I wish this were topical for a better reason. I haven’t seen “The Raven,” but if you present me Edgar Allen Poe as a pistol-packing badass sleuth, I’m going to have misgivings. Retreating back to the original stories as I did, though, was enjoyable. It not only reinforced the tales I liked best but better informed me as to why.
Deciding your favorite Poe stories is an especially subjective thing: after all, we’re talking about what gets to us. With that in mind, here’s my top three (with an interruption):
It was between this one and “The Black Cat,” which are so similar the Roger Corman movie “The Tomb of Ligeia” essentially combines both. Each tale begins with the speaker sculpting a “My Last Duchess”-style monument that turns out to be a headstone for the object of his affection. Also, the speaker in each is a worse human being than he lets on, leaving you to wonder, Just how much of a maniac is this person who’s talking to me?
So why “Ligeia?” It simply affects me more. If you have a beloved whom you believe to be attuned to a higher spiritual frequency than you, this story will strike the mark. I’m confident my fiancée, if ever a shade, could and would destroy any Lady Rowena who’d presume to succeed her.
2. The Tell-tale Heart
This one’s iconic for a reason. Who can forget the ending? But rereading this story, I’m reminded of just how supremely taut it is. It’s immediately unsettling– the murderer wants to convince you of his sanity through how expertly he killed the geezer (“And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses?”)
The conclusion has you satisfied but not exactly relieved– Poe of course leaves the matter open to whether the supernatural is actually occurring or if the heartbeat was a projection of guilt/madness. Several other Poe stories are more disturbing, but few, if any, are so memorable.
The Most Overrated Tale
“The Pit and the Pendulum,” folks. This story spawned perhaps the most famous Poe movie (again, Corman), and a young Stephen King got his start by printing his own back-to-text adaptation of the film. What with its lame-sauce ending, you’d think the original story was the stronger influence on the modern king of horror.
It opens with the speaker participating in the game show Total Blackout. Okay, it’s actually the Spanish Inquisition. From there it’s basically an exercise in making you face the implements of death named in the title. Even if that’s all it is, sure, it still counts for something because few writers can trap you within a tormented mind so well as Poe. But for me the tale held no surprises unless I count the concluding impression of, “Oh. So that’s it, huh?”
It’s not a bad story. It’s just one of the few Poe works that doesn’t draw a smiling shudder when I’m reminded of it, its notoriety notwithstanding.
Unlike Poe, I’m going to end this on the positive, so my favorite tale is…
1. The Masque of the Red Death
Such little setup, such enormous, terrifying payoff.
No one can recreate the chill I get from reading this story, watching Prospero rush through the colored chambers to confront the thing at the distant end– and watching the prince fall down dead, blood squeezing from his pores. Why am I still so unnerved by the deaths of a bunch of hubris-filled revelers I care nothing about? Because it means no one is safe. Death finds a way, with a “thief in the night,” try as you might to preserve your last sprig of earthly joy amid the sweep of pestilence.
Jesus. The only thing that can bring me back from this melancholy is YouTube videos of puppies barking in their sleep. Can we… watch puppies barking in their sleep now? Thanks. Okay, I’m better.
(For more people talking about their favorite Poe stories, click here. And hey, tell me yours in a comment.)