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Saturday, October 9th, 2010
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The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings (Bantam Classics)

by Edgar Allan Poe

Where Stephen King and Arthur Conan Doyle Found Their Inspiration

A review by Doug Brown

As part of my classics year project last year, I couldn't resist the opportunity to delve into some Poe. I had only ever read a couple of the stories, and of course "The Raven." I recommend the dive; most of the stories are only a few pages long and can be sipped in a short period. As would be expected, there are tales of the macabre, but more than that there are tales of psychology. Poe understood that the human mind imagining the supernatural is much scarier than the banality of actual supernatural events. What makes "The Tell-Tale Heart" such a great story is that the dead man's heart isn't actually beating; all we need is the murderer's conviction that he can hear it louder and louder.

A delightful surprise for me were the stories "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter." With these two stories, Poe laid the groundwork for the genre of intellectual detectives who use amazing deduction from observation of minutia to solve cases that baffle the police. Poe's C. Auguste Dupin is clearly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, and, in particular, the plot of "The Purloined Letter" shares several points in common with my favorite Holmes story, "A Scandal in Bohemia." In both stories someone holds a letter that compromises a powerful person. Agents have searched the person's home and haven't been able to find it, so the detective is called to discern where the letter is hidden and retrieve it. Dupin actually uses deduction to find the letter, whereas Holmes tricks Irene Adler into giving away its location (cheater!). Adler gets her comeuppance on him, though, which is why it's my favorite Holmes story.

The edition I read also contained Poe's only full-length novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. It's a rollicking adventure book, wherein Pym sails across the Atlantic, goes to the Galapagos, and then down to the South Pole. Predating Moby-Dick by over 10 years, the novel has some amazing detail about sailing ships. I learned that caboose was originally a nautical term; I looked it up and it comes from Dutch Kabhuis, a cabin built on the deck of a ship. What makes the level of detail so amazing is that, unlike Melville, Poe did not spend any significant time on sailing ships. As a child he sailed to England, sailing back in his late teens, but these were direct trips; he was never a sailor. His descriptions of the natural history of the Galapagos were clearly culled from some early detailed published source. Captain FitzRoy and Darwin were in the process of publishing their accounts of the voyage of the Beagle (Darwin's was finally completed in 1839, the year Pym was published), so it's entirely possible Poe was working from these works.

Poe's poems didn't grab me as much as his prose. They are to my ear very much a product of their time, floridly overwrought with exclamation points and apostrophized words (the word over never appears -- it must always be o'er). An example of a line from "The Sleeper": "All Beauty sleeps! -- and lo! -- where lies Irene, with her Destinies!" There's a whole lotta Lo, Ah, and Oh going on in Poe's poems. "The Raven" is still a classic, though, and "The Bells" is clever for contrasting different things that the sound of bells represent.

If you've only read one or two of Poe's stories, the rest are worth exploring. I thought The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was more interesting for the nonfiction elements than the fiction. Remove the nautical detail and natural history, and it's a fairly standard tale of mutiny, marooning, and fighting the bloody savages. It has Poe's stamp on it, to be sure; but, like funny Saturday Night Live sketches extended into not-quite-so-funny movies, Poe's strength was the short story. "The Black Cat," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and, of course, "The Tell-Tale Heart" are deservedly classics. So put a witch's shawl on, a broomstick you can crawl on, come on and pay a call on Edgar Allan Poe (sorry, couldn't resist).

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