Essays By Neil

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Some Strangeness in the Proportion: The Exquisite Beauties of Edgar Allan Poe.

We are gathered here together, in the front pages of this book, so that I may tell you, and myself, several matters concerning Edgar A. Poe, "Edgar, a poet to a T," as he once described himself, and the strange tales and poems by him that are here assembled.

I met Poe first in an anthology with a title like "Fifty Stories for Boys." I was eleven, and the story was "Hop-Frog," that remarkable tale of terrible revenge, which sat incongruously beside the tales of boys having adventures of desert islands or discovering secret plans hidden inside hollowed-out vegetables. As the king and his seven courtiers, tarred and chained, were hauled upwards, as the jester they had called Hop-Frog clambered up the chain, holding his burning torch, I found myself astonished and elated by the appropriateness of his monstrous revenge. I do not believe there were any other murders in "Fifty Stories for Boys" and certainly none with such a colourful and satisfactory cast, nor such terrible and appropriate cruelty.

Suddenly it seemed like Poe was everywhere. I discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories, and in the first tale, "A Study in Scarlet", Holmes is found decrying Poe's detective Auguste Dupin -- but decrying him in a way that made it very obvious that Dupin was Holmes's literary progenitor. Ray Bradbury's story "Usher II" solidified my fascination; it's a short story (a hybrid, from Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" future set on the Mars of The Martian Chronicles) in which a set of bloodless critics and reformers of fiction, of fantasy, of horror, are walked around a house filled with tableaus of Poe's stories, and watch themselves murdered -- by Pit and Pendulum, by murderous robotic orangutan, and so on.

And so, for my thirteenth birthday, I asked for and received a copy of the Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. I have no idea whether Poe is an author appropriate for thirteen-year-old boys. But I still remember the deliciousness of the final bodily death of M. Valdemar, as he came out of his trance; I remember the thrill I took the first time I read "The Masque of the Red Death", and Prospero's doomed attempt to continue the party, and that final, perfect sentence; I remember the tingle of delighted horror that prickled the back of my neck when I encountered the first words of "The Telltale Heart", as the narrator assures us that he is not mad, and I knew that he was lying; I remember wondering -- as I still wonder -- what insult Fortunato gave to Monstressor that demanded that damp journey through the catacombs, in search a cask of Amontillado...

That was thirty years ago.

Even today I return, time and again, to Poe: an audio book of Poe's stories and poems read by Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone recently kept me company on a long drive from the Midwest to Florida, experiencing them in a way I never had before, treasuring the experience of driving through the darkness listening to the narratives of people suffering from morbid acutenesses of the senses, or the groaning of people "neither brute nor human, they are ghouls" and the throbbing of the bells they were tolling...

"I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia," said the velvet voice of the late Vincent Price, as I drove into Tennesee mountain country at midnight, and I worried immediately for the sanity of our narrator, obsessed by a dead wife, who was almost his mother, and who would return in the shroud-wrapped corpse of his second wife, and in so doing cause me to miss my highway turn-off...

Edgar Allan Poe wrote poems, stories, criticism, journalism. He was a working writer who kept himself alive with his words, for much of his life supporting, as best he could, his wife, who was his cousin Virginia (he married her when she was thirteen; she died aged twenty-five, having spent much of her time with him dying) and her mother, Muddy. He was vain, envious, good-hearted, morbid, troubled and a dreamer. He invented the form we now see as the detective story. He wrote tales of horror and of dread which even the critics admit were art. He had trouble with money and with drink for much of his life. He died in poverty and in hospital, in 1849, after a final week in which we have no knowledge of his movements -- in all probability a lonely drunken week.

While he lived he was America's finest writer, a poet and a craftsman whose work made him very little money, even as his poems, such as "The Raven", were widely quoted, adored, parodied and reviled, while writers he envied, such as Longfellow, were far more successful, commercially. Still, Poe, for all his short life and unfulfilled potential, remains read today, his finest stories as successful, as readable, as contemporary as anyone could desire. Fashions in dead authors come and go, but Poe is, I would wager, beyond fashion.

