[This is a reprint of a column which originally appeared in the December 12, 2002, issue of Hellnotes.]
Edgar Allan Poe came into the world in Boston on January 19, 1809. Orphaned before he was three, he went to live in Richmond, Va., with foster parents, John and Frances Allan. Poe received his education in Scotland, England, and Virginia, where his studies focused on the classics. He spent some time in the Army and later briefly attended West Point. In 1836, he married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm, who died in 1847.
Edgar A. Poe, as he signed his works, had a troubled life, which he described himself as “insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” His two greatest vices were drinking and gambling, which cost him many jobs and caused a falling out with his foster father. Because of these problems, he spent a good portion of his life in poverty. He also suffered from depression and attempted suicide several times.
Poe is perhaps the most important horror writer in history. It is to Poe, according to H.P. Lovecraft, that “we owe the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state.” In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft devotes an entire chapter to Poe, the only writer so honored.
Poe started as a poet before moving into prose. His first published work was Tamerlane, and Other Poems (1827). This was followed by three other volumes of poetry: Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (1829), Poems by Edgar Allan Poe (1831), and The Raven and Other Poems (1845). “The Raven,” first published in The New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845, made Poe famous both in the United States and abroad.
Poetic phrasing and a sense of rhythm lent power to Poeâ€™s prose writing, such as “The Masque of the Red Death” and even the less overtly poetic “Ligeia.” His writing shimmered with word appeal, visual imagery, and close attention to detail.
His first stories were the humorous and satirical Tales of the Folio Club, five of which were published individually in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier in 1832. The first was “Metzengerstein,” on January 14, which was his first published story. Later Folio tales were published in the Southern Literary Messenger and other publications. One of the Folio tales, “Berenice,” was Poe’s first true horror story, published in 1835 in the Southern Literary Messenger.
Poe’s first prose collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, was published in 1839 (but dated 1840). This two-volume work collected 25 of his stories, including “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “MS. Found in a Bottle.”
Other well known weird tales include “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), “The Black Cat” (1843), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). Poe rarely used the supernatural in his tales of terror. His frights were produced by depictions of madness and murder. Poe explored the horror created by the human mind, and he “understood so perfectly,” according to Lovecraft, “the very mechanics and physiology of fear and strangeness.”
Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, was published in 1838. This gothic sea novel tells of the adventures of two young New Englanders who stow away on a whaling ship. Though published as a novel, it has an uneven, episodic feel to it, suggesting that perhaps it started as a series of short stories. Influences of this book are seen in the works of such writers as Herman Melville, Jack London, Jules Verne, and H.P. Lovecraft.
Poe is also considered the father of the detective story, as evidenced by his mysteries “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Gold-Bug” (1843), among others.
Besides writing poetry and fiction, Poe was an editor for several publications, and he wrote well-respected, often feared literary criticism in those positions, much of which earned him the ill will of other writers. In 1845, he took over ownership of the Broadway Journal, but the paper folded four months later. He attempted to publish his own literary magazine, The Stylus, but was unsuccessful.
Poe died in Baltimore in 1849. Mystery surrounds his death. All that is known is that he was found in the streets in a drunken stupor the night of October 3, 1849, wearing someone else’s clothes. He was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he lapsed in and out of consciousness and then into a coma. In the hours before his death, Poe repeatedly shouted out, “Reynolds,” though it is unknown to whom he was referring. He died on October 7 after muttering his final words: “Lord, help my poor soul.”
Poe’s cause of death was never determined. Some say he died of alcoholism, some say a heart condition or a brain lesion. Other theories include tuberculosis, epilepsy, diabetes, and rabies. He may have been the victim of a political gang, or he may have been mugged.
Equally mysterious is Poe’s exact burial spot in the Old Western Burial Grounds at Westminster Hall in downtown Baltimore. He was buried in an unmarked grave, and his body was later moved to another grave, though some wonder if the right body was moved. It is unknown if the gravestone erected in 1875 is above his final resting place.
Intrigue surrounds Poe to this day. Every year since 1949, on the night of Poe’s birthday, a mysterious man-in-black slips through the shadows and leaves a half-full bottle of cognac and three red roses, and occasionally an unsigned note, on Poe’s grave. The roses probably represent Poe, his wife, and her mother, who are buried in the plot. The significance of the cognac is unknown as is the identity of the visitor. Poe would have approved.
Suggested Reading: Works by Poe are widely available, in many editions, from inexpensive paperbacks to luxurious leatherbound volumes. There are several editions of Poe’s complete works available. A 1,026-page paperback by Vintage Books, The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, includes all of his short stories, his novel, 53 poems, and selected essays and criticisms, and is reasonably priced at $16.00. Smaller volumes are available that contain Poe’s most significant and popular works.