For me, as for so many writers in the horror field, it all started with Edgar Allan Poe.
I was in middle school when I first encountered “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Raven” in, I believe, Mrs. Peterson’s English class. I was already a bookworm, but Poe entranced immediately and completely. It took me no time at all to order up a paperback collection of Poe through the Scholastic Book Service, a school-based book-ordering company readers of a certain age will remember; I read and re-read it voraciously. I recall reading a Poe biography I checked out from the library. And then there was An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe, a one-man TV production of stories with Vincent Price that used to run every few months on Channel 5. In that pre-DVR, pre-VHS era I recorded the program on audio cassette and listened to it so many times that to this day I still have the slightly-edited texts Price recited of “Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Sphinx,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” nearly complete in my memory.
What is it about Edgar Allan Poe? A writer of morbid poems and tales of terror who died 170 years ago, Poe stands today virtually without equal in the canon of American literature. Only Mark Twain and perhaps Ernest Hemingway can lay claim to anything like a similar stature in both critical opinion and popularity—and Poe goes back quite a bit farther than either. Why should an author who wrote about crazed killers obsessed with black cats and beating hearts and weird birds who say only “Nevermore” be so central to our imagination now, in the 21st century? Why has he remained so central to me personally for all these years?
In writing my recent novel Annabel Lee (inspired by Poe’s great work, which was my first favorite poem), I gave a great deal of thought to Poe’s seeming immortality. It seems to me that the answer lies in what I view as the overarching theme of much of his work. We think of Poe as a “horror writer,” but while many of his tales have little to do with standard horror imagery or ideas, they virtually all focus on one emotion above all—an emotion which permeates the consciousness of his protagonists and so seeps inescapably into the mind of the reader.
Think about it. Today we can hardly open a newspaper (or a news webpage) without reading about anxiety: its ever-increasing presence in our society, its impact on the workforce, its effects on children, new medications, new approaches to treatment.
Sometimes it seems as if the entire country is wrapped up in a kind of free-floating anxiety.
Understand that anxiety is not a synonym for fear. They’re related, certainly, but fear is what someone feels when they’re in the crosswalk and see a fast-moving car bearing down on them, or when they’re looking at the barrel of a gun held by a mugger demanding their money, or when their doctor delivers a diagnosis which includes the word terminal. We all know fear sometimes, but we don’t live in it. We’re visitors to that land, not residents there. Fear is reserved, we might say, for special occasions.
Not so with anxiety, which is fear’s everyday cousin. One psychiatric definition describes it as “a nervous disorder characterized by a state of extreme uneasiness and apprehension”—which surely encapsulates many of Poe’s most memorable protagonists. “True!” begins the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “Nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am.” The protagonist of “The Raven” is driven into “extreme uneasiness and apprehension” by no more than a monosyllabic bird that wanders into his room. The doomed Roderick Usher, meanwhile, suffers from “an habitual trepidancy—a nervous agitation.” The examples are numerous, and seem to me the key to Poe’s appeal. Poe never—well, rarely—wrote about average people simply going about their lives, which is the most typical narrative approach of horror writers today: the average person suddenly caught up in terrifying events (see King, Koontz, etc.). Poe’s characters are instead infested with anxiety right from the start. Nervous, super-alert, wary, their attitudes perhaps reflect more people’s everyday experiences nowadays than the so-called “average” characters of other writers. Maybe anxiety is the new average.
Edgar Allan Poe is America’s greatest artist of anxiety. We may not personally be obsessed with an old man’s cataract-covered eye or on getting revenge on an enemy by walling him up in our basement, but the emotions of Poe’s characters, their giddy feelings of overwhelming and sometimes inexplicable uneasiness, speak to us with amazing directness today. The language may be antiquated, but his characters’ subjective experiences of reality feel completely contemporary.
I sometimes wonder if, in some strange way, Poe—who died in 1849—sensed the world that was coming, with its vast wars, unspeakable genocides, insanely destructive weapons, and sent out his poems and stories to us in the future. They are, in any event, prophetic messages in bottles for us to find in our own time—messages that reflect, surely more perfectly than they could have when they were written, the anxiety-ridden world we inhabit today.
Christopher Conlon is the author of the novel Savaging the Dark, acclaimed by Booklist as one of the ten best horror novels of its year and by Paste Magazine as one of the fifty best horror books of all time. He also edited the Bram Stoker Award-winning He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson. His website can be found at http://www.christopherconlon.com.