Edgar Allan Poe and the economy of horror





Edgar Allan Poe once wrote an essay called “The Philosophy of Composition,” to explain why he wrote “The Raven” backward. The poem tells the story of a man who, “once upon a midnight dreary,” while mourning his dead love, Lenore, answers a tapping at his chamber door, to find “darkness there and nothing more.” He peers into the darkness, “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,” and meets a silence broken only by his whispered word, “Lenore?” He closes the door. The tapping starts again. He flings open his shutter and, “with many a flirt and flutter,” in flies a raven, “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore.” The bird speaks just one word: “Nevermore.” That word is the poem’s last, but it’s where Poe began. He started, he said, “at the end, where all works of art should begin,” and he “first put pen to paper” at what became the third-to-last stanza:

“Prophet,” said I, “thing of evil! prophet
still if bird or devil!
By that heaven that bends above us—by
that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if
within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the
angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom
the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“The Philosophy of Composition” is a lovely little essay, but, as Poe himself admitted, it’s a bit of jiggery-pokery, too. Poe didn’t actually write “The Raven” backward. The essay is as much a contrivance as the poem itself. Here is a beautiful poem; it does everything a poem should do, is everything a poem should be. And here is a clever essay about the writing of a beautiful poem. Top that. Nearly everything Poe wrote, including the spooky stories for which he is best remembered, has this virtuosic, showy, lilting, and slightly wilting quality, like a peony just past bloom. Poe didn’t write “The Raven” to answer the exacting demands of a philosophic Art, or not entirely, anyway. He wrote it for the same reason that he wrote tales like “The Gold-Bug”: to stave off starvation. For a long while, Poe lived on bread and molasses; weeks before “The Gold-Bug” was published, he was begging near-strangers on the street for fifty cents to buy something to eat. “ ‘The Raven’ has had a great ‘run,’ ” he wrote to a friend, “but I wrote it for the express purpose of running—just as I did the ‘Gold-Bug,’ you know. The bird beat the bug, though, all hollow.” The public that swallowed that bird and bug Poe strenuously resented. You love Poe or you don’t, but, either way, Poe doesn’t love you. A writer more condescending to more adoring readers would be hard to find. “The nose of a mob is its imagination,” he wrote. “By this, at any time, it can be quietly led.”

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Poe’s birth and the publication of two collections of gothic tales produced by the Mystery Writers of America. “On a Raven’s Wing: New Tales in Honor of Edgar Allan Poe” (Harper; $14.99) contains stories by twenty mystery writers, including Mary Higgins Clark. “In the Shadow of the Master: Classic Tales by Edgar Allan Poe” (William Morrow; $25.99) pairs Poe’s best-known stories with modern commentaries; Stephen King muses on “The Genius of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’ ” There’s also a sensitive and haunting brief biography, Peter Ackroyd’s “Poe: A Life Cut Short” (Doubleday; $21.95), that offers a fitting tribute to Poe’s begin-at-the-end philosophy by opening with his horrible and mysterious death, in October of 1849. Poe, drunk and delirious, seems to have been dragged around Baltimore to cast votes, precinct after precinct, in one of that city’s infamously corrupt congressional elections, until he finally collapsed....

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