Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Poe, Edgar Allan

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(1809-1849) US writer, poet and editor, one of the most important figures in the development of the US short story and a seminal influence on Supernatural Fiction, Science Fiction and detective fiction. Orphaned at age two, he was raised by a wealthy merchant, John Allan, of Richmond, Virginia. The family visited England in 1815; there EAP was educated until their return to the USA in 1820. His brief time at university showed his proclivity for languages, but his dissolute lifestyle soon plunged him into debt and drink. EAP argued with his foster-father and ran away from home. His first volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems (coll 1827 chap), privately published, was a financial failure. He spent time at West Point, but was expelled. Now cut off from John Allan, EAP found his poetry – two further volumes, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (coll 1829 chap) and Poems (coll 1831 chap), had appeared – while critically acclaimed, brought in no money, and he turned to fiction and essays; he also briefly edited four magazines, Southern Literary Messenger (December 1835-January 1837), The Gentleman's Magazine (July 1839-June 1840), Graham's Magazine (April 1841-May 1842) and The Broadway Journal (March 1845-January 1846). These contained many of his writings and allowed him an editorial platform for his favourite topics. He caused much interest by predicting – in "Charles Dickens" (Saturday Evening Post 1 May 1841) – the conclusion of Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge (1841) after publication of the first three chapters. His essay, "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846 Graham's) is a remarkable assessment of the process of writing. Of the several collections of EAP's essays the most readily available is Poems & Essays (coll 1881 UK) ed Andrew Lang and the most complete is Essays and Reviews (1984) ed G R Thompson (1937-    ).

EAP's poetry was heavily influenced by the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron, with a deep brooding melancholy pervaded by the darkness of the soul and intrusion of the ghosts of memory. This same mood influenced his early fiction, though this also showed his appreciation of the writings of E T A Hoffmann, Walter Scott and the German Romantics whose stories were appearing in Blackwood's Magazine. EAP's first published story, "Metzengerstein" (1832 Saturday Courier) is heavily Gothic, with the usual trappings of revenge and Fate. It started a loosely connected series which EAP called Tales of the Folio Club (see Club Story) in which 11 friends form a club with the entry qualifications of writing a short story. Two of these stories have become classics: "MS Found in a Bottle" (1833 Baltimore Saturday Visitor) – which won a newspaper competition and earned EAP national recognition – and "A Descent Into the Maelstrom" (1841 Graham's). Both qualify as Travellers' Tales. "MS Found in a Bottle" is a nautical horror story, and is largely a pilot for the much longer The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1837 Southern Literary Messenger; dated 1837 but 1838; vt Arthur Gordon Pym, or Shipwreck, Mutiny and Famine 1841 UK; vt The Wonderful Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym 1861 UK; reissued with continuation by Jules Verne as The Mystery of Arthur Gordon Pym 1960 UK). Neither version is overtly supernatural, although both contain ghost ships (see Flying Dutchman). More significantly, along with "A Descent Into the Maelstrom" – which EAP regarded as one of his best stories – they are each an Allegory for a descent into madness through an awareness of the terrors of one's soul, a theme which is central to most of EAP's later fiction.

His particular torments were all related to death, and here The Masque of the Red Death (1842 Graham's; 1923 chap; vt The Mask of the Red Death 1969 chap) is central. Another allegory, it is a crescendo of mounting terror, in the form of a Dance of Death, as Prince Prospero endeavours to isolate himself from the plague but inevitably faces Death (see also Masques). Around this story parade two other key themes. One is incarceration, especially Premature Burial, as evident in The Black Cat (1843 US Saturday Post; 1914 chap), The Tell-Tale Heart (1843 The Pioneer; 1916 chap) – both Psychological Thrillers of guilt – "The Premature Burial" (1844 Dollar Newspaper), and to some extent "The Oblong Box" (1844 Godey's Lady's Book). Incarceration is central to EAP's major Conte Cruel, "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1843 The Gift). The other theme is that of the return from the dead, which may be in the form of recovery from a trance or disease or may remain unexplained. Within this lie his trilogy of Femme-Fatale stories, "Berenice" (1835 Southern Literary Messenger), which is also a Vampire story, "Morella" (1835 Southern Literary Messenger) and the superior Ligeia (1838 American Museum; 1943 chap UK). In "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845 Broadway Journal; vt "The Facts of M. Valdemar's Case"; vt Mesmerism, 'In Articulo Mortis' 1846 chap UK) EAP uses Mesmerism to perpetuate the life of the spirit after the death of the body. EAP's masterpiece in this territory, however, is The Fall of the House of Usher (1839 Gentleman's Magazine; 1903 chap). At the same time as he wrote about the doom of Roderick Usher, EAP was exploring the theme of linked Souls and Doppelgängers in "William Wilson" (1839 Gentleman's Magazine), but in Usher he takes the masterful step of linking Usher's Soul with that of his house. In retrospect this is a natural conclusion of the Gothic Fantasy, with its emphasis on Edifice and torment, but EAP was first to forge that connection. Superficially the story deals with a brother whose sister, Madeline, is believed dead but who returns to life. Upon seeing her, Roderick dies and Madeline dies with him. At that moment the house falls. The haunting melancholy of death, particularly the death of a young woman, also fuelled EAP's poetry, especially "Lenore" (1831; rev 1843; rev 1845) and its remarkable sequel "The Raven" (1845 American Review) where death haunts the narrator in the form of a raven. EAP assembled his first volume of stories as Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (coll 1840 2 vols).

