Edited by Ellen Datlow
Trade paper, 352 pages, $15.00
Review by Sheila Merritt
Literary anthologies are like writing’s equivalent of a restaurant buffet: There’s usually something that will appease the appetite. The problem is, to continue the analogy, it is too easy to overindulge and then be discontented. In Poe, editor Ellen Datlow has put together nineteen new stories to commemorate the 200th birthday of the author. The tales, many of which are by award winning writers, are in some way inspired by Poe. Most by his writing (“The Masque of the Red Death” being the most popular choice,) a few by his life, and one specifically by pop culture’s revisionist take on his stories. Regarding that, Roger Corman’s “adaptations” of Poe’s compositions into movies is a theme of the first tale, and those films are briefly referenced in the closing story. The anthology itself is a mixed plate from a cornucopia of choices; some will be deliciously appetizing, others will merely mentally fill the reader up, and then there are those selections that produce an intellectual response not unlike bloating from excess.
As a taste of what is subjectively appealing, the most delectable morsels are three tantalizing tales. The opening story, Kim Newman’s “Illimitable Domain,” seizes on the permutations of Poe by the movies. This humorous, irreverent, and yet viably sound analysis of the subversion of Poe’s works is quirky and bizarrely insightful to an extreme. Imagine an agent for a chimpanzee actor, the casting for The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and throw in Hollywood’s facile facility for repetition, and stir fry over high heat. Spicy and unusual on the palate; this rates strongly for a different flavor.
For a more traditional savoring with a twist in the preparation, there is “The Red Piano” by Delia Sherman. Sherman, as chef, concocts a dish with an ingredient that perks up the senses. Here the basic tortured protagonist, named Roderick Hawthorne, is secondary in emphasis to the prototypical Poe female character. From a woman’s point of view, this is very intriguing: Hey, what did Morella, Berenice, Annabel Lee, Lenore, and so many others feel when falling madly in love with an epicene head case? Set in present day, this is a fine look at romance, seduction, and literally hitting the right keys. Sherman’s gift of description is very strong, as when she depicts a house: “There was a vagueness about its soot-streaked windows, an aura of fogs and mists that spoke of gaslight and the clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestones, as if it somehow occupied an ancient lacuna in the roar and clatter of the modern city.”
The last story in the volume, “Technicolor” by John Langan, is the strongest in the book. It skillfully blends and incorporates flavors from Poe’s life, historical and literary works that may have influenced him, biographical details, and an academic analysis of “The Masque of the Red Death.” The sizzling, but slow-cooking recipe results in a genuinely scary final course. The seemingly benign premise of a literature instructor lecturing his class builds to a climax that is shocking. It will be hard to complacently regard professors or read Poe again without wondering, “What if…”
In Poe, there are nineteen new tales to read. Depending on taste and palate, a reader can find some satiating stories. It is interesting to note, though, that none of these recent writings can compare with a work of another master, and his take on Edgar Allan Poe: Granted, it’s a ridiculously hard act to follow, but Robert Bloch’s “The Man Who Collected Poe” surpasses anything in this compilation. Happy 200th, Edgar; and here’s to you, dear Robert.