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In praise of Poe

Hitchcock? Stephen King? CSI? Hard to imagine any of them not owing a huge debt to the legendary writer

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Edward Pettit

“Edgar Allan Poe, who, in his carelessly prodigal fashion, threw out the seeds from which so many of our present forms of literature have sprung, was the father of the detective tale, and covered its limits so completely that I fail to see how his followers can find any fresh ground which they can confidently call their own ... On this narrow path the writer must walk, and he sees the footmarks of Poe always in front of him.” – Arthur Conan Doyle

This year marks the bicentennial of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, and Poe’s influence on American literature and culture shows no sign of abating. Poe, the sower of seeds, Doyle called him. Like some literary Johnny Appleseed, Poe traverses the landscape of American culture, whole genres springing up in his wake. The mystery/detective story. Science fiction. Psychological horror. Poe is our avatar for all that is spooky and macabre, but his influence spreads much further than Stephen King’s novels. You can find Poe in music, comic books and movies. His caricatured visage adorns all manner of products and promotions, especially during the Halloween month. Poe is an omnipresent force in America.

Poe is not only the most famous American author in the world, meaning more people in the world have heard of him than any other American writer, but he is also the most influential American author. Lots of authors have impressed some large footprints—Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, King—but none has provided so long a path to follow. Poe is like that Jesus in the maudlin “Footprints in the sand” story. At the end of their lives, writers look back and see only one set of tracks, but it’s not because Poe has carried them. If they look closely they can see how they have trudged through a trail already blazed. Authors may veer from Poe’s path, but many of them began their journey in his footprints.

Not all writers have loved him. Poe’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, derisively referred to him as the “jingle man,” and James Russell Lowell versified a very mixed appraisal:

Here comes Poe with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge—Three-fifths of him genius, and two-fifths sheer fudge

Henry James once wrote that “enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection,” and T.S. Eliot referred to Poe’s works as marked by “the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty.” Walt Whitman was kinder to Poe’s memory. Of all the major poets invited to the dedication of Poe’s reburial in 1876, Whitman was the only one to attend, but his appraisal of Poe’s genius had a caveat. Poe, he claimed, is “among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant, dazzling, but with no heat.” Poe dazzles, but leaves the reader cold.

So if these members of the Highbrow American Lit Club don’t value Poe, who does? How can he be so enormously influential if he’s just a primitive, pre-pubescent, jingling Fudgsicle of a writer?

In 1841, Poe became the literary editor for a Philadelphia periodical, Graham’s Magazine, and in the first issue, he published his own short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In a later letter, Poe called this tale something “in a new key.” It featured an extraordinarily intelligent “detective” (although not referred to as such in the story), C. Auguste Dupin, who, with his faithful but obtuse friend, solves a seemingly insoluble crime. Two women have been brutally murdered, one stuffed up a chimney and one nearly beheaded, then thrown from a window. The door and windows of the murder room were locked from the inside. Dupin carefully combs the crime scene and by using a faculty Poe terms “ratiocination,” figures out how the murder was committed and who did it. Sound familiar?

With this one tale, Poe invented the most popular modern genre of literature: the mystery detective story. All mysteries since follow the formula Poe set forth in his Dupin tales (he would write two more over the years, plus two other mystery stories): a baffling crime; a detective who uses deductive reasoning to read clues and discover a solution; an observant but less astute companion who, as narrator, also stands in for the reader; an inept police force. However the most important element of Poe’s tales of ratiocination is the way they focus not on the crime or the solution, but on the very steps the detective takes to unravel the tangled skein. The reader is engaged not by the crime, but by the detailed description of the puzzle as it is put together.

Richard Kopley, author of Edgar Allan Poe and the Dupin Mysteries, finds this attraction to the detective’s process paramount: “I think we are engaged by what our minds can accomplish, and the detective story intensifies our focus on intellectual skill. I think we’re interested in what can be determined by a really powerful intellect. And if it happens to be criminals who are caught, then fine, but I don’t think that’s the heart of it. I think the heart of it is how’d he do it. What was the process of thought?”

