On Poe

A collection dedicated to one of the paramount innovators in American literature, Edgar Allan Poe. These three works sample across Poe’s incredible breadth or poetry, suspense, detective thriller, and science fiction.

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Letter from our editor

The Many Caverns of the Mind

Brian Chappell – Editor, Mouse Book Club

I have a memory of one of my earliest encounters with what we call “literature.” I was not ten years old. My father sat me down one night before bed – I remember it was in our living room, an odd choice, as it was a space we only really entered during Christmas or when we had guests. That night he read me “The Cask of Amontillado” in one sitting. What do I remember of this moment? First of course is the strange difficulty of the language. My reading life had begun, but I had not encountered such a way of narrating and speaking. I imagine you can recall an early experience of reading, where so much of what is on the page is an impenetrable mystery, even though some core elements, some mental images and sense memories, get through, and remain. 

For me and “The Cask of Amontillado,” it was an introduction to empathy. I am a nervous, worrying person in general; it was not difficult to imagine being walled up alive, and I often imagine horrible things happening to me or to someone I love. The imagination does what it does. But the empathy goes in the other direction too. The narrator of the story after all is the one laying the stones and mortar. Why does he do it? How could someone be that angry for that long? What pleasure (and latent self-torment) exists in exacting this kind of revenge? And then, why tell a story about the whole affair, in this fashion? Fortunato’s slight against Montresor must have been severe. Or, really, we must be aware of the raw power that shame has over our thoughts and actions. 

How many of these insights did I have as a child, then? Not many, I imagine, at least not many “thoughts,” per se, but intuitions, felt-senses, spaces in my mind which language is inadequate to fully unfold. I had not re-read “The Cask of Amontillado” until now, but that dank cellar in Italy has remained with me all this time. 

I will not read “The Cask of Amontillado” to my young children. Why did my father choose it? Answering this question can shed some light on how we think of Poe today. You may have a general sense, based on personal experience or your schooling, of what Poe is about. Horror, suspense, madness, intoxication. Though these are heavy topics, in our culture we have, on the one hand, boiled them down to safe consumption items on Halloween (during which time Poe’s name is often invoked; I am guilty of reading a Poe story to my students on Halloween). On the other hand, our sense of fictional genres makes horror stories available to the young – they present easy conflicts and easy emotions, even if that emotion is terror. This is the conception, at least. In our cultural landscape, horror fiction and film (and, I will say more on this later, detective fiction and film) present death without grief, violence without trauma. We tend to lump Poe into this emotional zone of cheap catharsis, and consequently we read his works as progenitors of “genre.” 

Browse Wikipedia for Poe’s hard life lived hard. Knowing the extent of his losses helps us to read even his most indulgently violent stories. I teach “The Raven” every year. It is a poem about mystery, and the mystery is grief. The speaker implores the raven to speak to him of Lenore’s afterlife, and whether he will reunite with his lost love. The raven has only one reply to all his questions, and he will not abandon his vigil upon the bust of Pallas. So the poem concludes in despair:

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

            Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Mouse Book Club’s interview with Poe scholar Stephen Rachman sheds interesting light on the continued relevance of “The Raven” in twenty-first century life. I talk to my students about some of this, and of course about the rhythm of the verse, but at the ground level we must explore the nature of loss, which causes us to despair and, in our own ways, to hallucinate. Grief makes us crazy. Returning young people to this honest sense of loss is important, as they consume other narratives in which killing and dying are presented as currency for plot, evacuated of existential stakes. 

Poe transforms into art his sustained grief, a particular grief which over time becomes a worldview. But Rachman reminds us of Poe’s cerebral approach to his craft, his mindful precision with his intended effects. To encounter the extent of Poe’s design, try “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale” and “Philosophy of Composition,” the latter of which applies his rhetorical sense of literary art to his work on “The Raven.” His works present the interplay between the urgent expression of an inner vision and the calculated outward-facing manipulation of effects. 

This aspect of Poe’s work brings us back to the question of genre. A genre can be thought of as a template for managing effects and outcomes. This idea is as old as Aristotle, who argued that the purpose of tragedy was to elicit an emotional response, a catharsis of pity and terror. Today, genre occupies a status lower than “literature” because of this management of responses. When you go to the cinema, you make your choice based on the kind of emotional/neurological experience you want to have. You enter with your expectations, and your experience can be evaluated upon the extent to which the chosen film met those expectations. This is reading and film-viewing as consumption, where everything is easy. In genre narratives violence and death are consequently evacuated of their emotional, psychological, spiritual consequences. One does not hope to emerge from an encounter with a genre narrative more perplexed, anxious, upset. Rather, one hopes that one’s itch has been scratched in a comfortingly familiar way (again, even if that itch is to be terrified). 

As I have said, we regard Poe as an originator of genre in this way. There is a familiar narrative about his stories. His protagonists are disturbed, and they do disturbing things because that’s what disturbed people do. A word that my students lean on is “crazy.” The narrator of the “Tell-Tale Heart” is obviously “crazy.” This explains his mindset, behavior, and decisions. Case closed. 

But if we attend closely to Poe’s depiction of internal states, we can push beyond the familiar narratives about genre. Consider the selections for this series. We have briefly discussed “The Raven,” a tour de force of spiritual strife. Montresor is not “crazy” – he is possessed with shame and rage, driven paradoxically to commit a premeditated crime of passion. We are invited to imagine what could have pushed him over the edge. The narrator of “Ligeia” is not merely a junkie; substance abuse in Poe is a consequence of one’s tenuous status on the border of reality and fantasy, not the other way around. 

And what about “The Murders at the Rue Morgue,” regarded as perhaps the original detective story? We see a familiar pattern in play: a singular male genius is able to solve a seemingly insoluble mystery because of his superior powers of intellect and imagination, and despite the fools surrounding him. In this story the brutal killings of two women attract Dupin only because the circumstances surrounding the killings are interesting to him. No one in the story expresses horror or grief over the real loss of these people in such a way. How could the audience of the times have enjoyed this story? It is drama-less, consisting almost entirely of Dupin proclaiming his uncannily correct solutions in long expository paragraphs. Explanations for this story’s appeal emerge when we consider, as does Rachman, the rise of machination and rationalization in urban centers at the time of the story’s publication. This moment in history is ripe for the detective genre. Dupin is a rationalist par excellence, and Poe spends the first part of the story expounding on the type of mind required to solve the types of mysteries in question. 

This is what is noteworthy to me about the story, knowing what (little) I know about Poe. Before anything else he emphasizes an internal disposition, an ideal confluence of analysis and imagination, with a touch of bohemian night-crawling. A we believe that narrators are reflections of their creators, then we encounter the breadth of Poe’s mind, at times capacious and curious, at others observant and analytical, and at others of course disturbed, possessed, grief-stricken. Poe’s body of work showcases attempts to approximate the many caverns of the mind. When we think more deeply about Poe’s depictions of the mind at work, “crazy” doesn’t cut it, and genres can’t hold him.