Last night being the dank and dreary 19th of January, I read myself some Edgar Allan Poe in honor of his natal anniversary. The tales in question had been placed in my hands by a strangely-clad man in a somber-toned conveyance some weeks before. My faithful dog distrusted him; I felt a twinge of unease, then thought of it no more.
The sun having fallen below the horizon, I stoked the fire, which crackled and sparked, cutting the bleak chill of the night. Settling myself in a well-worn leathern armchair, I read Poe's hoary texts by my ancestral hearth's flickering light.
The two tales before me were "The Fall of the House of Usher" and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. In some ways, they are quite different from each other. The former is claustrophobic, rooted in one spot, possesses a minimal cast of characters and ends with thundering finality. The second sprawls across a good quarter of the globe, features throngs of characters--including a very cool dog--and climaxes on a haunting cliffhanger. That said, they are both quintessential Poe.
It had been long years, both wasted and well-spent, since I last read "The Fall of the House of Usher." It remains, to my mind, the classic it has always been. A dense, darkling gem of phantasmagorical proto-pulp horror--so unlike the sloppy, sprawling Gothic novels that preceded it--which blazed a path for Chambers, Merritt, Lovecraft and others to follow. It seems to me that I appreciate it now more than ever.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym--simply "Narrative" henceforth--is a different and rougher beast entirely. This is Poe's only novel, Edgar having been urged to "go big" and tap the novel-reading market by an editor. Poe swung for the fences, and in the process, created the first American scifi adventure novel worth reading. This has it all: bloody mutiny on the high seas, cannibalism, ghost ships, marvels of science, strange tribes on far-flung islands... Ever since its publication, "Narrative" has been chided by critics for uneven pacing/cramming in too much/whatever. While such claims possess a quantum of truth, they ignore everything Poe gets right. This novel reads like Poe paged through The Odyssey and Gulliver's Travels, looked over John Symmes' Circular No. 1 and said, "Hold my Amontillado."
My blog post title mentions "two classics" and I do consider "Narrative" to be one, albeit a classic that is minor and flawed. Poe's darksome imagination is given free rein and a novel's length to run. To the surprise of some, Edgar could write some pretty decent action scenes, especially by nineteenth century standards. We know that Verne was a fan and even wrote a sequel.
The novel deserves a more in-depth analysis on my part someday. This is not that day. Today, I merely raise a glass to the shade of the man who should be reckoned "The Father of American Literature."
The editions of "The Fall of the House of Usher" and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym that I read are published by Shadowridge Press. They possess the usual affordability, quality and readability I've come to expect from Shadowridge. Word on the street is that they are, even now, working out the details of doing a colossal illustrated collection of Poe stories...