Doyle admittedly borrowed Poe’s formula wholesale when he created Sherlock Holmes. Although many more mystery writers trace their direct influence back to Doyle’s Holmes, who is by far the most recognized fictional detective ever created, it is Poe’s Dupin who engendered Sherlock. Doyle may have written the words to his tales, but the ink he used was pure Poe.

The mystery detective genre is not the only one that Poe has influenced. You can find Poe’s mark in science fiction, as well. Poe understood early that a fantastic story succeeds when a reader believes it to be true. This is the fundamental difference between fantasy and science fiction genres. In a fantasy novel, characters have strange powers that the reader just accepts without explanation. It’s magic. But in science fiction, extraordinary occurrences are given plausible (or seemingly believable) reasons. It’s advanced technology.

So when Poe writes about a trip to the moon, or a journey to the South Pole, or a balloon voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, the reader is provided with data and detailed explanations of how it all happens. However, in Poe’s day, there was no literary genre for science fiction, so his tales in this vein often played out as hoaxes on the reading public. Some (not all) readers thought these fantastic journey tales of Poe’s were true accounts. By detailing the impossible, whatever remained, however improbable, must be the truth. Science fiction gives the illusion that the impossible is possible.

In Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the titular hero goes on a sea voyage to the “warm regions” of the South Pole. According to Kopley, Poe relied on actual sea chronicles in writing his text: “The specific details that Poe provided may have occasionally slowed readers, but they also probably yielded a sharper contrast for the sensations of the novel. Strengthening the verisimilitude of the novel was Pym’s earnest appeal to ‘progressing science.’”

Poe imbued these “science fiction” works with a false reality that differentiated them from works of the fantastical, of which he had already become a master. Pym, a novel that few now read, was an enormous influence on works as diverse as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. As Poe developed the formulaic template for the mystery story, Jules Verne, along with H.G. Wells, provided the same service for science fiction. And Verne not only used Poe’s balloon and moon-voyage tales as inspiration, but even wrote a sequel to Poe’s Pym, The Sphinx of the Ice Fields.

Perhaps Poe’s greatest influence, because it is so evident in the iconic image of Poe as the Master of the Macabre, is how he shaped the genre of horror, in both literature and film. In fact, most American horror can trace its lineage back to a literary tradition in which Poe flourished.

When he moved to Philadelphia in 1838, there was already a rich tradition of gothic horror writing in the city. Charles Brockden Brown, the first American to adapt the tropes of European gothic to an American setting, situated his gothic novels in and around urban Philadelphia. Brown also transformed the genre by removing the supernatural elements and replacing them with a very American threat, something the scholar Frederick Frank has called the “individual potential for evil in a new society.” Just as we citizens have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Philadelphia Gothic tells us that we also have the potential for death, murder and pursuit of destruction. Philadelphia Gothic is about the criminal element. European Gothic is haunted by spectres and mad monks. In America we are at the mercy of serial killers.

And this Philadelphia Gothic became the standard for much of the American Gothic writing to follow. Poe was no exception. Before he lived in Philadelphia, his horror tales were more grounded in a European Gothicism. But while Poe was in Philadelphia, living and writing and publishing in the tradition of Philadelphia Gothic, his works underwent a transformation. The ancestral curses and predatory spirits that haunt his characters in tales such as “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are replaced by characters haunted by themselves. In his tale “William Wilson,” the narrator is pursued to his death by a doppelganger of himself. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” mad men stalk, abuse and murder their companions.

If Poe did not perfect the horror story, he certainly crafted stories of such power that they became templates for most horror writers who followed in his wake. Through these stories, Poe has haunted American culture ever since. Sure, there are other writers who have created powerfully influential horror tales, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Fitz-James O’Brien, but by the time the 20th century rolled around, it was Poe’s macabre tales left standing on the shelves.

