Did you ever love an author, go many years without re-reading that author, and then finally go back to see if the love was still there? I just did that with Edgar Allan Poe.
My impetus was The Huffington Post's recent report on a Library of Congress list of books that "shaped America." Some commenters wondered why Poe wasn't on the list, which reminded me that I've owned an anthology of that writer's work since I was 12.
I must have re-read that now-crumbling hardcover five or six times as a teen. Edgar Allan Poe Stories was one of my first "grown-up" books, and I was enthralled with its macabre, literary tales. But then I didn't touch the collection for several decades (except to pack it during various moves!).
Now that I've re-read the book once again, I can say that Poe's work is as amazing as I remembered. Melancholy mood-setting, shiver-inducing suspense, and a fascinating obsession with death -- all brought to the reader via lush yet clear prose. Even after all those years, I recalled some lines as if I had first read them yesterday. For instance: "The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends and where the other begins?" -- a passage from the chilling "The Premature Burial."
And Poe definitely "shaped America," or at least the literary/cultural tastes of many Americans. That's because he was not only an obvious pioneer in the horror genre (inspiring a whole movie category and writers such as Stephen King) but also a pioneer in the psychological thriller ("The Tell-Tale Heart"), detective fiction ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue"), sea adventures ("A Descent into the Maelstrom"), and time-travel stories ("A Tale of the Ragged Mountains").
Yes, Poe (1809-1849) wrote years before the detective fiction of Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle, the on-ship books of Herman Melville and Jack London, and the time-travel novels of Edward Bellamy, Mark Twain, and H.G. Wells. (Actually, Melville's literary career started near the end of Poe's life.)
Poe was also a pioneer in creating unlikable protagonists, such as the once-nice guy who became a feline-abusing lowlife in "The Black Cat." (Another kind of positive-to-negative trajectory was featured in Poe's poem "The Bells" -- adapted, by the way, into this excellent song by the great Phil Ochs.)
Last but not least, the short, mostly impoverished, mostly unhappy life of Poe was an unfortunate template for the "tortured artist."
Poe's 19th-century stories were deep enough to still resonate on many levels in 2012. For instance, while re-reading "The Masque of the Red Death," I was struck by how that spooky tale can be seen as a commentary on climate change and today's growing rich/poor divide. When the plague hits in "Red Death," a bunch of wealthy people lock themselves in a castle and party while the general populace dies gruesome deaths. But these aristocrats ultimately can't escape the contagion, just as millionaire global-warming deniers will be affected along with the rest of us if our Earth eventually fries.
The unhappy Poe rarely wrote happy endings, but his fictional perpetrators tended to get their comeuppance (often ingeniously, as in "Thou Art the Man"). Still, Poe occasionally ended a story with some good news for his characters and readers (as in the gut-wrenching "The Pit and the Pendulum").
Some things surprised me when I revisited Poe. I hadn't remembered that he could be humorous at times, as in this "The Cask of Amontillado" passage about the revenge-seeking narrator ordering his servants to stay home: "These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned." But, besides that brief bit of levity, "Amontillado" is the haunting stuff of nightmares.
Also, I had barely recalled just how many stories Poe set in Europe rather than his native America. But those settings were not surprising for a writer obsessed with decaying mansions ("The Fall of the House of Usher") and other older things.
Poe's tales did lack some elements. Most characters were one-dimensional, though Poe's spectacular writing strengths made up for that, and few of the significant ones were women. Sure, some stories (such as "Berenice") had female title characters, but they were usually told from a male character's perspective.
What are your thoughts on Poe's work? And how did you feel when, after many years, you re-read any author you loved?
Dave Astor has written a memoir titled Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press). Originally slated for June 2012 release, it is now scheduled to be published later this summer. At that time, the book can be purchased online. Signed copies will also be available; if you'd like information about that, contact Dave at email@example.com at any time.
The part-humorous Comic (and Column) Confessional is about Dave's twenty-five years at Editor & Publisher magazine covering, interviewing, and meeting notables such as Arianna Huffington, Heloise, Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart, Paul Krugman, Ann Landers, and Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"); and notable cartoonists such as Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"), Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"), Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Stan Lee ("Spider-Man"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury"), Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County"), Scott Adams ("Dilbert"), Jim Davis ("Garfield"), Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"/"Steve Canyon"), and Herblock. The book also chronicles changes in the media, discusses personal stuff, and more.