American Literature, Book review., Books, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellen Datlow, Fantasy, Glen Hirshberg, H. P. Lovecraft, History, Horror, John Langan, Kim Newman, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Laird Barron, Literary criticism, Lucius Shepherd, Melanie Tem, Nicholas Royle, Owen Dudley Edwards, Suzy McKee Charnas
The year is 2005 and we are undergraduate history students at the University of Edinburgh. Our American history tutor, Owen Dudley Edwards, has set an assignment in which we have to “forge” a “hitherto undiscovered” short story by Edgar Allan Poe. There is something novel and very audacious to this assignment – getting to grips with it will be far more educational than completing the usual dreary essayist’s audit of other historians’ ideas – and, determined to match the spirit of the undertaking, I begin by wondering what would have happened if Poe had tried his hand at writing pornography. I decide that Poe would have had firm views upon the place and nature of porn, as with everything else, but that he would have probably classified it as a species of horror. My tale [which was reproduced years later on Tychy here] would aim to capture something of the rollickingly hysterical climax of “The Tell Tale Heart,” whilst insisting, on a plane of literary criticism, that Poe would often resort to satire in his attempts to make sense of an increasingly modern world. The forgery turned around my flagging degree, and the demands of being thrown unexpectedly into the wilds of creative writing would duly inform the beginnings of Tychy.
Poe died at the age of forty, and a great idea for a literary project would be to ask a selection of authors what Poe would have written if he had lived for another twenty years. How would he confront the looming Civil War? Would The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin receive favourable reviews? Would Poe make the greatest strides in poetry, philosophy, or fiction? The nineteen contributors to Ellen Datlow’s short fiction anthology Poe (2009) – which honours Poe’s bicentennial – were forbidden to submit “pastiches,” but the authors, who all broadly hail from the world of “dark fantasy,” turn out to be not so much “inspired” by Poe as cast helplessly in his vast, shapeless shadow, which by now includes everything from surrealist art to mainstream Hollywood cinema to high-school literature syllabuses. In 1948, even a writer as solemn as T. S. Eliot would temper his various sniffy remarks about Poe with the admission that, “one cannot be sure that one’s own writing has not been influenced by Poe.”
Although nobody as grand as T. S. Eliot contributes to Datlow’s anthology, we are warned of Poe’s unruly power from the very beginning. Kim Newman’s “Illimitable Domain” – which is the only one of the stories to register some of Poe’s madcap humour – imagines a Hollywood which can only produce variations upon Vincent Price’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” As California collapses into the tarn, an entire culture has been drowned in Poe’s vision. The final tale in the anthology – John Langan’s “Technicolor” – begins with the official, taught Poe who all students are given at some point like a flu shot, although this figure also ends up grandly heralding annihilation, via a ghoulish teacher who feeds his class poisoned cookies. For modern teenagers, Poe’s horror is probably as sweet and as cutesy as home baking.
Datlow has commissioned an accompanying afterword from each author which discloses which of Poe’s works had inspired their story. These confessions often provide a fascinating “ peep behind the scenes,” as Poe himself put it, but particularly into the opportunities and frustrations of trying to write from within Poe’s literary shadow. Glen Hirshberg despairs that, “great and terrible and awe-inspiring as he can be, Poe has become… so ubiquitous and familiar as to be drained, if not of his own impact, at least of his power to spark… in desperation, I turned to pieces I’d never before encountered…” Between them, the contributors come up with what initially seems like a lively and eccentric range of influences. These writers are so spoiled that they feel no need to resort to horrors even as famous and evocative as “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “The Black Cat.” Hirschberg and Lucius Shepherd derive sustenance from apparent crumbs with their seriously-obscure choices “Morning on the Wissahicion” and “The Domain of Arnheim”; whilst, a little mind-bogglingly, Kristine Kathyrn Rusch claims to have found inspiration in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” a tale so lacklustre that it almost killed off Sherlock Holmes in his infancy.
The once-neglected Poe may by now have triumphed heroically over America’s mimic rout like his own Conqueror Worm, but his influence was possibly not best served by the efforts of his anointed ambassador to the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft. To my mind, some of the scenarios in this anthology – the “riffraff” Pickers cult who intrude into Melanie Tem’s tale, the “human debris” who equally swarm just beyond the suburban home in [Melanie’s husband] Steve Rasnic Tem’s story “The Shadow,” and the degenerated Moravians in Shepherd’s “Kirikh’quru Krokundor” – speak more of Lovecraft’s dread of immigrants and the poor, than of anything to do with Poe, whose own man-of-the-crowd remained firmly amongst the crowd.
