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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  • I’m glad that you mention Emerson’s jingle-man censure and Bloom’s emphatic, general disapproval of Poe; NOT because I enjoy the disparaging of famous names but because I hold creative writing (and creative READING) to be one of the highest callings for humans; and I myself almost abandoned that pursuit on account of being taught that Poe is an exemplar.

    I find it accurate and helpful when Bloom calls Poe “a tribute to the power of myth” – there is no denying his popularity, especially among great foreign writers. You mention Baudelaire: that’s a perfect example of a man who was influenced by Poe from afar and yet who surpasses Poe in the realm of imagination – it would have saved me a lot of floundering if my schoolteachers had taught me Baudelaire instead of Poe.

    I hope that this does not sound bitter; I only wish to point out that it is best if we spend our limited time alive contemplating the greatest compositions from the greatest writers: and there are much better writers than Poe.

    The very short Bloom quote that I gave above is from ‘The Best Poems of the English Language’ – I want to share a couple more quotes from the same source. (Again, I do this not to engage in Poe-bashing but because I found these ideas helpful in my own development.) Bloom says:

    “Almost anyone can retell ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ more effectively than Poe does, because Poe’s diction is uniquely abominable.”

    And, after quoting from Poe’s “astonishingly dreadful” poem ‘Ulalume’, Bloom says:

    “…if we were in Edward Lear’s ‘Book of Nonsense,’ we might assimilate all this to the great Gromboolian plain, where we listen to the laments of the Dong with a Luminous Nose.”

    These criticisms don’t just give me the cheap thrill of watching a knockout in a fistfight – they help me to comprehend the world of creative literature more fully, by reminding me that diction is an inseparable part of imaginative writing, and also that certain types of repetition or ‘jingle making’ can work well in one context and poorly in another.

    Now I imagine a heckler taking me to task with a quote from Samuel Johnson, “the ignorant always imagine themselves giving some proof of delicacy, when they refuse to be pleased”; then I imagine being asked this wise question: “Attacking Poe is easy, but can you name a superior replacement?” – In addition to Baudelaire’s ‘Flowers of Evil’, one of many answers could be the books of Charles Dickens.

    If I mention the excellent critic-as-artist again, I fear that I’ll appear as a Bloomolator – all right, I AM a Bloomolator; so here’s another quote – this one’s from ‘The Western Canon’, and I mention it to offset the anti-Poe negativity with a positive note about a passage from ‘Bleak House’. Bloom says:

    “…Dickens’s imagery is uncannily profound, accurate, suggestive. There is an occult rightness to his boldest imaginings. The same doubtless could be said of Edgar Allan Poe, who sometimes seems a ghostly presence in ‘Bleak House’; but Poe’s phantasmagoria rarely found language adequate to its intensities. Dickens’s diction and metaphors are a seemingly inevitable match for his inventiveness, and the canonical strangeness of ‘Bleak House’ thereby triumphs.”

    Another great Poe-substitute, if we’re looking for a text to celebrate the present season, is Goethe’s ‘Faust’ – especially Part 2’s Walpurgisnight zaniness.

    I hope that this comment did not ruin anybody’s Halloween.

  • Potter

    My 100 year old mother, can no longer read, and has some dementia so I am reading to her. Her first request was Poe’s “The Raven” which she remembers from way way back. I have read it to her twice and she has found meaning and comfort ( I would say) in the “jingle” of it…goes around reciting what she remembers. We have talked about it’s meaning. I love birds; ravens are wonderful creatures, so this caught my imagination. That said, I listen to and read Bloom and read Emerson as well, but I am happy to have had to read this Poe poem for my mother. Then I came upon Edouard Manet’s illustrations of the poem for Stephen Mallarme’s translation; a total delight.

  • Kim Hancock

    I have a special appreciation for “A Descent into the Maelstrom” not only because I am of Norwegian descent but because Marshall McLuhan used this story as a metaphor for how we, in modern times, can deal with the sudden and unrelenting influx of new technologies. Like the man in the story, it is by keen observation of our environment that we keep our heads above water.

