The Gothic Life of Edgar Allan Poe

Extract from my Halloween Blog for Wordsworth Editions

Desperate for money, Poe accepted another assistant editorship at Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in Philadelphia (who had given Pym a rotten review), again for $10 a week. Disheartened by his novel’s reception and aware that his theories of art did not lend themselves to long narratives, Poe returned to short fiction. His next book was the iconic Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, published in two volumes by Lea & Blanchard of Philadelphia in 1840, who were eager to capitalise on the success of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (published in Burton’s the previous year). Poe was not offered royalties, his only payment being 20 free copies of the book. Both volumes collectively comprise 25 stories, including such famous and beloved tales as ‘William Wilson’, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘Berenice’, ‘Ligeia’, and the wonderful satire on the British Regency Tale of Terror, ‘The Psyche Zenobia’ (AKA ‘How to Write a Blackwood’s Article’) and its companion ‘The Scythe of Time’ (later retitled ‘A Predicament’) which moves from the theory to the practice, as the hapless wannabe author ‘Miss Psyche Zenobia’ (in reality one Suky Snobbs) attempts to record her ‘sensations’ – as advised by publisher William Blackwood – while being slowly decapitated by the hands of a giant clock. (‘Sensations are the great things after all. Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure to make a note of your sensations – they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet.’) Poe would later incorporate and develop features from this genre in his own tales. The influence of William Maginn’s ‘The Man in the Bell’ (1821) and William Mudford’s ‘The Iron Shroud’ (1830), for example, can clearly be seen in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. The collection also contains an author’s preface in which Poe famously counters the common criticism that his work was of the ‘German’ school, that is outdated and rather vulgar gothic romance: ‘If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis,’ he wrote, ‘I maintain that terror is not of Germany but of the soul.’ This is in many ways the first manifesto of his art.

It has been suggested that by ‘Grotesque’ Poe meant ‘horror’ much as we use the term today to define the genre, that is a story with a focus on gory physical violence, whereas ‘Arabesque’ refers to much more metaphysical and psychological states of terror. Poe was certainly drawn to the gothic aesthetically, but he also knew that it sold. There is also certainly the influence of the eighteenth century gothic romance in his fiction, the powerful evocations of gloom, decay and extravagance, as well as the surgical shock of the Regency Tales of Terror, but there are also recurring themes of isolation and destructive self-revelation, which place him more in the American gothic tradition, particularly the work of Charles Brockden Brown and Nathaniel Hawthorne. There is further an ambivalence of meaning that drives the external threat of the notionally supernatural to something much more psychological. For Poe’s heroes, terror invariably comes from within, with the true horror being the loss of self through pushing an imaginative quest, often for Beauty, sometimes revenge, so far past the conventional boundaries of human consciousness – into the ‘elevating excitement of the Soul’ – that it becomes indistinguishable from madness.

All of Poe’s most memorable characters withdraw from the world into heavily draped, candlelit rooms in which they cultivate their inner life to the point they lose touch with reality completely, developing, like Roderick Usher, a ‘morbid acuteness of the senses’ and almost mystical perception. When Hawthorne’s characters became so isolated, they lost their souls; Poe’s lost their minds, or their lives, or both. In ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, for example, Prince Prospero and his court take refuge from a plague in the exotic chambers of a battlemented abbey, where they cultivate Beauty in its most elaborate and artificial forms in an increasingly wild Bacchanal that makes the arrival of the fatal virus inevitable. This concept is perhaps most perfectly realised in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, in which Usher’s synaesthesia allows him the Platonic perception of Beauty in its ideal form, but makes the ordinary trappings of real life unbearable:

…the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odours of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.

There is a hint of incest, of inbreeding, as the family line, the ‘house’ comes to its end in Usher, tormented by a recessive gene, a ‘family evil’. But whether his acute sensitivity is a product of a diseased mind, or his growing insanity is the result of this extreme cultivation of the senses is not the point. Rather, these two states merge into a single image of terror in the gothic epiphany of Usher’s poem ‘The Haunted Palace’, which ends: ‘A hideous throng rush out forever/And laugh – but smile no more.’ The ‘Palace’ is Usher’s own mind, of course, and the attempt to find an ideal state of perception ends only in madness and despair, in that insane, mirthless laugh that closes the poem and is then heard in reality when Madeline Usher breaks out of her tomb and attacks her brother as the house collapses around them, just as Usher’s imagination has reached its own fatal climax. As in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Oval Portrait’, it is as if art and beauty suck the life out of the seeker, the experience Thanatic and destructive rather than erotic and creative, which was certainly Poe’s experience of laying down his life for literature. In other stories, such as ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, ‘Berenice’, and ‘The Tell-tale Heart’, the disconnect comes in the rational voice of the murderer. The more meticulously they plan, the more ‘scientific’ their method, the more crazy they become, while always that which appears supernatural, like the haunting of her husband by ‘Ligeia’, are merely reflections of an imagination in decay, whether through grief and loss, passion, or opium addiction, often in a luxurious and languid decline which comes to a sudden stop in a shocking and fatal conclusion.

Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was a critical success but not a financial one, and when Poe proposed a second edition including eight new tales to his publishers in 1841, they turned him down…

To read the full article please click here

For details of the Wordsworth edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination please click here

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