Edgar Allan Poe
av Per-Erik Melander
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston in 1809. His parents, travelling actors, both died in Poe's early childhood and a merchant named John Allen took care of the boy. Poe was taken by this Allen to England at the age of six and placed in a private school. He returned to the U.S. in 1820, attended the University of Virginia for a year, but he misbehaved and was forced to quit school.
After a short term as a clerk Poe went to Boston. There his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), was published anonymously. Shortly afterward Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army and served a 4-year term.
In 1832 Poe moved to Baltimore, where he lived with his aunt and her 11-year-old daughter, Virginia Clemm. The following year his tale "A MS. Found in a Bottle" won a contest. From 1835 to 1837 Poe was an editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. In 1836 he married his young cousin. Through the next decade Poe worked as an editor for various periodicals in Philadelphia and New York City. In 1847 Virginia died and Poe himself became ill; his addiction to liquor and his use of drugs may have contributed to his early death in Baltimore in October 1849.
The book is an analogy containing 23 short stories published between the years 1833 and 1849.
The stories are of three kinds: tales of horror, tales of detection ( Poe invented the detective story) and some humorous tales. It´s fiction all through, although some of the stories (notably "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar") are written like articles, full of facts making them very convincing and credible. Poe is making the implausible plausible (just like Ian Fleming did in his James Bond novels - known as "the Fleming effect").
Poe´s intention varies. He had always financial problems, so many of the stories have been born out of a need for money; he had to "sing for his supper" you could say. But Poe has always something to say, there´s always a moral hidden in his tales. The stories are entertaining and some of them very horrific. Often they deal with some deep trauma of the soul. A few are discussing the topics of his time, as in the story "Some Words with a Mummy", where Poe find opportunity to express his total distrust of the idea of human progress.
One of the stories that appealed to me is called "King Pest". It´s about two seamen who, during the plague in the middle of the 14th century, find themselves seated late at night in a third class bar somewhere in London. They have been drinking a lot and when it´s time to pay, they "discover" that they’re out of money. They have to make a run for it and when they’re trying to escape from the landlord and his friends they hide in a district of the town that’s under ban; that means a part of the town, near the river Thames, with abandoned blocks, where no one is allowed to live or even to enter because of the plague. The two seamen manage to get rid of their persuaders and begin to roam the deserted streets. Everywhere they stumble upon skeletons or decaying corpses. In this ghostly atmosphere of complete silence they are looking for a way out but instead run into an undertaker’s abandoned house. Sounds of laughter comes from within and our two friends enter. Seated around a table, scattered with wine-bottles, is a company of six, four men and two women. They are clearly demons of disease, pest-spirits, fever-demons. Each one has a specific feature that makes him or her stand out from the others. There´s the big forehead, the big mouth, the big nose, the enormous cheeks, the big ears, the huge goggle-eyes. They are obviously very drunk, drinking wine and liqueur from human skulls. One of them is dressed in a mahogany coffin. The two seamen are invited to the party and each take a seat at the table. The demons are presenting themselves: King Pest the First; Queen Pest; His Grace the Arch Duke Pest-Iferious; His Grace the Duke Pest-Ilential; His Grace the Duke Tem-Pest; Her Serene Highness the Arch Duchess Ana-Pest. The party ends in turmoil; one of the seamen make some misinterpreted remark about the king’s big forehead. The king condemns him to drinking the worst beer in the world - the Black Strap. If he can’t make it he will be beheaded. The ending is not what you would expect from a horror story - it ends rather surprisingly. The whole time-span of the story is just a couple of hours.
Of the 23 stories in the book 22 is written in I-form. The only exception is "King Pest". Because of this you always get to know the character’s innermost feelings, his most secret thoughts, you are allowed to look deep into his soul. As to the appearance of the other characters, Poe doesn´t waste words, except when the story needs a description of someone, to furthering the story, as in "King Pest", "The Man that was Used Up" and in the tales where Auguste Dupin appears, the forerunner of Sherlock Holmes. Because Poe wrote about monomaniacal, and often perverse, people it´s what´s going on inside a person that matters, not his outward appearance. In his horror stories you find the same pattern; the thing that frightens come from the depth of the soul.
The scenery is secondary in the tales. It exists because of the plot, the most obvious example is in the story "The Fall of the House of Usher". As the soul of the young man Usher disintegrates the house and the garden he lives in disintegrates too. Even the weather is part of the plot; as a storm is building up in the young man’s soul the same thing is happening outside the windows.
Because the book is a collection of short stories and the author has limited space at his disposal, the tales are concise and the tempo often fast.
Edgar Allan Poe was a child of his time. He wrote in the style of the early 19th century, in an old fashioned style which make use of long sentences with hardly any dialogue at all. The vocabulary is lavish and the author often uses quotations from Greek, Latin, French and German writers. Often the story is a long monologue, abundant in exclamations !, oh´s and ah´s. In short, Poe is a romantic, in the style of Lord Byron. But he is also, at least in his "tales of ratiocination" as he himself called them, that is his detective stories, a realistic writer and a forerunner to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who invented Sherlock Holmes.
Is Poe´s attitude to reality unrealistic? Yes! Romantic? Yes! Exaggerated? Yes! Grotesque? Yes! This is Poe in a nutshell! But above all he really can communicate terror; his nightmares become your nightmares (it happened to me when I red "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" - one of the best, if not the best horror tale in the book, at least the one that made the greatest impact on me).
The tales in this selection that made the greatest impression on me were "King Pest" (I´ve already made a summary of that one); "The Man of the Crowd", about a man who can’t stand loneliness so he spends the whole of his mature life running to and fro in whatever crowd he can find; "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether", where the patients and the wardens in a madhouse changes place; "Thou Art the Man", an ingenious detective story; and finally "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", the horror story of the book where the life of a dying man is maintained through hypnosis - at least until the spell is broken.
Of the 23 tales only one falls short of the others; it´s one of the Auguste Dupin stories, "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt". The plot is just a discussion about a real murder case that took place in New York in the summer of 1841 and where Poe through his detective offers a solution to the problem and also comes up with a murderer (a solution that proved to be wrong).
While you read the tales the soul of Edgar Allan Poe appears before you, a distressed soul, belonging to a very intelligent man, otherwise he couldn´t have written such stories as he did. Logic, or the illusion of logic, is his trademark. And the tales doesn´t seem to grow old, or to be out of date, because they are dealing with things that are as true today as they were yesterday. Poe wasn’t an ordinary writer, he had an ocean of talent, and that’s why his tales are as popular today as they were in his time. If you want great entertainment and a good old fashioned nightmare: read the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. You won’t regret it.
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