    • Melissa BarlowBowman

      “Maelstrom” was the word that knocked me into second place in the state spelling bee in the 6th grade. Unfortunately, at that time I had yet to read Poe.

    • Cambridge Forecast

      POE’S MAELSTROM IMAGE AND FRENCH LIT: THE CASE OF ANDRE MALRAUX

      Edgar Allan Poe’s influence on French culture was and is pervasive.

      Think of the great French writer, Andre Malraux (died in 1976), whose classic work “Man’s
      Fate” (1933) is a modern classic. You may remember Malraux from the events of
      Paris 1968. (he was De Gaulle’s culture minister.)

      In another novel, “Lazarus,” Malraux writes:

      “The phrase “to lose one’s foothold on life’ keeps running through my head’…

      “I remember an illustrated edition of Edgar Allan Poe in which there was a picture of a
      tiny boat caught in the irresistible funnel of the maelstrom.”

      “But I am not the boat.”

      Malraux’s novels argue that the Poe “descent into the maelstrom” is only half the story because human solidarity, art, courage, alone or together, break or brake the Poe-style “descent into the maelstrom.”

      (Andre Malraux, “Lazarus,” Grove Press paperback, 1978, pages 91-92)

      Wrestling with Poe, for or against, a la Malraux, is everywhere present in French literature.

      Richard Melson

  • christopherlydon

    Our friend the novelist and poet Alexander Theroux — a man of Poe’s dark and witty invention — sent us these lines that rhyme nicely, I submit, with Stefanie Rocknak’s bronze statue of Poe marching over the bricks of Poe Square:

    Edgar Allen Poe and Bricks

    What is it with E.A. Poe and bricks

    in the stories he loved to contrive,

    simply one of his narrative tricks

    in killing cats, doubles, and wives,

    preparing of mortar and sand a fix

    just to gleefully immure them alive?

    We know that at an earlier time

    he worked — with little else clear –

    in a Richmond brickyard handling lime

    which might have engendered a fear

    of how enclosing walls can mime

    a grave, but what an awful idea!

    Thank you, Alex!

  • Potter

    What a wonderful show! You really did Poe justice! Interesting that you link Chekhov here because I was thinking of the way Chekhov presented, similarly. As well I thought of Dostoyevsky in “Crime and Punishment” and even Les Miserables for a bit as I was reading the “Murders on the Rue Morgue” which (deposited me safely back home.)

    I feel compelled to mention here that Galway Kinnell a wonderful poet, just passed away. He said ” I came to love poetry when I discovered the poems of Edgar Allen Poe in particular. The accent of my hometown [Providence, Rhode Island] is rather unpoetical. It is a very charming and lovable accent, but not very musical. To discover that this language could sing like that–‘It was many a year ago in the kingdom by the sea…’– thrilled me”

  • Joan

    I have loved Poe since childhood. I am very lucky to have lived near Baltimore Md so I could visit his home and final resting place. My father being an English and Drama Teacher exposed me to readings of Poes work. My absolute favorite has always been James Mason’s exquisite take on the Tell Tale Heart which I started listening to as a very young child in the 1970’s. It is so wonderful to see him celebrated so much now.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    POE’S MULTIFORM GENIUS:
    AMENDING PAUL VALERY’S ACCOUNT OF IT

    The ROS show on Poe was outstanding both on the discussion side as well as the research side shown on the screen.

    Walter Benjamin, whose name is mentioned in the ROS capsules (see:ROS “Man of the Crowd” synopsis above”) of the Poe stories, the Frankfurt School critical theorist, in his magnum opus, “Arcades Project”, mentions (the famous French poet, Paul Valery’s evaluation of) Poe’s fecundity as a writer:

    “Valery on Poe.”

    “He underlines the American writer’s incomparable insight into the conditions and effects of literary work in general. “What distinguished a truly general phenomenon is its fertility…It
    is therefore not surprising that Poe, possessing so effective and sure a
    method, became the inventor of several different literary forms—that he
    provided the first…examples of the scientific tale, the modern cosmogonic poem,
    the detective novel, the literature of morbid psychological states.”

