When it comes to great literature, gothic horror is usually classified at the bottom of the pile. This genre is often seen as little more than pulp fiction to amuse teenage boys, where they can delve into a place filled with crumbling castles and damsels in distress. This is particularly true when discussing the works of Edgar Allan Poe, whose short stories and poems hang heavy with bleakness and dread, where the reader can be pretty sure there will be no happy ever after, but there is sop much more to his work than the usual clichés
To dismiss the work of Poe’s as little more than a throw away read would be doing this man a great disservice as his work has gone on to influence some of our greatest writers and helped bring dark stirrings into some of the best-loved literature. It was Poe who invented the detective genre, with his shocking short story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue, (1841) which in turn led Arthur Conan Doyle to stand up and say that Poe was a major influence on his own tales in detective fiction. One doesn’t have to look too far to see how Poe has influenced other writers, including Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre where the pages are littered with gothic images, from the imposing building of Thornfield Hall, to the terrible secret locked away in the attic. (no spoilers, just pick up a copy and find out just how dark celebrated romantic Bronte was).
To understand Poe’s work, one only has to look into his life, filled with great tragedies and heart ache. Edgar Poe was born on 19 January 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, to parents Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins and David Poe. Before he reached the age of three his father had abandoned him and his siblings; further gloom fell upon when their mother died after a short illness. Soon after Poe would find himself separated from his brother William Henry Leonard Poe and younger sister Rosalie, and would be brought up by a wealthy merchant John Allan and his wife, moving to Richmond, Virginia. Although Poe done well with his studies, he would later become estranged from his adopted family after accumulating huge gambling debts.
Unable to pay his college fees or debts, Poe enlisted in the United States Army, although he had been writing for some time it was at this stage he started to take his role as writer seriously and paid for his first set of poetry, called Tamerlane and Other Poems (1831), published. Later that same year he published a second book of poetry called Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane with growing success. Around the same time he left the army and moved to Baltimore to live with his aunt Maria Clemm, and her daughter Virginia Eliza Clemm. Poe’s brother Henry was also living at the house but died shortly after from tuberculosis.
When Virginia turned thirteen, Poe proposed and married his cousin; back then neither her age or relationship to Poe were considered out of the ordinary. However, for Poe, his marriage to Virginia and her subsequence period of ill-health would prove to have a massive influence on his work. For many months Poe would have to watch the woman he loved slip onto the brink of death. Poe would sit by her bedside and watch helplessly waiting for the love of his life to leave him forever, only for her to make a near partial recovery giving him hope that Virginia would be back in his life again. Time and time again Poe was put through these agonies, as Virginia fell dreadfully ill and again Poe would watch on in horror as death waited patiently on the other side of the bed. The experience would lead Poe to revisit these horrors in some of his most celebrated work, including, the poem, Lenore, (1831) and his brilliant short stories Ligeia, (1838) and brilliant short story, The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) where within these dark tales the heroine would come back from the dead to haunt the living.
Although Poe wrote prolifically throughout his life, he never had copywrite to his own work. So although he was celebrated during his own life time, he would struggle financially throughout. Alcohol would also play a large part in Poe downfall.
Throughout the early 1970’s Poe’s tales became the bread and butter for the films directed by Roger Corman where their main star Vincent Price reveled in bringing Poe’s creations to life with such classics as The Fall of the House of Usher, (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The tomb of Ligeia (1965).
As camp and fun as these films are, nothing compares to Poe’s words. In a rather tragic, although very Poe way, Edgar Allen Poe died in mysterious circumstances, with no one really sure how he met his demise. A film released next Friday called The Raven (2012), directed by directed by James (V for Vendetta) McTeigue, where some of Poe’s best known stories are brought to life. For those who have never read a word of Poe, get yourself a copy of his tales and see what you’re missing, for as much as he’s work is considered pulp, the world he has conjured will stay in your mind long after you have put down the book, now that is a true master of literature.