Columns > Published on January 18th, 2013

LURID: Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe!

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Edgar Allan Poe is simultaneously one of the most familiar and mysterious figures in the literary canon.  His stories and poetry are anthology staples, concreted into English Literature syllabi at every level. His name has become a byword for the grotesque, the doomed, the melancholic.  His face adorns t-shirts, mugs, coasters and wall clocks.  Britney Spears named her 2001-2 tour A Dream Within A Dream after one of his poems.  He is cited as an influence by Marilyn Manson, Stephen King, Tim Burton, and UK extreme metal band, Cradle of Filth. He has become a pop culture plaything, a poster boy for the postmodern cult of death — and for bobble-headed doll collectors.

Yet, no matter how many Poe-themed comic books or novelty artifacts we stack on our shelves to boost our pomo cred, the man will always remain an enigma.  The facts of his life are well established: he was orphaned as an infant, raised by inflexible foster parents, discharged from the army, married to his thirteen year-old cousin, widowed young, and dead at forty from causes unknown. This sensuous poet, grudge-bearing hack, literary critic, staunch patriot, inventor of the detective story, lived in poverty despite the popularity of his work with readers.  It’s almost impossible to conceive of the whole person, to reconcile the disparate elements into a single consciousness. 

When it comes to the grotesque, the ghoulish, the demented and the downright lurid, Poe has never been bettered.

By turns, Poe was an adept cryptographer, a savage critic, sensitive poet and deft humorist.  He was a hard-working man of principle and meticulous penmanship who alienated friends and family through alcoholism.  He was a visionary who accurately predicted the future of American literature and preempted postmodernism by more than a century, but despised his own writing.  He trumpeted the sanctity of true love but was prepared to marry for money.  He defied interpretation till the end: no one has ever solved the mystery of the final few days of his life that led to him being discovered dazed, dressed in someone else’s clothes, incoherent, wandering the streets of Baltimore.  He’s usually represented as living embodiment of the dark romanticism that drove his writing, but he was much, much more layered than that.

In honor of his birthday tomorrow, it’s worth acknowledging some of those layers.  Although he’s perhaps best known for his short stories, Poe’s legacy illuminates some surprising corners of the twentieth century, and his influence continues into the present day.

Master of the Macabre

Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality. – Edgar Allan Poe

When it comes to the grotesque, the ghoulish, the demented and the downright lurid, Poe has never been bettered.  He wrote horror stories with the aim of unifying all the elements in order to overwhelm the reader with pure terror.  He isolates a single fear (infection with the plague, burial alive, drowning in sherry, being outsmarted by a cat) and then explores the psychological complications of each “What If…” scenario.  He makes frequent use of the first person narrator, to immerse the reader in the full horror of each situation.  His goal is to sever the reader from reality while they read, hence the emphasis on sensory scene building:

… there came to my nostrils the breath of the vapor of heated iron! A suffocating odor pervaded the prison!  A deeper glow settled each moment in the eyes that glared at my agonies! A richer tint of crimson diffused itself over the pictured horrors of blood.  I panted! I gasped for breath! …I shrank from the glowing metal to the centre of the cell.  Amid the thought of the fiery destruction that impended, the idea of the coolness of the well came over my soul like balm. – The Pit And The Pendulum

Frequently, his protagonists are in the grip of opium dreams, or sleeplessness, or some other dementia, and the rhythms of Poe’s writing seek to induce a similar state in the reader – think of the inverted clauses that open The Tell-Tale Heart.  Although a lot of his stories are set within fantastic Gothic landscapes, in moldy baronial halls and dank dungeons that represented an Old European Other to his contemporaries, Poe maintains a balance between the phantasmagoric and the real.  His killer beats lie in the more mundane details, the “ripped from the headlines” elements of murder, disease, and grave desecration -- the box of teeth in Berenice, the ebony, stopped clock in The Masque of The Red Death, the “last waltz of Von Weber” referred to in The Fall Of The House of Usher.

In all his horror stories Poe is riffing on one thing: Death.  There are no monsters other than mortality.  His protagonists fear it, deny it, and on occasion embrace it, but they think about little else for the course of their narrative.  Poe grew up in a fog of bereavement and was pummeled by the loss of loved ones as an adult so it’s no wonder he was obsessed by our passage from one state of being to the next.  He exploited his innate fears in his stories, placing them front and center in the human psyche, thus prefiguring Freudian theories about the death drive, or Thanatos.

