Review: Tales of Mystery and Imagination

(Via 'The Realm of the Unreal')

Edgar Allan Poe is the savior of Gothic literature: not only is he largely responsible for salvaging the Gothic imagination from a deeply stagnant mire of clichéd melodrama, over-rehearsed motifs, and unreservedly bad writing, he is also the father of two genres that, in essence, did not exist before he put pen to paper: the detective story (chiefly) and what we refer to today as the ‘psychological’ horror story. His use of Gothic devices, though, ensured that the mode did not entirely disassemble: rather, it took on new shapes and meanings—new colors: without Poe, there would be no Bierce and no Lovecraft, no Turn of the Screw or Picture of Dorian Gray; it can even be argued that, without Poe, there would be no Melville or Conrad—no Heart of Darkness, no Moby-Dick. Our literary debt to this single, sui generis figure is so significant that, a century and a half after his death, he remains one of the most widely-read and influential of all American authors, both here and abroad—particularly in France, where he was the immediate muse of Baudelaire, and, by extension, the Decadent movement. This is no small feat for a man whose common leitmotifs include premature burial, decomposition, disassociation, anomie, mourning, insanity, and a general repudiation of the more common Romantic applications of allegory and moral. Much of his reputation in his own day relied as much upon his poetry, numerous satires, humor pieces, and scathing critical reviews as upon his ‘tales of the grotesque and arabesque,’ but I will limit this review to the latter.

Among the varied output of of a highly variable man,'The Masque of the Red Death' makes an especially compelling case for a unique philosophy in art. A formative influence upon the Symbolist movement, the familiar comeuppance of ‘happy and dauntless and sagacious’ Prince Prospero at the hands of a ghastly plague he has sought to avoid through reclusion can be viewed as a sort of Á Rebours in miniature. Those seeking an allegory or final moral in this profoundly symbolic piece will find none: it is a fable, but it owes very little to Aesop. In common with Poe’s other out-right horror-work (‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ and the remarkably gruesome ‘Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’), ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is more an examination of the limits of the psyche: and these limits, in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ are examined, chiefly, through a reader’s inability to refrain from attaching any ultimate ‘meaning’ to the story presented. To this end, Poe demonstrates what is, perhaps, the totality of his vision: that ambiguity itself can become a theme in literature, particularly when this ambiguity mirrors its own content (as in ‘The Assignation,’ ‘Silence,’ ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ or the mingled horror/humor of ‘King Pest,’ which Poe claims contains an ‘allegory,’ but which, of course, contains none at all). For Poe, symbolism can exist outside of allegory—this was what Baudelaire and the Decadents responded to most intensely: a scent can have a color, a sound a feeling. Poe invented this system of correspondences, even as he distanced himself from the idea of ‘correspondence.’

At the other end of the spectrum, Poe’s detective stories—he deemed them tales of ‘ratiocination’—remain among his most immediately influential: without Poe, as in so many other cases, there would be no Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Mystery of the Yellow Room. Poe mapped the modes of this method of storytelling through the introduction of his ingenious C. Auguste Dupin, who unravels the mysteries of the widely-read ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ alongside its sequel, ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget,’ and ‘The Purloined Letter.’ Poe tried his hand at similarly ordered tales of mystery unraveled, as in ‘The Gold Bug,’ but it was to be his construction of a central detective character—now a stock type, near-universally possessed of a justified arrogance, clarity of vision, and uncanny fastidiousness—that would have, arguably, the greatest impact of all Poe’s literary inventions.

Poe was famously haunted by recurring themes of grief, beauty, and decay, and his characters, particularly those mourning dead lovers, can often be viewed as surrogates for Poe himself—whether intentional or unintentional—and this idea of self-insertion would be a further influence upon Decadent literature, from Baudelaire to Mallarmé, Wilde, Huysmans and beyond. There is little predictability to this set of motifs, however, as Poe's characters, so often taken to particularly poisoned states of mourning, behave in dramatically different ways: the only dubiously-bereaved narrator of ‘Morella,’ with his near-hatred for the object of his affections, stands in striking contrast to that of ‘Ligeia,’ whose intensely unhinged state (as much a product of opium as of sorrow) is responsible for an ending that can be viewed as either dream or reality, depending upon a reader’s interpretation. In further contrast is the narrator of the horrifying ‘Berenice,’ whose obsession eventually centers upon one, solely physical, feature of his cataleptic lover, with gruesome results. Catalepsy is a recurring motif in Poe’s work, particularly within this variety of story, but premature burial itself was less a particular obsession of Poe’s than a general, widespread paranoia of Victorian audiences as a whole. Poe helped to crystallize the idea, however, and our notion of premature burial is, today, less informed by actual incident than by the trappings of Poe’s fictions: chiefly, this is due to the fevered detail of ‘The Premature Burial,’ but the motif is also present in ‘Berenice,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ and others.

Remarks on Poe’s poetry, essays, and only novel (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) will demand further entries in this journal. By way of conclusion, some personal reflection: Edgar Allan Poe was the first author I discovered as a child: a collection titled The Poe Reader was both my first exposure to his work and the first adult book I ever owned, purchased at the tender age of nine. My immediate obsessions centered on ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and his enchanting poem ‘Ulalume,’ leading to further examinations as I grew older, in turn revealing both more famous pieces and some strange odds-and-ends, like his treatise on interior design, ‘The Philosophy of Furniture.’ Further exploration yielded the gorgeous, otherworldly pen-and-ink drawings of Harry Clarke (several of which are scattered throughout this review) and from there the astonishing breadth of Poe's influence on disciplines as diverse as literature, painting, cinema, music, and fashion.

Perhaps more than any other influence, Poe has impacted my thought processes, particular obsessions, and even the direction of my life: for without Poe, it seems, I would not write; his work emphasized that by responding to our visions, as opposed to merely describing them, the products of an artist's toils become more palpable—more real and more affectingly beautiful. And it is through this message that Poe, the perfect alchemist of American letters, remains one of the chief ambassadors of our literature—a poet and storyteller for all times and all places, forever.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gorgeous; your writings are luminous with passionate insight. -J.W.

January 19, 2016 at 6:20 PM  

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