Nearly every genre of fiction seems to feel like they have a right to hold Edgar Allan Poe up as an early writer of their area of interest. Most recently he’s been sort of idolized by the science fiction and fantasy crowd but he also gets praised by fans of mystery and adventure books as well as comedy and horror. It’s as if they feel, by lifting such a pure and respected poet up as a proponent of their chosen literary tastes, they somehow lend credence to the validity and importance of the genre in a literary sense.
The problem that I see is that Poe did not write genre, or create genre, unless short stories is a genre. He wrote stories. He may be responsible for ushering in the modern American short story and creating it as a viable form of artistic expression. Many of his stories were blatantly comical, or fantastical or horrifying. He even wrote some rather intriguing mysteries and some fascinating adventure and exploration stories. To Poe words like science fiction and horror and fantasy did not exist as descriptions of types of stories. What he wrote were just stories.
Poe wrote quite prolifically and widely. Some of his comedy is satirical while others are farcical in nature. Some of the fantasy is vaguely magical others are blatantly supernatural.
He even wrote a high seas adventure novel that inspired H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle in some of their own works.
Two things quickly become apparent. Poe wrote whatever he felt like writing and there’s a really good reason only a few of his stories are well known.
The truth is no author churns out pure gold all the time. Poe was no exception. In fact it appears that he would get a single idea in his head and write three or four stories using the same idea until he got one that was actually good. Sometimes these stories would have very little variations from one to the next, changing only a few things slightly until finally he hit on the formulation that turned out a story that felt natural and perfect.
Let me also say that there is a very good reason that Poe is one of the most respected writers in American history. Because when he is good, he is very good. When Poe wants to scare you and send a shiver down your spine then he succeeds. When he wants to tell you something fascinating and wondrous and powerful, then you can feel the palpable awe in the very words he chooses.
This brings me to the poetry because I think his skills as a poet inform his work in fiction. His word choices in prose are chosen because of the emotions that they convey, as well as the actual meaning that they are ascribed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his poetry.
The poem ‘The Bells’ is a prime example. The words in the beginning are joyous and fluid in sound and feeling. By the end the words have grown harsh and stark and dark and almost horrifying.
I was most excited to read ‘The Raven’ which I had never read. I had been led to believe that it was dark and creepy. Perhaps I don’t understand it but it sounded rather like a comedy to me. The raven’s constant muttering of ‘Nevermore’ made me laugh.
I kind of like my interpretation. Perhaps all of Poe’s stories and poems are meant as satirical comedies of humanity. Either way, if you haven’t read any Poe in awhile it’s time you did.