“I shall perish,” said he, “I must perish in this deplorable folly…I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect — in terror. In this unnerved, in this pitiable condition, I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason altogether, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.” — “The Fall of the House of Usher”
I love Halloween. It’s my favorite holiday, when I get to honor the age-old pagan tradition of putting on a mask and a costume to frighten the roaming spirits of All Souls’ Day away, becoming unrecognizable to friends and neighbors. What is it about the macabre, the grotesque, the paranormal that is so fascinating? I’ve always been afraid of my own shadow ever since I could remember, because my imagination always got the best of me when alone, be it for better or, in many nocturnal cases, for worse.
Edgar Allan Poe is the iconic author for such times because of his initiation of the horror and detective genre in American literature, after having received wide acclaim upon the publication of “The Raven.” I think my first encounter with the tales of Edgar Allan Poe was as a child, when one day, my sister relayed to me the story of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” She would always summarize and pass on little things she learned or read at school to me — the plot of “Romeo and Juliet,” how to divide big numbers, the concept of masculine and feminine words in Spanish (which I could not wrap my head around at the time). Anne Rice’s vampires, The X-files, Chinese ghost stories, and Poe’s creepy tales were our shared delight.
I remember the sudden horror that seized me when she was telling me how the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” crept up on the old man every night at midnight to observe his glass eye under a beam of lantern light, watching and waiting. That disturbed pscyhe of the violent stalker and the unreliable narrator was what perturbed me most, the same one that the reader encounters in other stories like “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat.” And more so when one gets the sensation that this narrator entrusts his dark deeds to the reader, who is addressed directly in second person and who is implicated as a sympathetic witness of sorts, perhaps because such demons exist latently in all of us: “You, who so well know the nature of my soul…”
And we don’t know whether to trust him or not. It’s the terror of not being able to gauge whether someone is in his right mind or suffering from a mental lapse. And when the narrator begins walling up his victim, hearing the beating heart of his dismembered roommate, seeing shadows of hung cats with their eyes gouged, there is a part of you that shudders yet at the same time revels in that madness and in Poe’s amazing craft of story-telling, his way of drawing the reader so close to a sickly, demented mind.
We visited his house in Philadelphia one warm autumn afternoon, after not having been there in ages, since we were school children on a field trip. The late sun threw the raven’s shadow onto the brick wall, and we wandered up into the house where he lived with his wife, Virginia, and her mother. Here, Poe lived in near-poverty while writing his stories and watched his wife die from tuberculosis, the same sickness of which his foster mother died. Even though he was plagued by personal demons and suffered spells of depression, the years he spent at this house were the happiest and the most productive for him as a writer. The dark cellar is remniscent of the one described in “The Black Cat.”
A huge influence to writers around the world, especially of the short story, Poe never knew that the inventions of his stormy brain would reach such a wide audience, long after his death. Poe’s footprints are visible everywhere. As a Halloween and literature enthusiast, this is my personal tribute to his life and works. Even though he is typically associated with the macabre, he was a Southern gentleman who lived humbly, loved his wife dearly, and struggled hard to become the reknowned writer that he is today.
And that is us sitting in a drawing room decorated to Poe’s taste (lots of red and gold trim, portraits of pale women) and listening to “The Raven” while perusing through old copies of his works. Check out an audio recording of Anne Waldman reading the “The Raven” over at Poets.org. Also check out Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s essay on Linda Pastan’s poem, “The Deathwatch Beetle,” where she discusses how the ticking sounds in Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” echoes the theme of mortality throughout the eerie poem.
(Weeping Angel photo by Tony Case, from the New Orleans Cemetery and from IWTV)
(Tell-Tale Heart photo by Mick Rhodes)