I first became familiar with the works of Edgar Allan Poe when I read the French version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” few years ago. I was immediately both amazed and intrigued. If it weren’t for authors like the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who translated some of Poe’s work to French, non-native English speakers like myself would not have had the opportunity to read the masterful works of Poe, whose work had exerted a wide influence in American literature.
The 1830s and 1840s marked a very important time period of Poe’s life in which he introduced his readers to unique literary experiences through horror and science fiction writing. In regards to science fiction, Edgar Allan Poe was first acknowledged as the inventor of the genre by the French author Jules Verne who saluted Poe as “Le createur du roman merveilleux scientifique” which translates to “The creator of the science fiction novel”. He is also considered to be an integral pioneer of both the horror and thriller genres.
“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” is the only complete novel by Edgar Allan Poe, which was published 1838. This adventure novel is poised as a sort of autobiography of the character Arthur Gordon Pym, whose fascination with the sea made him embark on an unforgettable journey filled with mutiny, shipwreck, and even cannibalism. The tale in many ways sets a starting point for science fiction writing. What began as a simple sea-fairing adventure later unveils cataclysmic events and fascinating creatures. The novel also displays a good amalgam of adventure, science fiction, mystery and horror. The first installment of a serialized version of “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” was published in The Southern Literary Messenger in January 1837 (Object #1)
Object #1: Edgar Allan Poe, “Arthur Gordon Pym, No. I.” Southern Literary Messenger, January 1837.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” was first published in 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (Object #2). It tells the story of Roderick Usher, who disposed of his twin sister by entombing her alive in their home. Roderick Usher, like many of Poe’s characters, was suffering from an unknown illness. The tale may have been inspired by true events of the two real life Usher twins, James Campbell Usher and Agnes Pye Usher. As much as some of Poe’s tales sound eerily surreal, one might be surprised to learn that some may in fact be inspired by true events.
Object #2: Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, volume V, for July to December 1839. Contains Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in September 1839.
“The Pit and The Pendulum” is another tale that is derived from true events. The story is told in a retrospective fashion and is centered on an unnamed prisoner who suffered a series of torments and tortures at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. The story itself is very symbolic in nature; the pit, called a “typical hell” in Poe’s own words, can be considered as one’s descent to hell – an expression of terror. Similarly, the pendulum might be a symbol of the passage time and the inevitability of death, although the pendulum ironically sets the poor prisoner free.
Even though the story doesn’t depict Poe’s typical motif, where central characters die (the hero was rescued at the end), the focus on the anticipation of the inevitable and the seemingly endless possibilities and that alone makes any horror story both horrifying and mysterious. The tale was first published in 1842 in the literary annual The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843 (Object #3).
Object #3: “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1842.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is another well-known short story that many of us had to read in high school or in college English courses. The tale is being told by an unnamed narrator, who immediately begins by attempting to convince the reader of his sanity (while actually revealing the absence of it) in describing the murder that he carefully planned and the utterly absurd motive behind it. In a way, Poe is making a grotesque mockery of the proverb “Home is where the heart is”. It is clear from this masterpiece that the grandfather of Gothic horror is describing home as a place of misery rather than a place of sanctuary (perhaps in reference to his own experience, having been orphaned at the age of two).
“The Tell-Tale Heart” can also be perceived as a murder mystery. While we know who the killer is, the mystery lies in the interpretation of the victim’s heart beating on in the wall of the house(Object#8). Was the heart actually beating, or were the sounds a manifestation of the narrator’s guilty conscience and slipping sanity? The story was first published in James Russell Lowell’s The Pioneer in January 1843 (Object #4).
Object #4: Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Pioneer, January 1843.
Poe’s science fiction writings work within the confines to his own scientific understanding of the surrounding world with a few twists of imagination. In the “Mesmeric Revelations”, Poe uses hypnosis as a means of exploring and experiencing the world and the realms beyond matter as we know it. In this tale, a sick and dying Mr. Vankirk was hypnotized and spoke of God and the afterlife not in religious/spiritual terms, but rather in a more scientific/empirical manner. While this tale is regarded by most as quite difficult to intelligibly decipher, it remains a profound piece of work. This tale is more of a discourse most likely appreciated by those who are familiar with physics and philosophy; metaphysics is the term that best describes this blend of topics (Object #5).
Object #5: Edgar Allan Poe, “Mesmeric Revelation.” The Columbian Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1844.
The closest of Poe’s tales to the modern science fiction is perhaps “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” in which the hero claims that he had taken a balloon made of dirty newspaper to the moon (Object #6).. At the end of the story the reader learns that the whole thing was just a hoax.
Object #6: “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” illustrated by Harry Clarke in The Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Later versions of Poe’s writing were published with illustrations which offered new interpretations of the works. These dark and grotesque illustrations added new meaning to the work and helped readers more viscerally connect to Poe’s works, even after his death (Objects#6-9).
Object #7: “The Pit and the Pendulum” illustrated by Harry Clarke in The Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Object #8: “Tell-Tale heart” illustrated by Harry Clarke in The Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Object #9: Abner Epstein, illustration for Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher. New York: Cheshire House, 1931.
Considering even just the few works mentioned here, we can see that Poe’s writing had a diverse reach that would go on to influence countless authors from numerous genres, some of which Poe himself can be accredited with inventing. Even 168 years after his death, Edgar Allan Poe’s most gruesome and chilling tales are still gripping as they were when they were first published.
Although Poe’s works might not fit within the popular modern-day definition of science fiction, he clearly laid the groundwork for the genre that would later be developed into what it is today. Similarly, Poe’s finesse as a horror writer is unquestionable and his works remain highly relevant to this day.
The images included in this article are from The Susan Jaffe Tane Collection, as presented in the The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore and Beyond at Johns Hopkins University and the Harry Clarke illustrations for E A Poe, as presented in http://50watts.com/Harry-Clarke-Illustrations-for-E-A-Poe