'Complicated machines for saying Boo!': the tales of Edgar Allan Poe
Updated: May 5
Edgar Allan Poe's name is synonymous with horror and detective fiction. He is considered to be the father of both the detective story, with his introduction of Dupin in 'The Murders of the Rue Morgue' (1841) and of the modern psychological horror. There are even those who believe he is the founder of the science fiction genre with his short story 'The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall'. However, it is his horror fiction for which Poe is more known. His horror writing rarely stumbles into the world of the supernatural - his horror is that of the mind.
Although often bizarre, Poe's tales are extremely effective and realistic: they are written from his own fears and show his own phobias and neuroses. His fear of loneliness, insanity, rejection, insecurity, death and in inability to form close lasting relationships manifested themselves in depression and excessive gambling, drinking and drug use. Coupled with his own biographical details these combine to create a disturbed and tortured man, who lived on the fine line between genius and madness, like many of his characters. Poe himself acknowledged this madness and attributed it to the death of his wife: "I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank, God only knows how often and how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink, rather than the drink to the insanity."
More than any other author, an understanding of Poe's background is needed to fully grasp his multi-layered writings and appreciate his obsession with death and the mysteries of life. His life was set against a backdrop of financial instability and deep emotional trauma going back to his childhood: Born on 19 January 1809, the son of itinerant actors he was orphaned at the age of three and was raised by John Allan who later disowned him. Poe spent two years in the army, which he joined to avoid paying gambling debts, and was dishonourably discharged from West Point Military for deliberately neglecting duty. In 1836 he married his 13-year old cousin, Virginia Clemm, who burst a blood vessel while singing in 1842. She remained in ill-health until she died of tuberculosis in 1846 aged 23. Poe attempted suicide in 1848 while suffering from one of his frequent bouts of depression and madness. Even his death is shrouded in mystery, in September 1849 he went to Baltimore, where he vanished for three days before being discovered, having passed out in a gutter. He died soon after on 7 October 1849.
Julian Symons summarises the relationship between Poe's life and his writings in his 1980 essay 'Poe's Short Stories' where he claims that Poe's terror can be seen as: "an emotion springing from the writers own sufferings and despair.......the stories remain memorable because they contain no real characters, nothing beyond the fears and agonies of their creator."
Poe's tales and poems are contrived to shock the reader, to invite fear and disgust in the vast range of disturbing themes outlined, such as: burial alive, doubles, psychotic behaviour, possession and necrophilia. But, his tales are more than simple horror stories: they are the template from which every psychological horror and detective story has since been based: as morality fables and as outstanding works of literature in their own right. Harriet Hawkins said that: "Like Shakespeare and Dickens, Poe is one of the writers whose work and influence has erased the boundaries between 'High Art' and popular genres."
His short stories are individual and perfectly structured tales, which often take a well-known theme, fable, myth or legend and reevaluate it, drawing on the perverse, the nightmare and the horrific in the retelling. They fit neatly into both the traditional Gothic genre, which relies on a threatening atmosphere to terrify and of the psychological thriller that evokes an ominous atmosphere through familiarity.
In contrast to the morbid nightmarish surreal happenings in Poe's tales, which are often claustrophobic with victims walled in, locked up, buried alive or sucked into whirlpools, they are also beautiful, sumptuous and entrancing. Baudelaire once described Poe's romantic and haunting poetry and prose as "deep and shimmering as dreams, mysterious and perfect as crystal". It is this combination that elevates Poe's work from being merely "complicated machines for saying boo" into literature that can be read and enjoyed on literal, poetic or pleasurable levels.
Richard Wilbur, from whose 1959 essay 'The House of Poe' the quotation "complicated machines for saying boo" is taken, believed that Poe's work was deliberately and accessibly allegorical, and charges other critics with finding no substance in them, allegorical or otherwise. Critics, he believed, are divided over whether Poe's writings are meaningless, decipherable only to similarly warped personalities or as rich symbolical and allegorical works of literature. Richard Wilbur concludes his essay be saying that: "Poe broke new ground, and they [Poe's writings] remain the best things of their kind in our literature .... despite his aesthetic, Poe was a great artist."
