American Horror Stories

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165 Halloweens on, we still call on Edgar Allan Poe when we want a disturbing kind of classic — all of the horror with none of the guilt. His most famous stories are taught and read and all but buried alive in the back of middle-school textbooks. But do we know what to do with Poe and his legacy as the poor, bitter, misfit genius of American letters? Boston (his unhappy birthplace) has finally commissioned a brilliant, virtually “walking” sidewalk statue of Poe by Stefanie Rocknak, cast by New England Sculpture Service in Chelsea. Are we on the way yet to the right respect?

From the beginning, Emerson called Poe the “jingle-man.” Aldous Huxley said his singsong poems reminded him of a man wearing a diamond ring on every finger. And Harold Bloom made no bones about it: he’s a third-rate poet and a second-rate storyteller.

Then again, everyone from Walter Benjamin to Joyce Carol Oates adores Poe and his writing. And in a short prolific career, starting in 1833, Poe gave us a lot of what we call “modern” literature — and not just the detective story and ‘speculative’ genres. He modeled a certain dark, ironic, experimental sensibility in time to inspire Baudelaire and John Barth. So we’re looking to place the man and his tales “of the grotesque and arabesque.”

What’s your favorite Poe story, poem, or essay? What do you make of the man? Write a comment, or click the microphone to leave us a voice message.  For starters, watch this moody James Mason rendering of “The Telltale Heart”, Poe’s most famous story, which we played during the show. But know: that’s just the beginning!

Lots of Poe stories and poems were mentioned on our show. Among them are the classics, and then there’s “Hop-Frog”. It’s a late story in which a dwarf from a foreign land takes revenge on a king’s court: he dresses them as orangutans for a party, and then, to quote Wikipedia, “murders them all by setting their costumes on fire.” Classic Poe! You can read all of those here:

A Quaint and Curious Consignment Shop

Pat-Bartevian

For a report from the magical Bartevian’s shop — the commercial home for Edgar Allan Poe in Boston, and maybe anywhere — check out the work from our producers Max Larkin and Rebecca Panovka on Medium.

Nick Mamatas: Poe the Master

We also spoke to the very generous, intellectual horror writer Nick Mamatas for our Poe show. Mamatas — a lover of Providence’s H.P. Lovecraft, Poe 2.0 — rates Poe as the greatest writer in the American canon. It’s an amazing proposition, but Mamatas is convincing. Hear his case, and make up your own mind on the matter.

Five Poe Stories Off the Beaten Track

Poe wrote dozens of stories in his life, and lots of those seem to go unread these days. (We didn’t get to some of them, either!) In time for Halloween, here are a few deep cuts from the man’s enormous corpus. The skull rating shows capacity to disturb, out of a possible three. Twists are included — avoid them if you want to read the stories afresh.

Berenice ☠☠☠

Harry Clarke, 1916, illustration for 'Berenice' for "Tales of Mystery and Imagination"
Published: Southern Literary Messenger (March 1835)

The ‘tale’: A young aristocrat, Egaeus, and his beautiful cousin Berenice are sick. He is tortured by ‘monomanic’ obsessions with with minute details; she has deep epilepsy, and her seizures sometimes turn into trances. They become betrothed, she appears before him in a trance, and he develops an obsession with her teeth. Soon thereafter, Berenice dies and is buried.

Opening line: “Misery is manifold.”

Eeriest line: “The livid lips were wreathed into a species of smile, and, through the enveloping gloom, once again there glared upon me in too palpable reality, the white and glistening, and ghastly teeth of Berenice” (This one was cut in a censored edition.)

The twist: Berenice rises from a deathlike trance two days later, disfigured. Egaeus becomes conscious after hearing the news and realizes that he has a spade in his room, and a box containing surgical equipment and all 32 of her teeth.

Why you should read it:
1. It was shocking to contemporary readership; Poe responded by apologizing to his editor, saying “that it approaches the very verge of badtaste — but I will not sin quite so egregiously again.” It’s a good test of scruples.

2. Egaeus is seen as one of Poe’s most convincingly insane narrators. Philip Roderick sees Egaeus’s teeth fixation as proof of necrophilia, while another article says the story anticipates the clinical definition of schizophrenia.

3. But Egaeus also seems like a view of the intellectual man, and his bizarre fascination and his mental illness seem like an inspired attack on pure reason.
 
Non-Halloween occasions for reading: Engagement parties; after deep reveries.
 
 

The Imp of the Perverse ☠☠

Published: Graham’s Magazine, July 1845
Fritz Eichenberg, 1944. "The Imp of the Perverse".

