Appendix N Archaeology: Edgar Allan Poe, Part One
By Bradley K McDevitt
Ok, class, before we start… let’s have a show of hands. Who here thinks about reading Edgar Allan Poe and gets traumatic flashbacks to seventh grade English?
I thought so. Having the father of the modern horror story force-fed us tends to have that effect, as opposed to other lesser writers like Lovecraft, Howard, or Tolkien, all of whom we had to discover on our own.
So even when Joe Goodman suggested doing some Appendix N Archaeology articles, I had not thought of the Bard of Baltimore until he suggested revisiting Poe. And in retrospect, decades from those dreaded reading assignments, I can think back, remember stories like The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Telltale Heart and realize that he was, more than Hawthorne or Stoker, the father of modern horror fiction. Before Poe, there were horror stories and novels like Varney the Vampire or Geoffrey Lewis’ The Monk, but the majority were more morality stories than anything else or ended, Scooby-Doo-style, with the villains unmasked as mere charlatans.
Poe was the first successful writer to pen stories intended with no purpose but to ensure the reader would not have pleasant dreams that night. I dare anyone suffering from claustrophobia to go back and read A Cask of Amontillado or The Black Cat and then sleep with the lights off. Go ahead, I double-dog dare you.
Other stories still retain their power, too. One can easily trace a line from The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar to Lovecraft’s classic death-survival story Cool Air. And modern horror writers like Clive Barker call back to Poe explicitly with stories like The New Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Poe suffers what I might be inclined to call “Shakespeare Syndrome”—being archly informed how important he is has clouded our perception as to how important he actually is.
Poe did not write much science fiction, and fantasy as a literary genre would not come to exist for almost fifty years after his unfortunate demise. But when it comes to horror and his influence on Appendix N authors like Lovecraft, Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith, Poe’s works must be considered seminal.
Now, if you will all excuse me, it is near midnight and I hear a rap-tap-tapping at my chamber door. Some late visitor, I am sure, only this and nothing more…
For my next installment, I shall be discussing some of Poe’s lesser-known tales of terror like William Wilson, The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether, and The Descent into the Maelstrom.
In the meantime, you can find collections of his works at your local library or bookstore, or at any number of online repositories of Poe’s fiction—horror, detective, and humor—at sites like Poe Stories, House of Usher, or his section at Project Gutenberg.