    Valery, in Baudelaire, “Les Fleurs du Mal” (Paris, 1926) page xx.

    From “The Arcades Project,” Walter Benjamin, 1999, Belknap Press, Harvard)

    I would amend the Valery list of the creative Poe genres above:

    Look at the last chapter 25 of Poe “narrative of J. Gordon Pym” and you will see a constant use and re-use of the word “white” in the very last paragraphs, such as:

    “March 22d.-The darkness had materially increased, relieved only
    by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many
    gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil,
    and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our
    vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him
    we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the
    cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our
    pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any
    dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.” (see the ROS links to this Poe novel)

    Melville (who was very influenced by Poe) calls a key chapter of “Moby Dick,” “The Whiteness of the Whale” arguing that the whiteness is not a signal but a symbol” of randomness and hence not pin-down able.

    I would also add to the Valery list the metaphysical novel by which I mean the attempt to penetrate to the final understanding of some final layer of reality, the mind of God, ultimateness.
    (ie Ahab-esque quest to “pierce the pasteboard masks of reality” and get to and
    uncover some malignant force underneath it all, which is itself Poe-like.) Notice the very apt ROS side comment “Invisible thgings are the only realities” to get a sense of Poe’s metaphyical intuitions.

    Lastly: If you see the 1964(?) movie, “Diary of a Madman” based on Maupassant stories, especially “The Horla”, one sees a very Poe-like “weird horror tale” admixture where the Vincent Price character is possessed by an evil genie or “horla” that takes over his mind and spirit.
    Maupassant, in Poe style, is not depicting something “medicalizable” as a
    nervous breakdown but a phenomenon that rather looks more like a metaphysical breakdown, in other words a person’s sense of “world-making” disintegrating. Tis is za world-self-identity collapse tale and not a need for Valium one.

    (About a year before this Maupassant-based Poe-type story, there was a Roger Corman movie version of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.”)

    Poe’s polymorphous genius is beyond doubt.

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast

    POE AND ADORNO:
    BEING “AT SEA” AND DESCENDING INTO THE MAELSTROM
    The first commentor in this ROS thread mentions the impact of Poe on McLuhan.

    In the same way that McLuhan wants to use Poe to elucidate modern media, Adorno the famous social critic (1903-1969) wants to do the same for modernity itself using Poe’s “sea tales” like “Descent into a Maelstrom” as a source of suggestive imagery. Being “at sea” or “lost at
    sea” in Poe’s telling is suggestive of the modern in Adorno’s understanding.
    Adorno writes:
    “In central passages of Poe and Baudelaire the central concept of newness emerges. In the former, in the description of the maelstrom and the shudder it introduces—equated with the
    “novel”—of which none of the traditional reports is said to give an adequate idea…
    The cult of the new, and thus the cult of modernity, is a rebellion against the fact that there is no longer anything new…in a world that has turned abstract, the industrial age.”
    (Adorno, “Minima Moralia”, Verso paperback, 235)
    “Poe’s allegory of the novel is that of the breathlessly spinning yet in a sense stationary movement of the helpless boat in the eye of the maelstrom”
    (“Minima Moralia, page 236)

    “…it is even possible that the horror savoured by Poe and Baudelaire, when realized by dictators, loses its quality as sensation, burns out.” (“Minima Moralia”, page 237)

    Adorno uses Poe’s short story imagery from Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom” (see ROS list of Poe story links) to try to get a grip on modernity, the industrial age, dictatorship and the new in contrast to the pseudo-new. The word “modernity” itself was coined by Poe’s admirer Baudelaire in his “Paris Spleen.”

    Poe’s “poetical radar” is being used and interpreted by Baudelaire, Adorno and many others. Poe’s futuristic radar in the story “Eureka” is very prescient scientifically and thus Poe is a central ‘radar station” for the whole epoch or era we share with him.

    Richard Melson

  • Pete Crangle

    Excellent conversation. Great for the holiday season. Love the conclusion with “The Simpsons” (one of my favorite episodes). Thank you Chris & guests.