He wrote about death. He wrote about many things, but death, and the return from death, and the voices and remembrances of the dead pervade Poe's work -- like dramatist John Webster in Eliot's poem, Poe "was much obsessed with death. He saw the skull beneath the skin." Unlike Webster, though, Poe also saw the skull, and could not forget the skin that had once covered it.

("The death of a beautiful woman," Poe wrote in an essay on the writing of "The Raven", "is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.")

People today still examine Poe's life, trying to use his life to illuminate his work: his actor parents, -- his father vanished, his mother dead by the time he was three; his strained relationship with John Allan, his foster father; Poe's child-bride and her tuberculosis; his troubles with the bottle, his mysterious and early death (he was forty). The life, short, tangled, strange, becomes a frame for the work, giving it context, and supplying both unanswerable mysteries and a shape in which the stories and the poems wait for each new generation of readers to discover them.

And discover them we do.

The best of Poe doesn't date. "The Cask of Amontillado" is as perfect a tale of vengeance as ever was crafted. "The Tell-tale Heart" is a clear-eyed look through the eyes of madness. "The Masque of the Red Death" seems more relevant with every year that passes. The stories still delight. I suspect they always will.

Poe isn't for everyone. He's too heady a draught for that. He may not be for you. But there are secrets to appreciating Poe, and I shall let you in on one of the most important ones: read him aloud.

Read the poems aloud. Read the stories aloud. Feel the way the words work in your mouth, the way the syllables bounce and roll and drive and repeat, or almost repeat. Poe's poems would be beautiful if you spoke no English (indeed, a poem like "Ulalume" remains opaque even if you do understand English -- it implies a host of meanings, but does not provide any solutions). Lines which, when read on paper, seem overwrought or needlessly repetitive or even mawkish, when spoken aloud reshape and reconfigure.

(You may feel peculiar, or embarrassed, reading aloud; if you would rather read aloud in solitude I suggest you find a secret place; or if you would like an audience, find someone who likes to be read to, and read to him or to her.)

For a long time, one of my favourite books-as-an-object has been a copy of Tales of Mystery and the Imagination, illustrated by the Irish stained-glass artist Harry Clarke, with a passion and a madness and an intense sense of shadows and of the wrongnesses of angle and form that seem perfectly suited to Poe's nightmarish tales.

But then, Poe's stories will always cry out to be illustrated. They contain central and primary images, blasts of colour, and maddening visual shapes (imagine: a black raven on the pale bust of Pallas Athene; the rooms of all colours but one in Prospero's doomed palace; the bottles and the bones in Montressor's catacombs; a single black cat in a wall, on the head of a dead woman; a heart beating beneath the floorboards -- a tell-tale heart...). Pictures come unbidden as you read the tales; you craft them in your head.

Here, the stories and poems are pictured for you, in a version that stands with the finest illustrated volumes of Poe: Mark Summers has also seen the hidden skulls, and draws them elegantly, beautifully, finely. Pictures with hidden things, pictures with traps inside, gorgeous scraperboard horrors and romances. Treasure them.

Poe's stories -- even his humourous tales, even his detective stories -- are populated by amnesiacs and obsessives, by people doomed to remember what they desire only to forget, and are told by madmen and liars and lovers and ghosts. They are powered by what remains untold as much as by what Poe tells us, each of them split and shivered by a crack as deep and as dangerous as the fissure that runs from top to bottom of the gloomy house inhabited by Roderick and Madeline Usher.

For some of you this will be the first encounter with Poe's work, while others of you will be here because you already appreciate Poe's work, or because you treasure beautiful books, and beautiful poems. And still, and still, "There is no exquisite beauty," as Poe reminds us, in Ligeia, "without some strangeness in the proportion..."