'The Tell-Tale Heart' (1843)
"True! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous I have been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease has sharpened my senses - not destroyed - not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily - how calmly I can tell you the whole story." (opening lines) On a literal level, 'The Tell-Tale Heart' is a superficial morality tale - the narrator so racked with guilt, panics and confesses to the murder because he believes that he and everybody else, can hear the loud heartbeat of the victim through the floorboards. The fascination of the story is in the narrator's pathological display of hatred towards the old man. The crime itself is treated ambivalently, the focus being on the state of mind of the murderer and his subsequent destruction and self-destruction.
The narrator begins by admitting that there was neither object nor passion in his murder of the old man: he loved the man, yet plotted to kill him. His motive for killing him was his eye. The story focuses on the narrator's growing obsession with the old man's eye and what an obsessive personality can be driven too. 'The Tell-Tale Heart' is concerned with the workings of the mind of the murderer, as in 'The Cask of Amontillado'. However, in 'The Tell-Tale Heart' the murderer is destroyed by guilt, in 'The Cask of Amontillado' not even the slightest feeling of remorse is hinted at.
'The Tell-Tale Heart' clearly shows Poe's trademark of introducing the story's theme in the first few lines, building on it - and never deviating from it. The story focuses not only on the growing madness and obsession of the murderer, but also on life beyond death which is another frequent theme. The half dead/half living state of characters, the notion that even in death there is no peace, and Poe's interest in the no man's land between living and dying that are explored more fully in two of Poe's finest stories: 'Ligeia' (1838), the tale Poe considered his finest, and 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1839), which is one of his most famous.
In both stories, tortured souls are caught in a nightmare world of death and sex, there are touches of vampirism in the relationships between the dead and the living: between Ligeia and her husband and Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline, this is further shown with both Ligeia and Madeline seemingly returning from the grave. Both are described as being beautiful, emaciated and dying - typical Poe heroines.
'Ligeia' is a story of reincarnation and how a soul can enter the body of another. The plot focuses on Ligeia's unwillingness to stay dead. When Ligeia's husband, the narrator, remarries, Ligeia's spirit returns, poisons his second wife, and takes possession of her body. The story is often considered unsatisfactory as the ending is ambiguous, it is left open, leaving the reader to guess what could possibly have taken place. The husband believes that Ligeia has come to posses the body of his deceased wife. However, as the story focuses on the husband's state of mind, his story could either be a hallucination or reality. This is never truly explained but as an overall theme of Poe's work is of the fear and nightmare world within the mind, it is more likely that the narrator is hallucinating.
'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1839)
There’s a gloom that pervades the opening lines .... "During the whole of a dull and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens" matches the gloom of the characters "...but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit" and it is this story, more than any other, which leaves the boundaries between reality, illusion and madness blurred - making it one of Poe's most symbolic.
This atmosphere of gloom that pervades the opening paragraphs quickly spreads to a morbid and cold atmosphere as Roderick and Madeline's sorrowful plight is unearthed. The atmosphere turns evil once Madeline is buried and Roderick's only escape is through death.
This atmosphere is made more telling through Poe's use of symbolism. The house, Gothic in style, is an architectural ruin set in a desolate and gloomy landscape. The family is equally in decay and dying from an incurable disease. Poe gives inanimate objects - the house and its contents - human characteristics which adds further dimensions to the psychological state of the characters: ".... the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and the dim tarn which they all look down, had at length, brought about upon the morale of his [Roderick Usher's] existence." The house is more significant as a symbol of the Usher family and its demise than with the traditional Gothic image of a decaying house.
It is Roderick Usher's slow demise that is narrated by his childhood friend. Madeline does not speak and is absent for most of the story. We witness Roderick's increasing instability, physical torment and his intensifying fragile grasp on reality, especially concerning his identical twin sister. This battling relationship, culminating in Roderick's burial of his still living sister can be read as a symbol of Roderick's need to confront the turmoil in his own mind. The reader never fully learns the truth about the death or supposed death of Madeline - did she die of some strange illness or did Roderick murder her? This could explain his progressively worsening mental state and the increasing atmosphere of evil that permeates the house after her burial.
