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Old 10-11-2022, 09:28 AM   #1 (permalink)
Born to be mild
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I was always a great reader. I’m not any more, for various reasons, though I do still read of course. But I started young: Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” (not the Disney cartoon I hasten to add) at about age seven. I remember waiting till I was old enough to cross the “great divide” between the junior and the adult section of the library I went to, where the books in the latter looked so much more interesting and inviting. The junior, or children’s section, was filled with what you would expect --- nursery rhymes, Ladybird books of this and that, the adventures of the Mister Men and lots of books with dogs, cats and rabbits on the covers, though they did also carry the likes of Enid Blyton’s children’s classics such as the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, and some interesting historical novels and books, suitably dumbed down for kids of course. And a lot of books about space. Sort of started me on my lifelong love affair with science-fiction really.

So I have my favourite authors of course, but you may be surprised to find that that is not what this section is about. Well, it is, but not solely. In this feature I intend to concentrate not only on my own favourite writers --- poets as well as authors --- but ones who have made the biggest contribution to the world of literature down the ages. I’ll be telling you about them and who they are, what they wrote and maybe featuring, certainly in the case of poets, one or two of their works. If there’s any way I can work in a music angle too I’ll be doing that.

The first writer I want to talk about is someone who I actually don’t like. Well, that’s not entirely true. I like the odd story or poem, but in general I find his stuff to be so unremittingly dark and disturbing that it’s like what I assume listening constantly to Depressive Black Suicidal Metal must be like. I know millions of people enjoy his work, and rightly so. But I don’t. Not much anyway. So let me introduce you now to

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Credited with almost singlehandedly creating the detective fiction genre and very instrumental in both the horror and science-fiction genres, Edgar Allan Poe was certainly a man who put his own life into his writing. A man dogged by tragedy, death and despair, it’s perhaps not surprising that so much of his writing is sombre, reflective and, ultimately, filled with terror, doom and dread. At an early age he lost both his father and his mother, and though taken in by foster parents at the tender age of three years they never really took to him, never formally adopted him and he fell out with them, though he remained in their care up to about 1826, at which time he was seventeen years old. After a brief spell at university, where he began running up the gambling debts that would dog his pretty miserable life, he enlisted in the army in 1827. This same year he published his first ever collection of poetry and short stories, but unlike his later work it sold very poorly, as did his second and third.

However following the death of his brother in 1831 Poe decided his future lay in writing and made an effort to knuckle down to it seriously. Between his less-than-distinguished military career and his time at university it was the most energy he had devoted to anything in his life. Having found something of a benefactor and landed a job at a newspaper he was now in a position to pursue a career in writing, however this was at the time something that had been attempted by few if any Americans: making a living as an author alone. Most who tried supplemented their income with other jobs, or wrote as a sideline, hoping to make a little money out of it. Lack of copyright laws and his own innate alcoholism hampered his efforts, and the latter robbed him of many contacts he could have made had he kept appointments with the gentlemen instead of the bottle.

Tragedy was not finished with Edgar Allan Poe, and it followed him around almost like a little puppy dog, or a black cloud intent on destroying any chance of happiness he might try to enjoy. In 1835 he married his cousin, Virginia, but the marriage would last less than ten years, as in 1842 she would succumb to consumption, dying in 1847, two years after her troubled husband had finally secured the fame and respect he had struggled to achieve all his life. In 1845 he published a poem, the first of his major works and some would say the greatest. It was called “The Raven”.

The publication of his dark, doomy poem made Poe a rich man. That is of course a lie. He was paid the princely sum of nine dollars for it, and indeed he would follow Virginia into the afterlife a mere two years later, in 1849, dying from causes which are still hotly disputed to this day. What is clear is that he was found on the streets in “a state of distress”, taken to Washington Medical College where he died at five in the morning, raving and in great apparent fear, his last words reported as “Lord help my poor soul”.

Though he had a short career, it has impacted upon, as I mentioned, at least three separate genres of literature, with a fourth if you include gothic fiction, though I tend to lump that in with horror (which is probably wrong); the one common thread that tied all his works together is a sense of dread, fear, loneliness and horror: some of his best-known works have become major horror movies, and elements of his stories have been parodied down the years. Another major theme is the loss of a loved one, usually a woman, reflecting his own loss in life. He is still seen as one of the fathers of horror writing, and his legacy stretches across a broad swathe of literature, his influence evident in everyone from Clive Barker to Stephen King: in fact, without Poe it’s doubtful if these, or any modern horror writers, would have risen to the prominence they have. Today’s horror has a lot to thank Edgar Allan Poe for.

