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Edgar Allen Poe

Tobias Hill


T  his was an introduction, written for Hesperus Classics for a new edition of the works of Poe.

It is often said that Edgar Allan Poe is a Serious writer - and when it is, you can always hear the capital. That upper case S is pinned on the dead author like a medal for distinguished service. It is stuck there most often by those who love Poe best, but it does him a disservice; not because it is true or untrue, but because it is incidental. What makes Poe endure is not Seriousness, but Pleasure.

What pleasure there is in reading of unpleasant things! What joy we take in gloom and harm! Occupied by harmless lives, we read of the harms that befall others. We lose ourselves in the gilt-lettered Horror and the True Crime thriller. We laugh at the black humour of the chainsaw massacre. These pleasures are neither inexplicable nor strange: we understand them instinctually. We enjoy the shock of emotion, the thrill of the thriller. We love to lose ourselves in melancholy and horror. What we feel isn’t schadenfreude, that gloating joy in neighbourly misfortune that is such a national pastime in Britain it seems a miracle the Germans should have invented the word first. The addict of True Crime does not gloat over the body in the pool or the madness of the axeman. His enjoyment is more sympathetic than that. He empathises with the body and with the killer. He pities both and feels the joy of being neither. He steps into the skins of both victim and monster, and knows as he does so that he is neither the harmed nor the harm itself.

These are the pleasures Poe offers us. The aim of literature, he believed, should be to inspire emotion without the intervention of thought. The superiority of art lay in its appeal not to the head but to the heart. His stories are almost not stories at all, in the sense that he is not much interested in narrative or plot. Logical resolutions are incidental to him, and his characters are ciphers. What matters to him is that the reader feels. It is feeling he works towards, and he goes about that work as methodically as a photographer in a darkroom.

The three stories in this new edition are not typical of Poe’s corpus - poet and philosopher, essayist and critic, inventor of the detective series and master of the macabre, Poe is so many writers in one that he is always atypical – but they are all inimitably, unmistakeably his own. They affect us through mood and atmosphere. They do not simply rely on effect, because that is to suggest that effects are incidental to some other purpose. For Poe, effect is everything. “I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect,” he once wrote. “If [the author’s] very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.”

His method is visual. He does not tell, as the storyteller tells, but shows, as the painter shows. He dwells on description. The melancholy English landscape in William Wilson, the visceral heap of treasure in The Gold Bug and the “Hideous conformation” of the monster in The Sphinx are given space that a modern writer would hesitate to allow; but it is through these visual descriptions that Poe achieves his ends. He provokes emotion through the power of vision. His influence on modern literature is profound and wide-ranging, but the contemporary medium which adheres most faithfully to his philosophy is visual. In cinema, the SFX of Hollywood and Bollywood echo the visual evocations of Poe. It is the works of Tarentino and Ridley Scott (in which character and plot are subordinate to emotion) and not of Atwood or Roth (in which character and plot are paramount) which owe most to Poe – though he would have had little time for the thrills-and-spills blockbuster, critical as he was of “Startling effects unfounded in nature”, of random effects which induce “Trains of reflection which lead to no satisfactory result”; for “Without unity of impression, the deepest effects cannot be brought about.”

He is also a witty writer, though his humour is morbid and deadpan and easily missed. The Gold Bug seeks to provoke unease and avarice, but it is also intentionally ridiculous, featuring as it does legendary pirates, buried treasure, invisible inks, secret codes, bugs, bones, murder and skulls, and a black slave thrown in for comic relief who will bring tears to the eyes of the modern reader, though perhaps not in quite the way Poe intended. It is a murder mystery, a detective story, a Grotesque and an Arabesque all rolled into one, a piece of unsimulated craziness that is refreshing in an age of simulation, and its central motif – a golden beetle which infects the characters with avidity – is a potent symbol of the desires it precipitates.

The Sphinx is one of Poe’s later stories, written in New York two years before his death. Like The Gold Bug it is a story of obsession, and like the earlier piece it is written to raise a smile; but it evokes a greater variety of emotion, not only laughter and melancholy, but horror, shock and disbelief. By contrast the darkness of William Wilson is unmitigated, the grostesque singularity of the protagonist leaving no room for anything but the macabre, “The substances and shadows of terror” which Poe uses so often and to such good effect.

The essayist Richard Holmes is an afficionado of the macabre, and in particular of the ghost stories of MR James. I once heard him describe an experiment of his own devising, a test by which a reader might quickly discover the potency of James. To undertake the MR James Reading Test, Holmes said, “You have to read one of these stories alone. You must read it at night in your bedroom. You must be sitting in a chair with your back to a wardrobe, and the door of the wardrobe must be partly open. And the test is, can you read to the end of the story without turning round to check?”

The Edgar Allan Poe Reading Test would be a different procedure. I suggest the following. Go down to the cellar on a hot summer’s day. Lock the door. Open the book.

The test is to feel nothing. Can you read Poe and not be moved by him? You know you want to. You know he wants you to. If you can lose yourself, if you can step into the skins of his victims and monsters, then you will feel everything he wants you to feel – the melancholy and misery, the joy and joylessness, the humour and the horror and the beauty.

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