A man whose life was as macabre and mysterious as his work, Edgar Allan Poe is one name who should be Googled … forevermore.
In a sort of “life imitating art” scenario, the death of Edgar Allan Poe—the writer whose tales of horror, suspense, and the macabre thrill us still—is enveloped in mystery to this day.
In October 1849, Poe was found walking the streets of Baltimore incoherent and hallucinating. The clothes he wore were not his own and exactly why he was in Baltimore was a curiosity, considering he was travelling from Richmond to Philadelphia. For some days, he was in a state of delirium. He never regained full consciousness and died on October 7, 1849, aged only 40.
“Congestion of the brain” was given as the cause of death, but other theories have been advanced, including alcoholism, epilepsy, carbon monoxide poisoning, being beaten (possibly something akin to a king hit), a brain tumor, rabies, and even murder.
That his piteous death remains an enigma is sadly fitting for this man, who brought mystery and horror writing into respected mainstream fiction.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) suffered many sorrows in his 40 allotted years. His father abandoned him early in life and his mother died when he was a toddler. He was raised by foster parents John and Frances Allan in Richmond, Virginia. They gave him a good home and a solid education, although he never really hit it off with his foster father.
In 1826, Poe enrolled at university, racked up some hefty debts, and left well before graduation. He also served a stint in the Army. It seems he didn’t have a head for money because he had to leave West Point Military Academy due to insufficient funds.
It was during this time that he began writing and his first collection of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was published in 1827.
Around 1835, Poe moved in with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter, Virginia. Yes, that Virginia—the cousin he married when he was 27 and she was 13! Naturally, this led to some pretty wild speculation about his sexual proclivities, but he was a devoted husband and it was a happy marriage. When Virginia died (tuberculosis), aged 24, he was utterly devastated.
He later courted a couple of women, but some scholars suggest these were halfhearted attempts to fill the void created by the loss of Virginia.
In Richmond, Poe worked as an editor at the Southern Literary Messenger and came into his own. He was a gifted editor credited with making that magazine a huge success as well as a ballsy critic who didn’t shy away from criticizing authors whose works he thought were rubbish. His critical style, however, wasn’t mean or petty. Rather, it took into account technical aspects, such as construction, plot inconsistencies, and use of language. Poe is credited with having set new standards for literary criticism.
Over the years, Poe worked for other journals and magazines and also had his own short stories and poems published, but like many writers—and even despite his burgeoning reputation—he was never paid enough, so he was always scrambling for money.
Now, to his stories. These resonated with readers, giving them plenty of shivery pleasure as they gasped in terror at his brilliantly constructed narratives.
I recently reread The Fall of the House of Usher and blow me down if that night I didn’t have a nightmare about being buried alive. First published in 1839, the story still packs a helluva Gothic punch.
Poe set his spooky tale in a cheerless, crumbling manor in the middle of a pretty uninviting landscape made even more dismal by the foul weather. The narrator tells of his visit to a childhood friend suffering from melancholy and in need of comfort. It turns out the friend has a twin sister that the narrator never knew about.
Suspense builds as Poe creates an unhealthy environment, one that’s other-worldly yet very much temporal … that’s just plain creepy.
There’s a great deal to think about in this tale—it’s much more than a simple horror story, what with the specters of mental illness and incest pervading the “stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom.”
It’s remarkable just how much atmosphere and characterization Poe was able to achieve in such a short piece of fiction.
This is true of all his stories. The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) is a corker. It starts with the narrator assuring readers he’s not mad, just criminal. He’s at pains to explain that his crime has nothing to do with hate or greed. It’s a brilliant portrait of acute paranoia, where the whole guilty conscience thing works a treat.
So well known is The Tell-Tale Heart that it was even used as the basis for an episode of The Simpsons (as were a few other Poe works). I do love a bit of literature making it into pop culture.
Among Poe’s other exceptional stories are The Pit and the Pendulum (1843), set during the Spanish Inquisition, where a prisoner faces terrifying torture and certain death; and The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) acknowledged as the first detective story, the character of Auguste Dupin the master solver of criminal mysteries.
It’s no overstatement to say that Poe initiated the genre of detective fiction and influenced many later writers. In The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin solves a crime that has mystified the police; and—in a precursor to the Sherlock Holmes tales of Arthur Conan Doyle—his companion is the one who records his deductive prowess.
In 1845, Poe’s poem The Raven was published, establishing Poe as an important figure on the American literary scene. A haunting poem best read aloud (really, try it, it has way more impact), The Raven looks at death and grieving, its plaintive refrain of “Nevermore” capturing the essence of loss and ever-present sorrow. The Raven is quite possibly the most famous American poem.
Poe’s works have psychological strength and powerful evocations, with insights into our collective fears and nightmares. Themes of guilt, conscience, loss are common. Go ahead and read him … but make sure the doors are locked and maybe keep a light on.