As “The Raven” was his first published successful poem, and is even today so identified with him, I’m featuring that first. If you’re unaware of the poem, I’d be surprised as like I say it’s been quoted and parodied by everything from “The Simpsons” to heavy metal, and there was recently a movie which envisaged Poe being blamed for a series of murders which uncannily showed all the hallmarks of some of his darker stories. It was called, you guessed it, “The Raven”. But anyway the basic idea is that a man is reflecting on the loss of his wife when a raven comes into the room and scares him. It sounds stupid, but that’s the premise. However it’s the way the poem is written, the dark aura Poe constructs over the simple figure of a bird perching above his door, and the malevolent intelligence he sees or causes us to see in its unblinking eyes that makes the story so chilling. A man, alone, is brought face to face with his darkest memories and loss, and is held transfixed by them. Below is the entire thing, performed by the late great Vincent Prince. There is, perhaps inconceivably, a better version, spoken by Brent Fidler from the film “Poe: Last days of the Raven”, but I can only find parts 2, 3 and 4 so I can’t use it here. But if you get a chance and are interested in this poem I advise you to seek out the movie. You will not be disappointed.

Without meaning to be supercilious, the language used in the poem is mid nineteenth century and a little flowery, so for the benefit of any who may not have understood or grasped the meaning behind the poem, here’s a modern translation of the important bits:

As I sat reading in my chair one December night, a knock came to my door. But on checking I found nobody there. After I had settled back with my books the knock came, but this time at the window. When I opened it a raven flew in. It perched above my door, on a bust of the Greek goddess Pallas. I thought its eyes looked very odd and came to believe it was the soul of some person passed on, and asked it rather foolishly if it has seen my lost love, Lenore? But the bird said nothing except “Nevermore”. I cajoled it, I threatened it and in the end I became very frightened of it, as it did not move and said nothing but that one word. I came to believe that I was in the presence of a demon, and I cowered under its shadow, afraid to move.

This is of course a completely simplistic and abridged version of it, but it captures the main points put forward in the poem. If you have not read it, I recommend you do, or at least click the YouTube and let Vincent read it to you.

Tales of Mystery and, you know, Imagination:
some of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe in brief

(Note: if you haven't read these and intend to, skip over this section, as there are spoilers for each.)

The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

The first of many gothic horror/murder stories that would follow a theme of revenge and betrayal. Although Poe had written some stories before this, it is recognised as his first real story and would go on to be made into a major motion picture. It tells the harrowing tale of Roderick Usher, who believes his delapidated house has a life all of its own. He is sick, and so is his sister, who later dies and is entombed in the family vault. However, strange sounds and happenings within the house soon conspire to drive Roderick and his friend, the narrator, mad, and Roderick finally reveals that his sister was allve when they buried her. She comes back then and claims him and they both die. As the narrator flees the house it splits in two and sinks into the earth.

The Masque of the Red Death (1842)

The tale of a powerful prince who, with his retinue and court, believe they will be safe from the terrible plague sweeping the land, the Red Death, which is claiming all in its wake. Amusing themselves by holding a masquerade ball, they are horrified and terrified to encounter the figure of Death himself, who has made his way into the palace and thereby takes the lives of all present.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841)

Possibly one of the silliest stories ever written, certainly the silliest Poe wrote, and yet “Murders in the Rue Morgue” has gone on to be one of his most famous and respected works. Meh. Shows what I know. But come on! A detective rather than a horror story, it introduces us to Dupin, who sets out to solve the mystery of how two women could be horribly murdered in a fourth-floor apartment when there is no sign of entry. Turns out to be an escaped Orang-Utan. No, I’m serious. Perhaps this is evidence that even Poe liked a laugh from time to time, though the story is delivered with his characteristic dourness and fatalism. Still, the closest we come to a lighthearted tale in the repertoire of this master of the macabre.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1842)

A strange story with a lot of inconsistencies, and yet again this has become one of Poe’s best-known and quoted works. Set at the time of the Spanish Inquisition (No I will not say it!) it concerns a prisoner who finds himself on trial and not surprisingly condemned, for the Spanish Inquisition did not tend to believe in the notion of innocent until proven guilty (still not saying it!) and thrown into a dark cell. After a while he realises there is a huge pit in the centre of the cell, and above him is a massive double-bladed scythe, which is swinging slowly from side to side and descending towards him. With the help of rats who infest his cell and eat the meat he has been left, he manages to escape the pendulum as the rats chew through the ropes binding him, but then finds that the walls have become so hot that he is forced towards the dread pit. At the last moment he is rescued as the French take the town and oust the Spanish Inquisition (NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! There! Happy now?) and he is set free.

