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.
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The stories are mostly good, but this is a weird product from an editing and packaging standoint.
It has random-ass stock cover art that has nothing to with any of the stories (an almost obligatory feature of small press books), stories that don’t really make sense with each other, and a blurb on the back promising three “short novels”. Mangled Meat‘s first “novel” is 21 pages long, the second “novel” 31 pages long, and the third “novel” is 51 pages long, so yes, these are short novels. Maybe Deadite Press will publish the dot that I used to finish my last sentence and call it a “short vignette.”
“The Decortication Technician” stands out like a cockroach on a wedding cake. It has no gore or sex, but it manages to evoke a Ray Bradbury sense of wonder. In the far future, a man must dissect an alien that is like nothing he’s seen before. The writing is sometimes clunky and graceless, but it manages to create a believable futuristic world in 20 pages, and I enjoyed the big reveal at the end. To spoil it a bit, it’s like the ending of Anthony Boucher’s “The Quest for Saint Aquin” reversed. This story is good stuff.
“The Cyesolagniac” is about a guy who fancies pregnant women, and how his fetish lands him in hot water (figuratively and literally, unfortunately). Disgusting in places, and has a cute ending. I didn’t like how Lee tries to make a boring and run-of-the-mill fetish sound like the most taboo thing in the world. “Heyton sat in the chair with his pants down. A glance across the squalid room revealed his pitiful reflection in the mirror: a ludicrous caricature. The magazine shook in his hands. If my dear dead parents could see me now…” You’d think the guy liked fiddling kids or something.
“Room 415” is about a well-meaning beta male who has been cheated on, and now finds himself unable to get an erection unless he sees women being hurt. He falls in with a crooked pimp and a retinue of high-priced escorts, with nasty results. There’s some fun gore porn at the end, but I found the story to be a long car ride for a short day at the beach: long and slow, and the payoff at the end isn’t worth it. There’s lots of overly-detailed description of luscious tits and asses spilling out of translucent lingerie, etc – I get the sense that Lee was typing the story one-handed. Apparently this is the “nice” version of the story, and there’s an alternate version somewhere with a far darker and more misanthropic end.
Mangled Meat is an interesting collection. It doesn’t take more than twenty minutes to read, so it could be worthwhile if you find it cheap somewhere. The first story is the best and the last story is the worst, but they’re all at least somewhat readable. It’s not really what it was advertised as, but I could see myself reading more of Edward Lee’s short s…er, novels.
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When a dice flies, it bears seven fates on its vectors. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Or you can slam a bowl over the dice, and never know.
People choose the seventh option every day. It’s easy to throw a dice, or throw a stone, or fire a gun, if you don’t have to look at the consequences. The worst development in all of war was when we found a way to kill over a distance. Once, killing meant committing violence against a tangible body. Now, you can do it without thinking or knowing or caring or understanding.
Seeing is a gift, but gifts are more trouble than they’re worth sometimes. It’s easier sometimes to not see, to look in a dark corner and be blind, or to have a thought and not follow it through it its conclusion.
Let me tell of a man who rolled the dice and couldn’t look.
Shaka Zulu was a 19th century Zulu king who won a kingdom and defended it against enemies black and white. He was successful on the battlefield and plagued by witch doctors at home.
The Zulu held shamans in high regard as a class of lawyer priests. It was customary for shamans to receive half of a convicted man’s property, and they grew overfond of accusing wealthy people of crimes so as to share in their wealth.
One day, the actions of a particular witch exceeded Zulu’s patience, and he decided to punish her.
He imprisoned her in a hut and – because she claimed a hyena as her familiar – he put a fully grown male hyena in the hut with her before barring the door. He did not wish her to be lonely.
Hyenas are not timid scavenging animals. When hungry, they are dangerous predators. Snarls and barks came from inside the hut. The people in the kraal heard these sounds, and knew that a king’s vengeance was underway.
But then there was silence. No more snarls and barks. No sound at all came from inside the hut. The beast was quiet, and Shaka’s subjects whispered as to the meaning of this.
A few days later, Shaka ordered the hut burned down. He did not want the door opened, or for anyone to look inside. Flames devoured the hut with a million sucking mouths, and the secret inside was lost to history.
Behind Shaka’s back, there were whispers.
He’d been afraid.
Afraid of the hut being opened.
Afraid of seeing the hyena lying in the witch’s arms, sucking on her nipples. So he’d set the hut to burn. He threw the dice, and then turned his eyes away.
That this is the right way is hard to accept. Walking around with one’s eyes shut seems dangerous. You might fall into a hole in the ground.
But there’s a hole in the ground waiting for you anyway. There’s one waiting for all of us, and it will take everyone, blind and seeing alike. But you don’t have to think about that, if you don’t want to.
Please be blind.
Please don’t look.
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