The power of Poe

I have always liked Edgar Allan Poe, though I will freely admit that I have never really understood him as well as I would like.

Oh, I get the stories well enough. I know where they’re going. I can see the shadows they cast, the histories they reference, and even – on my better days – the jokes and knowing winks that he peppers throughout for observant readers to pick up. But I think, more than his now slightly wordy and archaic writing style, there’s a distance between Ed and I that can’t be crossed.

Well the feeling is mutual, bub.

And I’m kind of OK with that. He’s been a sort of uneasy hero of mine for many years, now, and though I have always tempered my thumbs-ups with an acknowledgement of the problems of having him as a role-model (less for the cousin-marrying alcoholic part and more for the proud hack with ghosts to get out part) I feel it’s the fact that there’s something about him and his work that doesn’t click fully with me, that feels off, that aids his stature for me. The fact that something doesn’t fit, that something is weird: it’s a boon rather than a cause for pause.

I think I first became aware of Poe through a pop-up book of horror stories my parents bought for me. There was a scene from The Pit and the Pendulum inside, with a terrified guy stuck to a bench, a swinging, sharpened pendulum reaching for his neck, an enormous dark pit close by. I wanted to know more.

I borrowed books from the library and read bits and pieces. I remember spending a lot of time on the poetry, because for one whose prose was so straitlaced and almost breathless, the poetry really sang, even when restricted by form. I still remember being entranced by the misty-breathed invocation of tintinnabulation – long before I knew what it meant as a musical term with regard to Arvo Pärt – of The Bells or the submarine despair of Annabel Lee. I read The Raven over and over again, eventually even recording it onto my cheapie cassette recorder so I could hear what it sounded like to have another human reading it.

(Most other kids weren’t into Poe.)

I think what it was about the guy that appealed to me was the way he unflinchingly looked at horrible shit and reported it with a barely-contained terror, yet did so in a very journalistic style. I liked that he wrote lots of things – detective (or ratiocinative, as he had it) stories, science fiction, treatises, adventures, horrors and piss-takes. It was work that was sometimes difficult to read, so it made the younger me think I was somehow smarter than I was by reading this stuff. The words were more than equal to those wonderful accompanying Harry Clarke illustrations, baroque in their gore, of Roderick Usher and his unstoppable affliction, of Montresor and Fortunato’s brickwork, or Red Death removing life from the world.

But it also introduced me to the Imp of the Perverse: an acknowledgement of those drives within us that make us want to do bad things, those evil angels we fight against daily. I couldn’t believe that someone else out there would be at a high place and entertain the idle thought about what would happen if I jumped. Not that I would, but what if?

What if is Poe, entirely. To me, at least.

Eventually, I saved enough to buy a Penguin edition of the author’s works, complete with lurid cover. Though I have what I think is a superior Running Press edition of his works that places everything in chronological order, I still come back to the Penguin one as it’s so beaten up it feels to have encapsulated some of the rumpled nature I associate with the writer. It’s a constant companion and it’s probably the one book I’ve always taken with me, wherever I’ve lived. Lots of other things go into storage, but not Poe.

Knowing Poe and going to university in the ’90s – where discussions of The Simpsons over long lecture-avoiding lunches were mandatory – was pretty ace. The writing team for that show loved EAP, and he was worked in in a number of ways which still make me smile: Hans Moleman being run off the road while driving a truck transporting the author’s birthplace; Lisa’s Tell-Tale Heart diorama moment; the horror special recitation of The Raven with James Earl Jones, with Marge taking the place of the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore.

I’ve never found an affordable physical copy of Closed On Account Of Rabies, the Hal Wilner-produced tribute album to Poe that features such magnificent turns as Diamanda Galas reading The Black Cat or Christopher Walken doing The Raven. I mean, the people assembled – Gavin Friday, Jeff Buckley, Iggy Pop, MARIANNE FAITHFULL! I should bite the bullet and pay whatever discogs wants for one but I’ve made do with YouTube for so long, you see. But the album – again a discovery of the university years – is something I’ve lusted after.

Something I have owned, however, is the Alan Parsons Project album Tales of Mystery and Imagination which, for a teenaged Pink Floyd-ophile, was perfection; Parsons being the geek working on Dark Side Of The Moon who was somehow able to rope Orson Welles into recording something for the alcoholic scribe, and who was able to make double-tracked cheese guitar and floating vocals fit with a tale of entombment.

I was so enthused by the idea of Poe that I decided to write my honours thesis on him. I avoided the actual Poe expert at the University’s English department as I was kind of terrified of her – I was a much less confident student then – and I asked a “fun” lecturer to supervise my work, as I’d been dazzled by his enthusiasm and lectures. He wasn’t very good at supervision, but then my thesis wasn’t good at all, so I suppose it was a good match. I sketched out an idea that Poe’s tales and exploration of genre were some kind of ground zero jizzsplosion which led to basically all the modern variants of cop drama and horror show we have in a manner so cack-handed that it probably offended the guy in the afterlife.

Sorry, man.

I like to think of him reading my thesis in the manner of the last panel of this comic:

(Also, stupid past me, it’s not even remotely true.)

I don’t really know how to end this, other than to say that though I went on to other authors (many influenced by him, though Lovecraft certainly added more odious taints to the mix) none have kept my interest like Poe. He would be close on my favourite author – certainly the one I’ve known the longest – but he has kept my interest more than others. I feel like I know everything and nothing. He is restlessly modern and superbly old-hat, and every time I read him I feel I need to look something up, and then read some more.

I cannot ask for more than that.

(This was written as part of my mostly-daily 750words challenge, so easy, Tiger.)

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