The Tell-tale Heart (1843)

A classic story of guilt driving a murderer to confess, “The Tell-tale Heart” is about a man who kills an older man because he does not like his “vulture-like eye”, and after dismembering the body conceals it underneath the floorboards. A neighbour, alerted by the old man’s dying scream, alerts the police but the murderer is so calm and affable, believing he has pulled off the perfect crime and will never be discovered, that he satisfies the police officers that it was only his own cry, from a nightmare suffered in the small hours, that the neighbour heard. He invites them to sit and talk to him in the old man’s room, under the floorboards of which he has hidden the body. But though neither officer can hear anything the protagonist believes he can hear the sound of a heart, beating louder and louder, until he can stand it no longer, and believing that everyone can hear it and that he will be damned, confesses and tells the police to tear up the floorboards, whereupon they find the grisly evidence of his actions.

The cask of Amontillado (1846)

One of the last of Poe’s works, this concerns the efforts of one man to take revenge upon another for some insult he was paid. The first man entices the second into a wine cellar, wherein he walls him up alive. That’s it: there are no sudden or unexpected escapes or twists in Poe’s fiction, and rarely if ever a happy ending. If there is a moral here it escapes me, other than that sometimes it is possible to commit murder and get away with it, as the main protagonist goes on to live for at least fifty more years and is never caught.

This is a small selection of Poe’s stories, which number well over fifty, but all follow a general theme, of disillusionment, often disgust in mankind, of loneliness, despair, revenge and betrayal, loss and hopelessness. Few if any of Poe’s protagonists are heroes, with the possible exception of Dupin: most of them are either evil men --- as in “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The cask of Amontillado” --- or uncaring, such as Prince Prospero in “The Masque of the Red Death”. Occasionally they are innocent, or at least uninvolved, bystanders, such as the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher”, or the unnamed prisoner in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Indeed, that story is one of the few of Poe’s to have what could be considered a happy ending, as his characters usually die or are horribly marked by their experiences in his tales.

His poetry fares no better. Much of it is concerned with the afterlife, with such titles as “To one in Paradise”, “For Annie”, “To my mother”, “Deep in Earth” and “The conqueror worm”. Even his most famous, “The Raven”, concerns a man who isolates himself from the outside world and spends his time grieving for his lost lover to the point that he drives himself mad, thinking he has been visited by a demon in the form of a raven, and is paralysed both with fear and possibly anticipation that he may be taken to be reunited with Lenore.

The impact of the work of Edgar Allan Poe on today’s fiction cannot be overstressed. I’ve already said that the great horror, gothic and even science-fiction writers working today owe him a debt of gratitude, even if they don’t know it, and he set new standards for literary critics, as well as inspiring --- probably unintentionally --- a whole host of so-called psychics who believe they can channel his spirit and write in his style. Of course, he had his flaws, and they were many, and his detractors, among them some literary giants like WB Yeats, Aldous Huxley and of course his great rival Henry Longfellow.

But whatever you think of him, whether your read him or not, whether you enjoy what you read or not, and even if you have somehow never heard his name before, the chances are that Poe has influenced your life in one way or another. If you’ve ever read a mystery, science-fiction, horror story, enjoyed a gothic movie or even listened to early Iron Maiden, he’s in there. As I already noted, there was a movie recently using Poe as the main character, and in the latest smash US crime drama “The Following”, the serial killer uses Poe’s works as the basis for his grisly murders.

These constant adaptions and reinterpretations of Poe's work, and links to him continue to keep the man well to the forefront of the public eye, and ensure that though from time to time he may fade into the background, he will always be with us, waiting, watching, subtly influencing and opening and re-opening the doors of his dark world to ever new legions of fans and followers. Like the heart of the murdered man in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the genius and the influence of Edgar Allan Poe is still beating under the floorboards of literature, thumping loud in the ears of the human consciousness, and it’s doubtful it will ever be stilled.
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