I decided, after reading and loving Silas Marner, to stick both with the first half of the 19th century AND with major writers whose work I’ve never bothered to read. Yes, that’s right reader[s], I had never read Edgar Allan Poe until this week. Of course, there is something of the bullshit to that because I definitely recognised the plots and sentences of several of these stories, and as I am 30 years old and possess two English literature degrees (and a dog, little else) I have obviously been given some of these stories to read in a lecture hall somewhere at some point. I also read the first story in this collection over a decade ago. In this volume, when I was but a floppy-haired undergraduate.
I bought this lovely acid green Penguin Popular Classics edition of Poe’s Selected Tales when I was studying Gothic fiction. I tried one, didn’t like it, and relegated the text to the bottom of pile after pile. It travelled with me from Wales to London, from London to Barcelona, from Barcelona to the freight department of Birmingham airport and now, across the deep ocean, to the New World, from whence it began. Obviously, I’m in Canada rather than Poe’s pre-Civil War USA, but it’s the right continent, innit, so it seemed appropes.
Overall, this selection of stories is, according to Wikipedia (add link) a pretty thorough summary of Poe’s fiction. In here are big beasts like ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, but there are also his “detective stories” about amateur Parisian sleuth Monsieur Dupin, including the oddly-familiar one about a mysterious possibly supernatural murderer who turns out to be a normal, escaped, orangutan. Though, realistically, not even an enraged orangutan could ACTUALLY stuff a dead body feet first up a chimney. High ho.
There are some fun adventure stories about swash-buckling and the like, there’s a story about the discovery of the philosopher’s stone and there’s a great one about a selfish prince who tries – and fails – to party his way unscathed through a deadly epidemic. Are there lots of short stories here that justify Poe’s reputation as a significant and imaginative writer: yes. But there’s also a lot of crap.
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, for example, is dry as fuck, and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ gives away its fucking ending with its title. ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is a great piece about psycho-physico torture committed by the Spanish inquisition, though is diminished by a deus ex machina ending. There’s some casual racism (Though perhaps less than there could have been given the time of writing), I.e. people of colour don’t appear much and when they do their speech and behaviour is relentlessly mocked by both the narrator and the characters of the stories. There’s also a LOT of people being bricked up dead or dying in the walls of houses, and the more derivative, earlier, stories are the kind of uninteresting juvenilia that a more caring (and less anonymous!) editor would have cut out. There’s a lot of pretentiousness, almost certainly as a result of Poe’s intellectual insecurities, having not managed to finish a degree.
In fact, almost the most exciting text in the book is the two page biography of Poe that is included at the start. Poe’s life seemed mad, but he also married a thirteen year old when he was in his twenties, which – if we’re judging the past by the standards of today, as I advocate in the Metro this week that we should – then Poe’s writing shouldn’t really be read as a result. Should I have boycotted this book in the way that everyone seems to be boycotting Michael Jackson and R Kelly atm? (March 2019, for any readers in the future (or past!?!?!)) Maybe I should have been, or maybe two hundred years, rather than fifty, is long enough to acknowledge societal change? I doubt it, tbh. Poe was probably a bit of a prick. Certainly he was pretentious, which – as I can too well attest- is often a clue.
So, yes, the stories that are good here are interesting and exciting, but a lot of the Gothicy stuff is nothing special, and not even literarily significant, which at least the dull crimey detectivey ones are.
Is Poe’s writing good enough and powerful enough to justify ignoring his paedophilic marriage in the 1830s (check decade)? No, probably not. I feel confident and comfortable to announce that there is no need to read Poe: I shouldn’t have done, you shouldn’t. Let’s consider him cancelled. Throw your copy of ‘The Raven’ in the same place you’ve put all those Bowie albums.
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first (and so far only) book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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