Tales of Horror by Edgar Allan Poe
Today, as even someone barely conscious would realise, is Hallowe’en; that time of the year when we fall victim to rampant commercialism, encourage our children to dress up as the most gruesome creatures and go off to terrify local old people into giving them treats. I often think that the fact they give the little dears things that will rot their teeth and give them diabetes is a subtle form of revenge… But I digress. Behind all this commercial mayhem is a much older celebration, All Hallow’s Eve, when a three-day festival remembered the dead. So what more fitting to read than something a little spooky and gruesome!
I’ve been lucky enough to be have been provided with a review copy of the ideal book, “Tales of Horror” by Edgar Allan Poe, kindly sent by Alma Classics and I’ve been dipping into it over the past few days. The volume is a new addition to their excellent Evergreen range of reasonably price classics, all in lovely jackets, and this is no exception – the striking cover features suitably sombre design and of course Poe’s famous bird!
Short story collections are notoriously hard to review in a short blog post, so I thought instead I would pick out some favourites to share with you. And this really is an excellent selection, with all the stories you’d expect to see (“The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”) as well as some lesser known titles which are just as good. In fact, trying to choose the best from here is really difficult, so I’ll just mention a few that really stood out for me.
First up are two of his stories featuring the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin – “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” (there is a third, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, which doesn’t feature here). The two stories were published in 1841 and 1844, predating Holmes by several decades, and it’s fascinating to see the template being set by Poe of the simple sidekick narrator and the enigmatic genius of a detective. Some of the exchanges, particularly one where Dupin explains how he’s followed the thought processes of his Watson and been able to come out with a comment that answers the question in his head, could have come straight out of Conan Doyle. And the mysteries are clever and satisfying. Interestingly, there is a quote from the creator of Holmes on the back of this book pretty much acknowledging his debt to Poe!
Then there’s one of the spooky ones I remember most from my initial reading of Poe, “Berenice”; this features many of Poe’s regular tropes, including catalepsy and epilepsy, premature burial and highly strung narrators. The latter in this case is prey to monomania; as a book obsessive, I can identify with that, though not with the man’s obsession with his beloved’s teeth, and the consequences…. “Eleanora” is set in the Valley of the Many-Coloured Grasses, and is full of highly wrought emotions and beautiful descriptions of the fantasy landscape. “The Man of the Crowd” is most unusual, with the narrator following a man making his way through an urban landscape but unable to fathom what motivates his movements; the conclusion is unexpected, to say the least. And “William Wilson” finds a narrator struggling with a doppelgänger who pursues him throughout his life.
These are just some of the riches, and in fact calling the book “Tales of Horror” perhaps does it a slight disservice, as there’s such a wide variety of stories on view here, covering ghosts, mesmerism, crime, love, death, the supernatural in general and even reincarnation. Poe has a reputation for being a bit grim and dark and melodramatic, and certainly these are elements in many of the stories. However, what’s not often realised is that he can be quite funny, and in several of the tales seems to be sending up the whole genre. The wonderfully fantastical “The Devil in the Belfry”, set in the strange village of Vondervotteimittiss (try pronouncing it out loud carefully….) with its residents who are obsessed with cabbages and clocks is pure joy. It took me a second read to pick up all the clever little elements Poe had built into the story and it was an unexpected highlight of the book. Likewise, “Some Words with a Mummy” is very tongue-in-cheek, as is “Never Bet the Devil in your Head”.
Poe’s imagination knows no bounds, taking us all over the world to real places in Europe and America as well as fantastic landscapes that never existed, and this collection really showcases what a wonderful storyteller he was. “Tales of Horror” is a fabulous read, particularly for this time of year when the nights draw in, full of shivers, laughs and wild fancy. You could do not better than pick up this lovely Evergreen edition for a perfect Hallowe’en experience; me, I’m off to the Internet to listen to Basil Rathbone’s wonderful rendition of “The Raven”!