Poe is the writer to whom Lovecraft and Peter Straub and Stephen King hearken, as well as mystery writers such as Laura Lippman and Lisa Scottoline. Several books have recently been published that mark Poe’s influence. Two anthologies have sprung from the Mystery Writers of America, whose yearly Edgar awards are like the Oscars for mystery and crime authors: In the Shadow of the Master, edited by Michael Connelly; and On a Raven’s Wing, edited by Stuart M. Kaminsky.

Another anthology edited by Ellen Datlow is entitled Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark Fantasy and Horror, and features stories that reflect the grotesque and fantastical in Poe’s work. Contributors Gregory Frost, John Langan and Laird Barron are not writing pastiche Poe with the Ushers returning for further vengeance, but rather using the ideas and moods of such Poe tales as “The Imp of the Perverse,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Cask of Amontillado” to help engender their own stories.

Connelly’s Shadow is a collection of Poe’s own works, 13 stories, two poems and an excerpt from Pym, interspersed with 19 short tribute-essays by best-selling authors. Stephen King writes about the “genius” of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one of Poe’s most famous tales, depicting a killer’s confession to his seemingly motiveless murder of an old man. King acknowledges that Poe “invented the modern detective story,” but he goes further: “Few are aware that he created the first work of criminal sociopathy in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’” King calls 20th-century crime writers “the children of Poe.”

The other essays in Shadow pursue the same idea. The charm of these tributes is that they are not turgid academese written for professors. These authors write for their own popular audience, the Common Reader, the lifeblood of Poe’s audience in his own time. Most of the authors, including Nelson DeMille, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Lisa Scottoline and Jeffrey Deaver, reveal their first encounter with Poe’s works, then go on to emphasize their indebtedness to him (if only Poe could collect royalties from beyond the grave). That so many best-selling authors would feel an affinity for Poe, would feel such a familial bond 160 years after his death, is astounding. This is the cult of Poe. I can think of no other writer who garners this kind of outpouring. Other great authors are admired and placed upon pedestals, but how many are considered the parent of so many flourishing genres?

Included in Shadow are illustrations by Harry Clarke, a stained-glass artist and book illustrator of the early 20th century. Clarke’s illustrations for an edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination are as grim, dark and sensational as the stories themselves. And here’s where one can see Poe’s influence begin to spread even past the boundaries of his own genre. The American comic-book artist Jerry Robinson worked on DC Comics’ Batman series in the 1940s and created both Robin and the Joker. One of Robinson’s beloved books from childhood was the Clarke edition of Poe’s Tales. Art and comics historian Christopher Couch sees clear affinities between the Clarke illustrations and Robinson’s artwork in Batman.

When Couch interviewed Robinson, it was the Clarke book that Robinson pulled from his own shelves to highlight his influences. Couch also relates, “When Bill Finger, the writer, and Jerry Robinson, the artist, were creating the first Batman stories, the ones that included the great villains that have become central to the media of Batman, they lived near the Poe Cottage in the Bronx, and they would sit outside the cottage and talk about what they wanted to do in the stories, looking for inspiration from the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe.”

The tales of Poe can also be found in American film. Not only have there been a plethora of adaptations of Poe’s work for the screen, but Poe’s presence as a creator of suspense has also influenced the entire genre of suspense films. Alfred Hitchcock acknowledged his own debt to Poe: “Very likely it’s because I was so taken with the Poe stories that I later made suspense films. I don’t want to seem immodest, but I can’t help comparing what I’ve tried to put in my films with what Edgar Allan Poe put in his novels: a completely unbelievable story told to the readers with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression that the same thing could happen to you tomorrow.”

Edgar Allan Poe is like a ghost haunting American culture, inhabiting the dark corners and lonely spaces of so many genres and art forms. Although he was not at first accorded respect by the literary establishment of America, his spirit has outlasted his critics. The phantom of Poe lives on. Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote, “If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay a tithe to a monument for the master, he would have a pyramid as big as that of Cheops.” Poe’s legacy endures in his own work and in the varied works of succeeding generations of authors. Poe, the sower of seeds, the trailblazer, the ghost.

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