Appendix N Archaeology: Edgar Allan Poe’s Other Works
By Bradley K. McDevitt
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson did not dream up the background ideas of Dungeons and Dragons out of thin air. Fans of fantasy fiction, they had borrowed liberally from Tolkien, Howard, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Leiber and many others to build their game. These authors were among many the others who inspired Appendix N. But those authors were inspired by other, older authors. This article, among others in this series, takes a look at some of the writers that inspired Appendix N.
In my previous article, I examined one of the titans of weird fiction: the legendary Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is an author that, while well-known, has come to be viewed as something of an albatross to be worn around the necks of high school English students: someone to be read as a duty, not something to be enjoyed. I suggested that, far from the confines of the classroom, a new reading of Poe would be an eye-opener.
His work, while inching towards its second century of publication, stands the test of time more than adequately. Some of his stories, like A Cask of Amontillado, very much deserve their reputation as classics of horror fiction. Further, they are potential gold mines for judges looking for inspiration. It would be easy work, for example, to convert the room that forms the setting of The Pit and the Pendulum into a Grimtooth-style trap.
All one needs to do is to peruse any anthology of his work with an eye towards being inspired. One caveat, though, for a reader looking to make it a short trip: Poe was a prolific writer. Between dozens of poems, pieces of literary criticism, a novel, and humorous hoax pieces (The Balloon Hoax), it seems amazing he found time to create an entirely new genre of fiction (mysteries) and still pen dozens of horror stories still read today.
Everyone knows iconic pieces like The Masque of the Red Death and The Pit and the Pendulum, if only from the Roger Corman movies from the 1960s. Poe, however, penned many other stories that are not as well known except to those readers who have gone hunting for them. This article seeks to shine a spotlight on some of those other works of horror, madness, and even proto-science fiction. So let us put The Tell-Tale Heart aside and study another tale of madness…
The Oval Portrait
Hardly more than a vignette, The Oval Portrait would be a good single session one-on-one encounter for a game like Call of Cthulhu. It shows with great skill that Poe understood that what goes on inside a person’s mind can be more terrifying than any supernatural shenanigans. The plot is dirt-simple. The narrator is convalescing in a room adorned with many paintings, and reading a book describing the back story of each painting, much like one would buy at any art museum store. One particular painting catches his eye, a portrait of a young woman. He decides to peruse the chapter about it, and the tragedy he reads about forms the rest of the text.
This is no Pickman’s Model with a last-sentence shock ending. Poe sets up how the story is going to end well in advance, given the short length of the tale. An artist’s drive to perfection and his model/wife’s twin obsession with helping him achieve that goal is all that is needed. The reader is helplessly dragged along towards the inevitable end, even as they can see it coming.
A Tale of the Ragged Mountains
Poe wrote a time-travel story fifty-one years before HG Wells published his seminal novel of chronal adventure. And like many early science fiction pieces, A Tale doesn’t worry about the mechanics of time travel: the narrator, instead, simply gets lost in the mist during a woodland stroll outside Charlottesville, Virginia. He then ends up backward in time in India almost fifty years previously, during a riot against the ruler of the time. He ends up being “killed” before returning to his present-day body, only to die of a wound similar to that which killed him in the past.
The story is not flawless. Poe spends a significant portion of the text on a physical description of the main character… which ultimately has little to do with the plot. But the vivid, almost jewel-like description of the dream-Calcutta make up for that weakness. It gives off a very Dreamlands feel to readers familiar with the works of HP Lovecraft. And finally, speaking of Lovecraft…
The Facts In the Case of M. Valdemar
It is very easy to draw a direct line from the dispassionate, scientific tone of this last straightforward horror story to legendary works like At the Mountains of Madness, The Call of Cthulhu, and most significantly, Cool Air. What begins almost like a legalistic recounting of an experiment in the new-at-that-time science of mesmerism (aka, hypnosis) quickly spirals into horror as the experiment’s subject expires, only to be trapped in his own decaying body… for seven months.
The very wet climax, while rushed, remains shockingly gruesome, especially for 1845, and holds up adequately even in this post-splatterpunk era of horror fiction. Poe remains, to this day, a very forward-thinking author. It is almost impossible to imagine stories like the afore-mentioned Cool Air without seeing Valdemar’s fingerprints all over it, and one can easily imagine its after-effects in modern media like the representations of the Walking Dead.
These are only a few of Poe’s works that have been overlooked in today’s world. There are much more worth revisiting, including many poems much more blood-chilling than The Raven… but that is an article for another time.
Until then, if you want to explore Poe a bit more, his works are easily available at any number of online repositories of Poe’s fiction at sites like www.poestories.com, http://www.houseofusher.net/, and http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25525. I would personally recommend any of the stories highlighted in this article, as well as some other lesser-known classics like The Cask of Amontillado and The Imp of the Perverse. And judges wanting to add a touch of gothic horror to their campaign could do much worse than adding some details from Hop-Frog. Poe, as one can see, offers much to the gamer wanting to explore the origins of Appendix N, as does the subject of a future article, Arthur Machen, whose stories set in the haunted hills of Wales inspired both Lovecraft and Conan creator Robert E. Howard.