John G Calwelti says 'The Fall of the House of Usher' more than any other of Poe's tales: "shows us the incomprehensibility of the unknown and the limits of the knowable, we know that something terrible is happening between Roderick and his sister, but we cannot and never will find out just what."
'The Murders of the Rue Morgue' (1841)
Here, Poe is at his most rational, and was written so that Poe "might not go mad". However, it is as full of the hideous expected terror as any of Poe's more traditional horror stories.
Although C Auguste Dupin, the detective, is an analytical and deductive reasoning machine, who solves the first 'locked room' mystery - the murder he has to solve is a most horrible crime. The victims are both women, in 1841 the murder of women would have had a strong shock value - akin to the mutilation of children now.
The two victims were brutally murdered, the first was throttled and her body thrust up the chimney. The second had locks of hair pulled from its roots, her throat so severely cut that her head fell off when attempts were made to lift her. Even Poe's choice of murderer was not human, he makes it a beast - an orangutan which can be considered more frightening than a mere man.
Not only is the brutality reminiscent of Poe's horror tales, but also the dark side of the characters. Although analytical, Poe manages to introduce menace by making Dupin and his companion creatures of the night. During the day the shutters are drawn and they are lit by candlelight. In addition Dupin wears green tinted glasses while sitting in his apartment in a decaying Gothic mansion in Paris. Poe acknowledges their eccentric lifestyle when the narrator, Dupin's companion, says that: "Had the routine of our life at this place been known to the world, we should had been regarded as madmen."
Although Poe’s five detective stories have spawned a whole new genre, it is his horror stories for which he is best remembered, as they avoid easy interpretation and broad generalisations. They are unique and stand alone from his contemporaries and imitators - they can be read purely for the pleasure of being frightened or as examples of literary symbolism and aestheticism.
No matter how they are read, they will never be duplicated. It is the relationship between Poe's life and his work that is crucial to the understanding and pleasure of his work. This tragic relationship has been summarised by Hillary Waugh: "The grotesque horrors that identify most of Poe's short stories could not have been imagined by anyone else, only Poe's mind would go in such directions. Try, any one who will, to turn out such dark terrors. Poe's legacy is that only he could do it and the rest of us should be thankful that our soul's have not been so tortured that we could do it too."
Besides his imagination Poe developed the perfect prose style to bring it so vividly to the page. It is this contribution that has caused Poe's tales to influence and inspire artists in all fields ever since. They remain popular long after those stories written by contemporaries and successors with the sole intention of saying 'boo'.
Buranelli, Vincent Edgar Allan Poe, Bobbs Merrill, 1977
Calwelti, John G Adventure, Mystery and Romance, University of Chicago Press, 1977
Cunliffe, Marcus The Literature of the United States, Pelican, 1954
Hawkins, Harriet Classics and Trash, University of Toronto Press, 1990
Marsden, Simon Visions of Poe Webb & Bower 1988
Regan, Robert (ed.) Poe: ACollection of Critical Essays, A Spectrum Book, 1967
Symons, Julian Criminal Practices, Macmillan, 1994
Walker, Marshall The Literature of the United States of America, Macmillan History of Literature, 1983
Waugh, Hillary Hillary Waugh's Guide to Mysteries and Mystery Writing Writers Digest Books, 1991
 as re-printed in Visions of Poe by Simon Marsden  as reprinted in Criminal Practices a collection of Julian Symons’s essays  in Classics and Trash as re-printed in Visions of Poe by Simon Marsden as re-printed in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays in Adventure, Mystery and Romance by John G Calwelti  Joseph Wood Krutch (author of Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius) reprinted in as Hillary Waugh's Guide to Mysteries and Mystery Writing  The Murders of the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, The Purloined Letter, The Gold Bug and Thou Art The Man in Hillary Waugh's Guide to Mysteries and Mystery Writing