Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys speaks about an “Imperial phase”, or the period where a band is at its zenith. Exactly when this period occurs is anyone’s guess. But the important thing is that you can only recognise it when it’s over.
While he lived, Edgar Allan Poe wrote (on a writing desk and otherwise) to temperate critical reception and little money. But few men have left a greater a shadow behind them – or a darker one. Poe doesn’t inspire, he haunts. Tales of Mystery and Imagination is his most famous collection, and was my first exposure to his work. I don’t have my father’s early 20th century edition any more, but from memory it was different to some modern editions – it started with “MS Found in a Bottle”, included “The Black Cat”, and omitted a few stories like “Conversation with a Mummy.”
No matter the exact lineup of stories, this collection focuses on the macabre and grotesque side of Poe, and it’s not representative of the totality of his work. Poe was never known for respecting boundaries, and his bibliography is full of digressions into satire and adventure and cryptography and fashionable sciences of the day, such as phrenology. The only nod to this in Tales of Mystery and Imagination is the inclusion of his detective stories. “Murders in the Rouge Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” are influential stories featuring one Auguste Dupin, a crime-solving legerdemain who would inspire characters such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and Tar? Hirai’s Kogoro Akechi.
“The Black Cat”, and “A Cask of Amontillado” are frightening in a precise, analytic way – perfectly lucid people doing perfectly deranged acts. “Berenice” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are ambiguous and even more frightening – delirious slipstreams of events remembered by the mad, half told and half rambled. I like the way “The Pit and the Pendulum”‘s hero finds a way to fight his fate – Poe’s characters are often not sane, but they’re never craven or pathetic.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Masque of the Red Death” have an aura of rotted, decaying glory, as well as Poe’s usual grotesque themes. “William Wilson” is a doppelganger story told by a narrator so close to the line between sanity and insanity that even he cannot be sure of which side he’s on. They’re all good, but the story that stayed with me the longest was “Facts in the Case of M Valdemar”, about a nightmarish experiment where a dying man is placed under hypnosis. I had asked him, it will be remembered, if he still slept. He now said: “Yes; — no; — I have been sleeping — and now — now — I am dead.”
Credit must be given to Harry Clarke’s art, which takes Poe’s descriptions and gives them horrid life. He draws corpses and living people and there is little difference between them – everyone looks ectomorphic and wasted and distressingly thin. His obsessive detail captures the neurotic aspect of Poe’s stories, but his art has a nostalgic quality, too. Nobody will ever illustrate Poe’s stories as well as as Harry Clarke, and nobody should try.
This collection reveals one facet of Poe’s writing, and it’s only a shame that so much had to be left out. Please get Tales of Mystery and Imagination – but please leave space on the shelf beside it.