Literary Thought Leader

His portraits of abnormal and self-destructive states contributed much to Dostoyevsky, the tales of the future lead to H. G. Wells, his adventure stories to Jules Verne and Stevenson." – W.H. Auden

Before Poe, a writer needed either independent means or a wealthy patron to provide income.  Selling books and magazines was a profitable business for the publisher only — the writer went unrewarded and, often, uncredited.  Poe had neither a trust fund nor a generous benefactor but was nonetheless determined to carve a living from his written words.  Necessity is always the mother of invention.  He insisted on proper payment, agitated for international copyright law, and encouraged the ambition of countless other writers (including many women) to be remunerated for their work in print.  Poe had a phenomenal impact on American literature during his lifetime and was one of the first indigenous American writers to be read and appreciated in other countries.  Like his namesake Woody, he was more revered in France than at home.

This focus on monetary gain forced a paradigm shift in the way magazine editors regarded short stories.  Poe understood the power of an individual story to sell copies of a magazine – and increase profits.  He defended the lurid nature of Berenice in an 1835 letter to Thomas White, owner of the Southern Literary Messenger:

The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in nature -- to Berenice -- although, I grant you, far superior in style and execution. I say similar in nature. You ask me in what does this nature consist? In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical. You may say all this is bad taste. I have my doubts about it... But whether the articles of which I speak are, or are not in bad taste is little to the purpose. To be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity. They are, if you will take notice, the articles which find their way into other periodicals, and into the papers, and in this manner, taking hold upon the public mind they augment the reputation of the source where they originated...”

And so, pulp fiction gained a foothold in magazine publishing.  Poe is also credited with the invention of the detective story, with The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841.  He fanned the flames of interest in his tale by claiming it was based on a true crime that had baffled New York police.  In his honor, the Mystery Writers of America still award annual ‘Edgars’ to the best crime fiction of the year.  Additionally, he pioneered believable science fiction, layering plausible technological details into fantastical stories such as The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Phaall, The Man That Was Used Up, Mellonta Tauta  and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.  He’s also seen as America’s first great literary critic, a taste-maker who railed against the cozy “puffery” of writers reviewing their friends’ work, and who challenged the intellectual superiority of the long-established North by promoting the work of new writers from the Southern and Western states.

Rock ’n’ Roll Royalty

Elementary penguin singing Hari Krishna/Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe." – I Am The Walrus

Poe tops the VIP guest list for many music-makers.  Over the years, his trademark blend of angst and romance, wafted in opium fumes and rinsed down with a shot of rum, has inspired compositions and artwork across all genres of music. He dominates the back row of luminaries on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Joan Baez recorded a version of Annabel Lee set to music.  The Alan Parsons Project based an entire concept album, Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1976) around his short stories.  Lou Reed also based his 2003 concept album, The Raven, on Poe’s work, incorporating spoken-word contributions from Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe.  The White Stripes rewrote The Masque of the Red Death in song form as Red Death at 6:14.  The list goes on, with Poe stories cropping up in band names, song titles and performance art. Marilyn Manson is particularly proud of his wonky-faced watercolor of Poe.  While Poe may not have enjoyed the musical content of all these tributes, he would have been impressed by his status as a punk soul brother, a century and a half after his demise.

Habitual Drunkard

"Nor shall the world know which the mortal sin / Excessive genius or excessive gin!” – Knickerbocker Magazine on Poe

Poe’s reputation as an inveterate sot isn’t altogether deserved.  While he certainly had a problem, he wasn’t quite the dipsomaniac depicted by his enemies.  Evidence suggests that the sickly Poe had a poor tolerance for alcohol.  This could be a major liability when confronted with what he described as “the temptation held out on all sides by the spirit of Southern conviviality.”  He was well aware of his weakness when it came to the demon drink, and his life follows the pattern familiar to any struggling alcoholic.  Horrified by an occasion of drunken behavior, he would apologize profusely, promise to quit, and subsequently sustain a period of abstinence lasting months, even years before falling off the wagon again.