The ‘tale’: A man holds forth, in a philosophical, on the human tendency to do things because they are boring, irritating, or self-destructive.

Opening line: In the consideration of the faculties and impulses – of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment, has been equally overlooked by all the moralists who have preceded them.”

Obscurest phrase: “And so with combativeness, with ideality, with causality, with constructiveness, — so, in short, with every organ, whether representing a propensity, a moral sentiment, or a faculty of the pure intellect. And in these arrangements of the Principia of human action, the Spurzheimites, whether right or wrong, in part, or upon the whole, have but followed, in principle, the footsteps of their predecessors: deducing and establishing every thing from the preconceived destiny of man, and upon the ground of the objects of his Creator.”

Eeriest line: “But why shall I say more? To-day I wear these chains, and am here! To-morrow I shall be fetterless! — but where?”

The twist: The man knows “the Imp of the Perverse” well. He has just confessed spontaneously to committing the perfect murder of an old man. He has been sentenced to death.

Why you should read it?
1. It’s a deep as Kierkegaard, who wrote a year earlier in The Concept of Anxiety of the twinned fears one feels standing on top of a bridge: the fear of falling, and the fear of jumping in spite of yourself.

2. It explains the psychological architecture of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and may shed light on how Poe felt about his own tendency to get drunk or say the wrong thing at critical junctures throughout his life.

Non-Halloween occasions for reading: Atop bridges or tall buildings; in prison.
 

The Domain of Arnheim

Published: First as “The Landscape-Garden” in the Ladies’ Companion (1842), then in Columbian Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, March 1847
Arnheim

The ‘tale’: An aspiring poet named Ellison who has inherited a great deal of money: 450 million dollars. All of a sudden he has unlimited creative freedom to create a poem in which he will lose himself. His poem, he decides, will be an otherworldly landscape garden, something angelic or elvish. The narrator visits the garden.

Opening line: “From his cradle to his grave a gale of prosperity bore my friend Ellison along.”

Obscurest, often non-English phrase: “The negative merit suggested appertains to that hobbling criticism which, in letters, would elevate Addison into apotheosis.” 

The twist: The garden is very weird!

Why you should read it:

1. It was Poe’s favorite of his own stories; he said: “‘The Domain of Arnheim’ expresses much of my soul”.
 
2. Filmmaker Errol Morris likes it, and so did the painter René Magritte.
 
3. It’s not as scary as the others  — you could consider it the Poe story that comes closest to religion, or philosophy of art. It could speak to the power of art to transform the world into something really different and better. Or it might promise some kind of relief to the dead, and the dying Virginia Clemm. But it might possibly — in the Morris reading — also present an irregular version of Hell, a meretricious paradise.

4. Since few people read it or write about it, you get to decide what it means!

Non-Halloween occasions for reading: When you are going to sleep, Earth Day, anytime (for landscape gardeners).
 
 

The Man of the Crowd

Published: Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (December 1840)

MotC
 
The ‘tale’: There is almost no tale to speak of here. A man watches a crowd pass by in London from a café. He see a drunken tramp, and is moved to follow him all night around the city streets at night, through slums and around gin joints, until the tramp returns to the café.

Opening line: “It was well said of a certain German book that er lasst sich nicht — it does not permit itself to be read.”

Obscurest, often non-English phrase: αχλυς ος πριν επηεν,” meaning “the mist that was upon them.”

The twist: No twist.

Why you should read the story: 

1. It’s a moment of evolution. It’s thought of as the Poe story that stretches the horror stories in the direction of the detective stories written later. It’s about a bizarre, grotesque social world, and it explains why poets like Baudelaire would have been so moved by Poe’s sensibility. The philosopher Walter Benjamin reminds us that this story reads “something like an X-ray of a detective story. It does away with all the drapery that a crime represents. Only the armature remains: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who manages to walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd.”

2. Intellectual credibility. The story also inspired Benjamin’s reading of the modern city in his essay, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”. Benjamin described this story as a guide to the urban type of the flaneur, a city stroller, and “above all, someone who does not feel comfortable in his own company.”

3. You get a good sense of how Poe’s narrators would have looked at city streets full of people.

Non-Halloween occasions for reading: On the train, bus, or light rail.

Guest List
Paul Lewis
professor of American literature at Boston College, a long-time scholar of Poe's dark humor and his connections to the city of Boston, and one of the people who led the effort to install Boston's statue of Poe.
Matthew Pearl
award-winning author of The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, a novel exploring Poe's mysterious death, and most recently, The Technologists
Christina Bevilacqua
writer, Poe fan, and director of programs at the Providence Athenaeum

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