|Edgar Allan Poe|
Illustration by Triunfo Arciniegas
A brief survey of the short story part 55:
Edgar Allan Poe
He's no prose stylist, but the psychological territory mapped by his tales set a fictional compass still in wide use
"I cannot think of any other author", said Harold Bloom of Edgar Allan Poe, "who writes so abominably, and yet is so clearly destined to go on being canonical." But for each writer who has disparaged him, from Henry James to Yeats, Lawrence to Auden, there is an array of works that bear his influence: stories and novels not only by horror specialists like HP Lovecraft and Stephen King, or by writers of detective fiction such as Arthur Conan Doyle, but by Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann, TS Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner, Borges, Eudora Welty, Nabokov and Bolaño. Like the obsessions that so often lead to the annihilation of Poe's narrators, his influence cannot be escaped.
When Poe began writing stories in earnest in the early 1830s, the gothic genre, by far the most popular in the periodicals of the day, was, in artistic terms, distinctly hackneyed. Responding to sniffy charges of "Germanism", in the preface to his first collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Poe averred that "terror is not of Germany, but of the soul", and one of the primary reasons for the longevity of his stories lies with their ability to present stock scenarios (live burial, the doppelgänger, possession) in ways that tap into far more profound wells of horror than most gothic authors – or horror writers generally – locate. These atmospheres transcend his sometimes turgid prose, and the finales described as the "campy, floozy 'Boo!' business at the end", by offering destabilising visions of madness, obsessive love, cruelty and endemic menace.
Ever since Marie Bonaparte's pioneering study from a Freudian perspective, published in 1934 (which, wrote Richard Wilbur, "though absurd in all the expected ways … comes up with many constants of imagery and narrative pattern"), Poe's works have often been considered proto-psychological. As Benjamin F Fisher notes, this way of reading them "finds excellent symbols in the spiralling staircases and downward spirals into ocean depths or mouldering sub-cellars of ruinous mansions and abbeys" they abound in. Similarly, while individual stories might take place in London (The Man of the Crowd), off the coast of Norway (Descent Into the Maelström), or a "chain of wild and dreary hills that lie westward and southward of Charlottesville" (A Tale of the Ragged Mountains, the only story Poe set in his native Virginia), the vagueness of many of the settings reinforces the sense that it is really internal, psychic landscapes they are describing.
idea is underlined by Poe's repeated presentation of buildings as metaphors for the human mind. In The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), his most controlled, concentrated story, he describes a rotting mansion with a crack running through it. Likewise the incestuous Usher twins, Roderick and Madeline, are two halves of a divided self that, once separated, disintegrates. In William Wilson (1839), Poe's superb take on the doppelgänger myth, the boarding school where the narrator and his uncanny double Wilson first encounter one another has "no end to its windings – to its incomprehensible subdivisions". Just as the two boys seem to represent the competing natures of a single psyche, so within the school building it is "difficult, at any given time, to say with certainty upon which of its two storeys one happened to be". Hidden away like an unpleasant notion, Wilson rooms in one of the "many little nooks or recesses" that entail "the odds and ends of the structure". The gap here between Poe's fiction and later theories of repression, or the narrator's "wild, confused and thronging memories of a time when memory herself was yet unborn" and the Freudian unconscious, is irresistibly narrow.
Poe's genius in William Wilson is to tell the story not of a good protagonist bedevilled by an evil twin, but of a corrupt man tormented by a vision of his better self. How like our own internal lives, haunted by the better decisions and kinder acts of our ideal selves. As Poe's biographer Kenneth Silverman points out, doubling is a recurring feature of Poe's work, from the Usher twins and William Wilson to the sleuth C Auguste Dupin and his arch enemy in The Purloined Letter, Minister D–. The occluded name invites the possibility – never distant in Poe – that Dupin's adversary is in fact an alternate version of himself.
Poe's three Dupin stories, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter, created the template for detective fiction that Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie would use for their most famous creations, Conan Doyle saying of Poe's detective stories that "each is a root from which a whole literature has developed". Dupin is a man, in Peter Thoms's phrase, with the "ability to read the mysterious space of the city". He is a decipherer of symbols, and it is this ability that Borges – who cites Poe throughout his work – transplants into Erik Lönnrot, a detective who considers himself "a pure thinker, an Auguste Dupin", whose murder investigation revolves around the secret name of the Hebrew god.
Lönrott's quest turns out to be a dead end, the case an elaborate trap. Unlike the Dupin of The Purloined Letter, he cannot outwit his criminal counterpart. Jacques Lacan made much of the fact that in Poe's story every character is driven to act by a letter (or "signifier") whose contents are unknown, and the blankness of the purloined letter is just one of many significant absences to be found in Poe's work. Why, in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, were the two victims rearranging the contents of an iron chest at three in the morning? In The Cask of Amontillado, what is the insult for which Montresor enacts his hideous revenge on Fortunato? What is the incomprehensible horror the narrator neglects to describe in The Pit and the Pendulum? These, like the uncertainty of setting discussed earlier, almost goad readers to supply their own meaning. "Poe believed", writes Louise J Kaplan, "that truly imaginative literature locates its deepest meaning in an undercurrent. The surfaces of his tales are always deceptions", requiring effort to "detect the embedded secrets". There is also another possibility: that these absences bid the reader to supply their own meaning, to interact with and map their own guilt, urges and frustrations onto the stories.
Two of Poe's most famous stories, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat (both 1843), revolve around the same absence: the motive for the murders they describe. "I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him", the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart tells us, while death in The Black Cat arrives suddenly and unexpectedly, apparently as much a surprise to the murderous narrator as to us ("I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain"). Both stories are monologues, both describe maniacal states, and both contain passages of unusually blunt prose, as striking as a folk tale's: "The night waned; I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs".
The echoes of these distinctive, reliably unreliable voices, which foreshadow the stream-of-consciousness technique, can be heard, as shouts or whispers, in works by authors such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Nabokov, Thomas Bernhard and Roberto Bolaño. In his Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories, Bolaño writes: "The honest truth is that with Edgar Allan Poe, we would all have more than enough good material to read", and his By Night in Chile can be considered a homage. The book is a novel-length monologue by a right-wing priest, Father Urrutia Lacroix, who is also the pseudonymous literary critic H Ibacache. It is a supposed confession, the rant of a man haunted by his former self, and over the course of the book Urrutia proves as slippery as Poe's earlier creations, while his narrative contains the distinctly gothic vision of a husband torturing political prisoners in the basement while his wife entertains guests upstairs. Like Poe's central works, Bolaño's novel enacts the battle of the divided self, placing us on a steep pathway descending from surface respectability into darker drives and longings.
042 Danilo Kiš
043 Flannery O'Connor
044 Frank O'Connor
045 John Cheever
046 Roberto Bolaño
047 Machado de Assis
048 Angela Carter
049 Guy de Maupassant
050 Ivan Turgenev