BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: Edgar Allen Poe

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, we deal the first widely recognised master of the genre…

A lot of genres are dominated by short story writers throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Horror is no exception. My method for approaching authors whose works are dominated by short fiction is to dip in and out, somewhat at random, rather than just reading “the best of”, in an attempt to get a better feel for the writers overall body of work. And Edgar Allen Poe is the first short story writer to test this methodology.

There is a few things that become instantly apparent. Firstly, Poe is pretty obsessed with entombment, a theme that crops up again and again to increasingly diminishing effect. The best use is in one of his best stories The Fall of the House of Ussher, where it is only part of a deeply evocative gothic tapestry, and where it is the whole point of the story it is somewhat less effective.

The other big issue that Poe has is that he has a tendency to end on a bit of a rhetorical flourish, as if he is turning to the audience and saying “taa-daa” at the end of each story. That, and the occasional habit of explaining everything too much in his more “mystery” stories (Murders in the Rue Morgue is rightly hailed as hugely influential but doesn’t half go on after the big reveal) and it can kill the narrative drive.

All that said…when it works, it really works. Poe is at his best with timeless, dreamlike horrors – Ussher, I’ve already mentioned, but Masque of the Red Death is short, to the point, and wonderfully atmospheric and macabre. It leaves me wondering if the gulf of years between writing and reading these texts doesn’t serve the more “grounded” works very well, whereas the artificial worlds hold up a lot better; no more artificial today than they were when they were written…

Next time: Robert Louis Stephenson’s morality tale come body horror, Jekyll & Hyde!

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below of via twitter @thegrampus.

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  1. Patrick Hayes /

    Just taught “The Tell-Tale Heart” to my 8th graders today. From this point on, as it has been for the last twenty years, Poe is GOD to these 13 year olds. I’d have included “The Black Cat”, “Hop Frog”–for which the Henson Company did the most frightening adaptation, and “The Gold-Bug.” Not to mention “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, the first detective story, and, oddly, predating Jack the Ripper’s spree by a few decades. Poe is the man!

    Looking forward to more books and your comments!

    • dwgrampus /

      oh i really imagine it having a huge impact on kids!

      i really liked most of the Gold-Bug, especially the wierd obsessional nature of the treasure-hunting, but he did go on a bit about how clever the cypher was in final section of the book. and i found the black manservant character….badly dated, to say the least!

      even as a newbie to horror, Poe feels very much like one of the big foundations that the genre is built on (i can certainly see his influence on Lovecraft, who i’ve long enjoyed)

  2. Phlambler /

    Not sure if you read the Pit and the Pendulum amongst your reads but, if not, then go and do so!!! One of the best examples of building terror ever put to paper.

    In terms of the entombment, you’re spot on, Poe had a huge personal fear of entombment whilst alive (not sure where it came from) and this comes across in lots of his writing (one story of which I forget the title the main character bricks his ‘friend’ into an underground wall cavity).

    • dwgrampus /

      ah the story about the bottle of wine or similar? yeah was one of the first i read. its really just…strange, i thought.

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