Greetings again, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World! Let’s talk horror. Classic Horror. When it comes to horror, one name reigns supreme through the centuries — one man, one dark, despairing, tortured man who gave everything he had to deliver to the world a fragment of the agonies of his soul. I speak, of course, of Edgar Allan Poe — the man without whom, we would not have horror today.
Born Edgar Poe on January 19th, 1809 in Boston, within a year his father had abandoned the family and within two his mother was dead of tuberculosis. Young Edgar was brought to live with the family of prosperous Scottish merchant John Allan, in Richmond, Virginia. Though never formally adopted by the Allan family, Edgar took their surname, calling himself Edgar Allan Poe.
The Allans’ prosperity afforded Edgar an excellent primary education, and he enrolled at the University of Virginia to further his secondary education. Unfortunately, he got mixed up with gambling, forcing him to drop out of school. Joining the army, and then attending West Point Academy, did not agree with him, and he eventually left, at which point his ties with the Allans were severed at the behest of John Allan’s second wife, who didn’t like Edgar.
While in the military, Poe published his first collection of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems anonymously, signing his work solely as “a Bostonian.” By 1831, Poe was attempting to support himself by his writing alone — the first American writer to attempt to do so, an effort largely frustrated by the lack of international copyright law. In 1835, he married his cousin Virginia Clemm; he was 26 at the time, and she was 13, though their marriage certificate lists her as 20 years old.
In 1842, Virginia would show the first signs of tuberculosis, of which she never fully recovered, eventually passing away in 1847. With the passing of his mother at a formative age and now his wife, it should come as no surprise that themes of “the death of a beautiful woman” and “horror of someone being buried alive” run rampant through Poe’s work.
In 1849, Poe would be found wandering the streets of Baltimore, delirious and raving about, or to, someone named “Reynolds,” who has never been identified. He was hospitalized, where he died a few days later on October 7th. His cause of death remains unknown.
It is impossible to overstate Poe’s influence not only on horror, but on literature as a whole. His horror stories are masterful elegies of macabre atmosphere, especially tales such as “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” His story “The Cask of Amontillado” is required reading in many high school English classes — I know it was in mine. It’s safe to say that without Poe, individuals such as H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King may never have found their own literary voices.
With the short story “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe created the genre of detective fiction — before the word detective was even coined. Within the tale, C. Auguste Dupin examines clues that have eluded the police and correctly deduces that the murders have been committed by an orangutan. Hmm, eccentric civilian detective, bumbling police and stories told in the first person by a friend of the detective’s…sound like anyone we know? Dupin, and indeed the entire format of Poe’s Dupin tales, form the basis of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes saga. Doyle acknowledged this debt, saying of Poe’s detective stories that they were “…a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”
Amusingly, the character Holmes was more dismissive of Dupin. In 1887’s A Study in Scarlet, the very first Holmes tale, Dr. Watson compares Holmes to Dupin. Holmes responds by calling Dupin “…a very inferior fellow… He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appears to imagine.” Ironically, while Holmes comments negatively on Dupin’s tendency to break in on his friend’s thoughts and comment on what the bewildered fellow is thinking, Holmes pulls the same trick on Watson a number of times, perhaps a testament to the Great Detective’s vanity.
Poe additionally influenced the development of science fiction. Jules Verne, one of the men commonly referred to as the “father of Science Fiction,” was a great admirer of Poe’s, writing a sequel — The Sphinx of the Ice Fields — to Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Additionally, Verne’s several tales involving hot air balloons stem from Poe’s “The Balloon-Hoax.”
So let’s have ourselves a little IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE moment here. Placing Poe in the position of George Bailey, we see that if he’d never lived we would lose so much of horror literature, all of detective fiction, and science fiction would take a devastating blow. Our world is so much richer that he has lived, and though he was taken from us far too soon, he nevertheless left the world a more grotesque and arabesque place then when he found it.
This drink’s for you, Edgar. In Pace Requiscat!