Edgar Allan Poe turns 200 on Monday, January 19, and the bicentennial has prompted a series of celebrations in several of Poe’s old haunts. Baltimore has a wide range of events over two full weekends — including performances by John Astin as Poe and the raffle of a “Poe Monument” cake by the Ace of Cakes. Richmond’s Poe Museum is hosting a 24-hour celebration — part of a full year of events throughout Virginia. And just in time for the master’s milestone, Philadelphia’s Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site reopens in a grand ceremony after much renovations. Over the past year, I’ve visited the sites in both Richmond and Philadelphia, and would consider trekking up to Baltimore for the big bicentennial day if I weren’t worried about all the inauguration traffic on the trek home afterwards. So instead of venturing out, I’ve already begun my own commemoration by perusing a new collection of Poe’s tales.
How many volumes of Poe’s works does one person need? I may have had as many as a dozen over the years, and can count at least four in the house right now — each devoted to some specific facet of Poe’s varied career: poet, prose stylist, originator of the modern detective story, gifted essayist and critic. All told, I not only have Poe’s complete published works somewhere in the house but have much of it duplicated in more than one volume. So why another book?
In the Shadow of the Master: Classic Tales by Edgar Allan Poe is a handsome enough edition, produced by the Mystery Writers of America in conjunction with the bicentennial, offering a baker’s dozen of Poe’s stories, a couple of his poems, and an excerpt from his sole novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and reprinting some devilishly macabre illustrations by stained glass artist Harry Clarke (these latter first published in 1919). But the real draw here are short essays by many of today’s best-known mystery writers, reflecting on their own relationships with Poe and his work. Insight into writers, their influences, their approach to craft — that gets me every time.
Editor Michael Connelly sets the volume off on the expected tone, talking about “the mad genius who started it all rolling in the genre of mystery fiction” and declaring that Poe’s influence in other genres and fields of entertainment — from poetry to music to film — is incalculable. To put it simply, Edgar Allan Poe’s work has echoed loudly across two centuries and will undoubtedly echo for at least two more.”
But the writers that Connolly has gathered here to pay tribute to Poe’s writings and influence have some surprises in store. One thing that struck me, for example, was that many of these authors first experienced Poe not in his own stories or poems but through films of his works: Tess Gerritsen talking about “the B-movie versions of Poe,” from House of Usher to The Tomb of Ligeia with a special place reserved in her heart for Premature Burial; P.J. Parrish admitting that her first guide to Poe was Roger Corman; Peter Robinson “waiting for the ultimate experience in terror” before a showing of The Pit and the Pendulum; and Nelson Demille on a 3-D screening of Phantom of the Rue Morgue.
Also surprising were the writers who showed up for this celebration of Poe with admissions that they hadn’t liked — and maybe still don’t like — the man’s writing. Commenting on her first exposure to “The Black Cat,” P.J. Parrish writes that “Like most critics of Poe’s day — Yeats called him ‘vulgar’ — I was underwhelmed.” Reflecting on high school literary assignments, Lisa Scottoline equates Poe with broccoli, explaining that “all they have in the English syllabus is broccoli. Then they make you read it and try to convince you that reading is fun(damental).” And Sue Grafton spends much of her contribution here explaining why she tried to wriggle out of participating in the book at all, mostly because she can’t stand Poe. Here’s a sample of that essay (an essay both fun and fundamentally illuminating, by the way), in which Grafton talks about rereading Poe to try to spark some interest in the assignment:
In rapid succession, I read “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Purloined Letter,” “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Oh, dear. That “Ourang-Outang” business really didn’t fly as far as I was concerned. Let’s not even talk about “The Gold Bug,” which left me cranky and out of sorts. I found Poe profligate with his exclamation points, and his overheated prose was larded with inexplicable French phrases. Not only that, he was much too fond of adverbs, and his dialogue fairly cried out for the stern admonitions of a good editor. Mon Dieu!! These were all writerly habits of which I thoroughly disapprove!!! Further reading of his work did nothing to soften my views. What was I to do? I had nothing nice to say about the man and no hope of faking it….
[Not incidentally, Grafton’s essay is titled “How I Became an Edgar Allan Poe Convert,” so there’s ultimately a happy ending here.]
Elsewhere, Jeffery Deaver talks about musical adaptations of Poe’s works; Sara Paretsky discusses other writers, artists and critics who have tried to “come to grips” with Poe; and Laura Lippman references the bicentennial most explicitly with an essay on Baltimore’s fascination with Poe and on the night when Lippman stayed up late to watch the Poe Toaster make his annual pilgrimage to Poe’s grave.
Amidst all this, readers can get a glimpse of both the diversity of reactions to Poe’s work and the enormous influence (for better or worse) that he continues to have on so much of today’s cultural output: books, films, music and more.
And, true to promise, the book also provides fine insight to what Poe has taught these more recent talents. Connelly’s own essay discusses the genesis and development of his novel The Poet in relation to Poe’s life and work. S.J. Rozan talks about what she learned from Poe about language — “rhythm, cadence, and sound” — and about “something less tangible, but which resonated with me and still does: inevitability, and the laughable nature of human intention.” And T. Jefferson Parker, remembering days spent on a white Naugahyde recliner with the Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, writes:
I read all of those stories over the next six months. Some I loved, and some unsettled me, and some went far over my young head.
But I took them all into my young heart. What they taught me was this: there is darkness in the hearts of men; there are consequences of that darkness; those consequences will crash down upon us here in this life. They taught me that words can be beautiful and mysterious and full of truth.
And with those words… a toast to Mr. Poe (a toast of amontillado, of course). Long may his influence reign.
Fall for the Book Announces Poe Panel
On the occasion of the bicentennial, the Fall for the Book festival at George Mason University has just made its first big announcement about the Fall 2009 event. In late September, the festival will welcome three writers who have helped to carry Poe’s legacy into the 21st century in unique and interesting ways: Louis Bayard, author of The Pale Blue Eye; Matthew Pearl, author of The Poe Shadow; and Daniel Stashower, author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder. Event specifics will be finalized later, but mark your calendar now for Sept. 21-26 for the full festival.