Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reflections on the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe

Note: Anyone wishing to experience these stories for themselves can download them, in a variety of formats, from Project Gutenberg, or read them online at, or else download free, volunteer-recorded audio versions of some tales (of varying quality) from

Edgar Allan Poe, master of the macabre, perverse, and mysterious, has been the subject of my reading for some months. Since I came upon "The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe" in my sister's room, I have been reading at least one story each week, on Sunday. Here they are now, in the order in which I read them, accompanied by a short, non-spoiling blurb.

The Pit and the Pendulum: A prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition suffers horrible and unusual torture, more of mind than of body. "I was sick, sick unto death..." An English teacher would surely write "Good use of imagery!" in the margins.

Fall of the House of Usher: An unnamed narrator visits an old friend, only to find a decaying house, and two frail, equally decaying siblings, the remains of the name of Usher. The narrator does what he can to ease the man's grief in his twilight hours, but the House of Usher -- both the physical house and the bloodline -- are doomed to fall.

Balloon-Hoax: An account of a trans-Atlantic balloon flight, originally represented as fact, the article caused quite a sensation when it was published in 1844, though now it is a mere curiosity (and precursor to the "Balloon boy" hoax).

The Masque of the Red Death: When a terrible plague strikes his kingdom, Prince Prospero locks himself away in his palace with his royal retinue. Months pass with no relief, so the arrogant prince decides to throw a masked ball, but it seems even the rich and arrogant cannot avoid the grasp of Death...

The Tell-Tale Heart: An obviously insane man tells us of his attempts at murdering an elderly fellow resident -- whom he refers to only as "the old man" -- all the while insisting that he is not insane. Perhaps he is not -- that is, if guilt be a sign of sanity.

The Black Cat: Similar to The Tell-Tale Heart, and often paired together by scholars: both are tales of a murderer wracked with guilt, from the murderer's point of view. The Black Cat features the addition of the titular feline, and has a few more supernatural elements; It also seems a bit more gruesome.

The Oval Portrait: A very generic (though very short) Gothic-style "horror story." It even mentions Ann Radcliffe, queen of the Gothic novel (with whom I'm familiar only through Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen) so that should give you an idea of where his mind sat. It tells the tale of a portrait of a young lady, which gradually reveals the evil of the artist. I hear this story inspired Oscar Wilde in his own little whiny tale about a painting.

The Angel of the Odd: A man, while reading the newspaper, is disgusted with the number of improbable stories and with the people that believe them. Then a man with a wine barrel for a torso and wine bottles for limbs appears, and things get unlikely, strange and -- okay, I'll say it -- Odd.

The Premature Burial: The narrator details several accounts of premature burial -- that is, entombment before one is truly dead -- before recounting his own supposed experience. He has an illness that causes him, on occasion, to give all appearances of death without it being so. Terrified of being buried alive, he takes all conceivable precautions against it, but can they be enough?

The Cask of Amontillado: A man lures another to his doom with promises of fine wine. I have a distinct mental picture, from reading this story in middle school, of the narrator slowly and steadily going about his brickwork.

The Imp of the Perverse: The urge to do wrong simply because you know it's wrong. The narrator explains this concept at length, in essay-like fashion, before divulging his own dirty little secret.

The Island of the Fay

The Murders in the Rue Morgue: Often regarded as the first detective story, this tale depicts an amateur detective and his friend as he pieces together the true story behind a mysterious double-homicide in a Paris mansion. The answer involves a man in a monkey mask, or so I've been lead to believe.

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