Poe was a true Renaissance Man, a multi-faceted talent that defies description and constraints.  He should have been a global success in his lifetime, but he was driven by equal parts genius and self-destructive tendencies.

Poe sought refuge from his troubles in alcohol: the more troubled he was, the more he drank.  The years between the onset of his wife’s tuberculosis in 1842 and her death in 1847 saw Poe in his cups on a regular basis, and many of the stories circulating about his public inebriation stem from this time.  By all accounts, he was “very frequently carried home in a wretched condition” but sometimes Poe didn’t even have to be drunk for the accusations to fly, as on the occasion of his appearance at the Boston Lyceum in October, 1845.  Poe had been paid to write a poem and read it to the assembled crowd of literati (or as he called them, Frogpondians).  Unable to come up with anything new, he re-titled an old poem (Al Aaraaf) as The Messenger Star of Tycho Brahe, and offered that instead.  He might have gotten away with it if he’d been able to resist boasting at the after-party.  Enraged, the Boston newspapers thundered from their pulpits (““he [Poe] should bow down his head with shame at the thought that he, in this day of light, presented himself before a moral and intelligent audience intoxicated!” – New England Washingtonian).  It didn’t matter that he wasn’t drunk onstage, he was a drunk by association.  Poe’s terse response to the criticism (“We shall get drunk when we please. As for the editor of the ‘Jefferson Teetotaler’ (or whatever it is) we advise her to get drunk, too, as soon as possible”) didn’t help his cause.

In August 1849, Poe joined the Sons Of Temperance in Richmond, and stopped drinking.  His fellow “Sons” were horrified at the stories surrounding Poe’s intoxicated condition at his death in October and did their best to put the record straight. W.J. Glenn recalled in 1900 “We of the temperance order to which he belonged exerted ourselves to get at the facts, and the consensus of opinion was that he had not been drinking, but had been drugged.”  Unfortunately, their voice was lost in the chorus of condemnation led by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s longtime rival in love, poetry and editorial decisions, and the man who took it upon himself to trash Poe’s reputation after his death.

Hatchet Job Victim

“Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” – Griswold’s obituary of Poe

Griswold and Poe disliked one another from their first meeting in 1841.  Griswold was everything Poe hated, a moneyed, Northern, former Baptist minster with an unshakable sense of moral superiority and a dire lack of literary talent or taste.  For his part, Griswold viewed Poe as a poorly educated Southerner who would write anything for cold, hard cash.  The two men butted heads throughout the 1840s, as Griswold grew jealous of Poe’s talent and vision, and Poe resented Griswold’s smug reliance on money and connections.  However, as there were only so many literary outlets in New England at the time, they remained constantly associated and often had to work together.

Griswold jumped at the opportunity to write Poe’s obituary, and his first piece, published in the New York Tribune, is full of backhanded compliments and myth-mongering.  He manages to make the astute, sardonic, self-aware Poe sound like a complete nutter:

He was at all times a dreamer — dwelling in ideal realms — in heaven or hell — peopled with creatures and the accidents of his brain. He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned), but for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry — or, with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms; and all night, with drenched garments and arms wildly beating the winds and rains, he would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him…”

Griswold took further ownership of Poe’s post-mortem reputation by swindling Maria Clemm, Poe’s mother-in-law out of the manuscripts, and publishing a ‘Collected Works’ (naturally, Griswold kept all the profits).  In 1850, Griswold published articles about Poe’s life, depicting him as mentally ill, addicted to opium, and perpetually drunk, using forged letters to back up his claims.  Although Poe’s friends objected strenuously to Griswold’s version of events, it took decades to reclaim Poe’s reputation as a literary lion.

Poe was a true Renaissance Man, a multi-faceted talent that defies description and constraints.  He should have been a global success in his lifetime, but he was driven by equal parts genius and self-destructive tendencies.  This dark duality is essential to the dynamics of his most memorable work, but it didn’t make life easy for Poe or his nearest and dearest. His baggy-eyed visage gazes out at us from the famous 1848 “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, a sad, sardonic half-smile playing about his lips. It’s as if he knows that his difficult life and peculiar death were only paving the way for the legend: What's past is prologue, what to come/In yours and my discharge.

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe.

Got a favorite Poe moment? Share it in the comments below.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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