Although EAP wrote other stories, including several humorous ones, it is his works of terror and anguish that made him famous and which have had an incalculable effect on literature. It would be impossible to list all of the authors influenced by him, especially as such influence naturally becomes attenuated over the years. Of special significance, however, are Charles Baudelaire, who translated EAP's work into French and championed it across Europe – EAP's fiction lends itself well to the French language, and EAP must be reckoned an important forefather of the literature of Decadence. de Maupassant was another literary heir. EAP's poetry was an acknowledged influence on Algernon Swinburne and Lord Tennyson, and his horror fiction influenced Robert Louis Stevenson, M P Shiel, W C Morrow (?1853-1923), Ambrose Bierce and H P Lovecraft (through whom his influence spread to many more, especially Thomas Ligotti). EAP's work shaped the development of the Horror genre during the 19th century, particularly in the short-story form, and his tales featured regularly in Anthologies of the day. It was a fascination for EAP's work that caused Jacob Henneberger (1890-1969) to launch Weird Tales in 1923. EAP's life, too, fascinates authors, and he appears as a character in many stories and novels. These include The Man Who Was Poe (1989) by Avi, The Hollow Earth (1990) by Rudy Rucker (1946-    ), Nevermore (1994) by William Hjortsberg, The Bloody Red Baron (1995) by Kim Newman and The Lighthouse at the End of the World (1995) by Stephen Marlowe (1928-2008, who normally wrote as Milton Lesser), which explores the last week of EAP's life. Sam Moskowitz (1920-1997) compiled a collection of such stories, including also rarities by EAP, in The Man Who Called Himself Poe (1969; vt A Man Called Poe 1972 UK).

Only two other story collections were issued during EAP's lifetime. His emerging popularity was evident with the special printing of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841 Graham's), the first of his Auguste Dupin detective stories, along with "The Man who Was Used Up" in a booklet entitled The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe (coll 1843 chap). This item is the rarest of all of Poe's books. With the success of "The Raven", EAP was able to secure the New York publication of a collection of his poetry, The Raven and Other Poems (coll 1845), and this was published as a companion to Tales (coll 1845) – the two assembled as Tales and The Raven (omni 1846) in a special hardcover edition. The contents for Tales had been selected by New York editor and literary specialist Evert Duyckinck (1816-1878); EAP was not happy with the choice.

After the death of his consumptive wife Virginia (1822-1847), EAP became even more dissolute and drunken. Nevertheless, the success of his books allowed EAP to return to his first love, poetry, and this brought him some relief. Also, he found love again, and this uplift in his spirit is reflected in his fiction – as in the Ellison sequence, "The Landscape Garden" (1842 Snowden's Ladies Companion) and "The Domain of Arnhem" (1847 Columbian Magazine) – and their spiritual sequel, "Landor's Cottage" (1849 Flag of Our Union), which are almost transcendental in their study of beauty and the creativity of wealth. It is interesting to speculate whether, had EAP lived longer, he would have moved away from horror fiction towards other fields.

Collections of EAP's fiction are too many and varied to list here. The first collected edition, The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (coll 1850 3 vols; 1856 vol 4) was ed Rufus Griswold (1815-1857), EAP's literary executor who, though trusted by EAP, ignored the author's own amendments to his stories and published original texts together with a malicious biography, which invented many of the myths still perpetuated about Poe. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (coll 1902 17 vols) was ed James A Harrison. The standard title of most EAP collections was first used on Tales of Mystery and Imagination (coll 1855 Canada); the most popular edition of this title, with variant contents, is Tales of Mystery and Imagination (coll 1919 UK), illustrated by Harry Clarke. Other books and collections of interest include: The Raven (1883 UK chap), the last book to be illustrated by Gustav Doré; The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (coll 1900 UK), illustrated by W Heath Robinson; The Bells and Other Poems (coll 1912), illustrated by Edmund Dulac; The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (coll 1927); The Book of Poe: Tales, Criticisms, Poems (coll 1929); The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (coll 1938); and The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (coll 1945). Peter Haining has compiled The Edgar Allan Poe Scrapbook (coll 1977) and The Edgar Allan Poe Bedside Companion (coll 1980). [MA]

further reading: Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941) by Arthur H Quinn; The French Face of Edgar Allan Poe (1957) by Patrick H Quinn; Edgar Allan Poe (1961; rev 1977) by Vincent Buranelli; Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend (1963) by Edward Wagenknecht; Edgar Allan Poe (1977) by David Sinclair; The Tell-Tale Heart: The Extraordinary Mr Poe (1978) by Wolf Mankowitz; The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1978) by Julian Symons; The Rationale of Deception in Poe (1979) by David Ketterer; A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe (1980) by David R Saliba.

Edgar Allan Poe


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.