(A Book Review of Edgar Allan Poe’s
The Fall of the House of Usher and other Tales)
There’s no denying that much of modern horror fiction — as we know it anyway — grew out of the gloomy, chaotic depth of the 19th century when a few demented souls were churning out tales of things that go bump in the night. These were writers who were dubbed freaks during their time and, as if the patina of age hasn’t wore off, are still considered as such today. They broke taboos, infringed established rules, attacked the sensibilities of their era, and twisted genres to the breaking point. Sure thing, they died broke, scorned or both, yet in the process gave birth to some of the great works of literature, became a pioneer and initiated many of the conventions that are now considered commonplace in much of today’s horror fiction.
Thus, in my exploration (and bid to become the most annoying know-it-all) in matters concerning the horror genre, I looked back and was lead on this dark alleyway, in the hall of one of the most venerable Old Masters of Horror: Edgar Allan Poe.
Looking at Poe’s life, one gets a fair idea that the man led a tragic, if not a horrific life. He was a poet at heart, aching for personal losses and hopping from job to job in the publishing world while he tried to find something fulfilling amid alcoholism and depression. To help pay the bills, like so many writers before and after him, he turned to sensationalism.
Lucky for us, he was good at it, and the results were among the most vivid and chilling horror tales ever written. You’ve got your buried alive tale (The Premature Burial), your revenge tale (The Cask of Amontillado), your torture tale (The Pit and the Pendulum), your plague tale (The Masque of the Red Death), your haunted house tale (The Fall of the House of Usher) and perhaps the most vivid of all, the internalized ghost story (The Tell-Tale Heart). It is the last of these that always struck me as the most effective, at least among Poe’s work. All of these stories are important to the genre. Many of them are flat out revolutionary, and have been imitated ever since.
But there’s something about The Tell-Tale Heart, on the relentless psychological hell it seems to hurl into the reader’s head, that makes it stand out as a masterwork among masterworks. It speaks to the fear that we might lose control of the one thing we always thought we could manage: ourselves. We all have our own little bodies under the floorboards, and even if we’re not murderers, it’s a story that suggests we could be — which, in my opinion, might be among the scariest feelings of all. Poe was a master at conveying this kind of internal torture, and for all the unapologetic sensationalism of his work, it’s that internalized agony that makes it all too real for us.
The reader of an Edgar Allan Poe story — we could also throw in his splendid poems, I presume — may expect to encounter characters in the grip of extreme experience. Murder is common, as is madness, and life at times can seem a horror. Reading his stories is a retreat from humanity into a ghastly realm where as much as possible of the human is left out, where our weaknesses became wobbling strengths and our trembling gasping cries. But what we forever owe to Poe is he dared to look, when others have no guts even to take peek, at the door where horror lurks opening a worm of possibilities that slithered in and out of the genre to which he may have the (bloody?) hand of creating. More than anything else, it is Poe who sculpted, with such fine craftsmanship, a form out of our very own fears and nightmares.
Published by Signet Classics
(Mass Market Paperback, 1980 Edition)
Started: October 6, 2010
Finished: October 23, 2010