Oddly enough, the best contribution to this anthology, Laird Barron’s smart, snappy “Strappado” (which is the only “horror” story in the volume to be genuinely frightening), is written by an author who is openly and profoundly influenced by Lovecraft, although in this instance Poe’s temporary governance leads Barron to write with a power and discipline at times lacking in the rest of his fiction. Writers such as Nicholas Royle and Lucius Shepherd, on the other hand, pull particular strands from Poe’s fiction but they discard the benefits of his broader method and discipline. Royle’s otherwise-excellent tale rather bizarrely ends just where Poe would begin to warm up – on the brink of a furious climax and psychic disintegration that Poe himself would glory in. In “Kirkh’quru Krokundor,” however, the climax passes and subsides and the protagonist returns home to his wife. Even if such a fate had awaited the narrators of “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “William Wilson,” these things remained wisely unmentioned.
Whilst this anthology seemingly affirms the depth and breadth of Poe’s influence, the conception of Poe and his writing which informs the contributions is actually very narrow. Even though Poe had invented three fifths of Sherlock Holmes – and he insisted that, “some of the finest tales are tales of ratiocination” – none of the contributors attempt a detective story. Rusch grumbles that she could not submit a mystery because her editor “wanted horror,” so perhaps Poe was pruned back from the beginning. Yet nobody is brave enough to articulate Poe’s scorn for democracy and modernity, or to find his satirical eye for the dizzy madness of the latest technologies. It is mostly Death looking “gigantically down” from his tower over the various scenarios in this anthology, and we are left with the picture of an author so obsessed with fate and death that they became his only themes, but in a refined, considered sense, without recourse to lowly comedy or tinpot horrors.
One criticism of these stories is that they seem unduly fussy and cluttered with worldly things. Poe’s tales often earn a stark, brutal energy from settings outside of established time and space – in silhouetted fairytale versions of London, Paris, and Edinburgh. Eliot would observe dimly that “there can be few authors of such eminence who have drawn so little from their own roots, who have been so isolated from any surroundings,” whilst the poet Richard Wilbur would note that “to Rome by way of Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, Naples, and Egypt… for all his travels, [William] Wilson seems never to set foot out of doors.” Yet two of the most successful contributions to this anthology – Barron’s “Strappado” and Suzy McKee Charnas’ “Lowland Sea” – apparently take heed of Eliot’s definition of Poe as a “wanderer with no fixed abode,” and they accordingly venture stories of rich, listless cosmopolitan elites who – for all of their detachment from the world – are unable to escape the world. Both stories are inspired by “The Masque of the Red Death.”
Students of my generation are often governed in our readings of Poe by Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark and the subsequent critical anthology Romancing the Shadow, which summon forth and judge the idea that the horrors within Poe’s fiction are the assertion of a specifically Negroid blackness. Writing from the other side of history, Charnas innovatively imagines Poe’s Red Death as a quintessentially African phenomenon, and her story is narrated from the perspective of the advancing blackness – ignored, marginalised, even oppressed, but destined to triumph over the “civilised” West. Rusch similarly retells Marie Roget’s story from the viewpoint of the assaulted woman (intentionally or not, the account of a body on the threshold of death contains a distinct echo of John Galt’s “The Buried Alive,” which had almost certainly influenced Poe’s own writing.) Rusch explains that Marie Roget’s fate “happens to women all the time. And to me that’s horrifying.” Such an insight could have hardly occurred to Dupin.
For the student of Poe, this anthology hazards suggestions which may escape formal literary criticism. Although Hirshberg’s “The Pinksville Buffalo” has taken a lot of flak for being an insufficiently “Poe-derived tale” with its portrayal of wisecracking Jewish aunts, it may remind one that Poe’s dependable aunt Maria Clemm played just as important a role in his life as her tragically doomed daughter. Lucius Shepherd kicks around the idea that Poe was not asexual, but anti-sexual in associating bodily desire with the destruction of the psyche, leaving us with a good sense of Poe’s distinction between sex and love. If Poe the literary critic could have read this anthology – and if he had been in a generous mood – then he may have felt vindicated and even optimistic for the future of literature. I doubt that the same could be said if he had read recent shortlists for the Booker Prize. But Poe was always fascinated by new technology, and if he was alive today he would have undoubtedly discarded literature in favour of the computer game or the Youtube clip as the highest aesthetic form.