauchery, though he loftily absolves himself from any blame. However, during his life, William Wilson finds himself constantly hounded by an individual who is, in almost every respect, his mirror image, and who denies to bow down to his childish cruelty. This ‘twin’ thwarts him at every turn: he exposes him to be a cheater at cards and tries to prevent his seduction of a married woman. Enraged by this “high-handed behaviour,” William Wilson savagely kills him, only for him to realise he has killed his better self, and thus ruined any hope of redemption. Inspired by an article of Washington Irving’s, William Wilson is an allegory for life, portraying the calamitous consequences of snubbing one’s own conscience.

His poetry alone would ensure his spot in the literary canon. Edgar Allan Poe’s notable verses range from the early masterpiece ‘To Helen’ to the dark, mysterious ‘Ulalume.’ From ‘The Raven,’ which made him world-famous upon its publication in 1845, to ‘Annabel Lee,’ the posthumously published eulogy for a maiden ‘in a kingdom by the sea,’ and most famously, Edgar Allan Poe totally remodeled the genre of the horror story with his masterful tales of psychological depth and insight not envisioned in the genre before his time and scarcely seen in it since. Stories like ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ reveal Edgar Allan Poe’s talent at its height.

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