Fantasy and Science - Edgar Allan Poe - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Fantasy and Science
Edgar Allan Poe
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

One of the cleverest ways in which Poe sharpens the horror of his tales is by the very imprecision of their physical and temporal settings. This procedure is in striking contrast to much of the Gothic fiction that preceded him. I have noted that most of the Gothic novels are set in a fairly specific period in the past—purportedly to enhance the plausibility of the supernatural phenomena by placing them within an era and a society in which the widespread superstitiousness of the populace would theoretically render them more credible. But this device was doomed to failure, and on two grounds: first, the notion that our distant ancestors may have regarded a given supernatural event as plausible because of their own credulousness does not necessarily render that event any more plausible to its contemporaneous readers, much less to ourselves; and second, the temporal (and, often, geographical) remoteness of the setting militates against the immediacy of the effect of even the most outlandish and spectacular supernatural incursion. Poe was manifestly aware of these aesthetic difficulties, and he solved them not so much by specificity of time and locale but precisely by a cultivated vagueness, so that the reader’s attention becomes fixated almost exclusively upon the incidents of the tale and, perhaps most importantly, upon the effects of those incidents upon the psyches of its protagonists.

This tendency on Poe’s part may have originated in his poetry. Aside from the transparently historical Tamerlane, many of Poe’s poems are set in a realm of his own making and gain a substantial proportion of their power thereby. “The Valley Nis” (1831; later revised as “The Valley of Unrest”) is perhaps the earliest example in Poe’s poetic corpus, introducing us (in the original version) to the valley of the title:

There the moon doth shine by night

With a most unsteady light—

There the sun doth reel by day

“Over the hills and far away.” (ll. 43—46)

“The City in the Sea” (first published in Poems [1831] as “The Doomed City”) is tremendously powerful in its imagery stressing the transience of humanity:

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city lying alone

Far down within the dim West,

Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best

Have gone to their eternal rest.

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

So blend the turrets and shadows there

That all seems pendulous in air,

While from a proud tower in the town

Death looks gigantically down. (ll. 1—5, 24—29)

“The Haunted Palace” (American Museum, April 1839), with its superb transition from happiness to horror in the last two stanzas; “The Conqueror Worm,” the epitome of pessimism and of the futility of human striving; “For Annie” (Flag of Our Union, 28 April 1849), another encapsulation of pessimism with its doleful threnody on “The fever called ’Living’” (l. 5)—all these and others gain much of their strength from indefiniteness of setting. This lack of specificity is tied indirectly to Poe’s theory of poetry (and, hence, short fiction writing), in the sense that the paring away of such mundane details of locale clears the way for the intense focus on the literal and symbolic action of the poems. But these poems are all eclipsed by “Ulalume” (American Review, December 1847), regarded by many as Poe’s greatest poem and his most successful venture (not excluding “The Raven,” which in spite of its familiarity retains its emotive power) in the “death-of-a-beautiful-woman” trope. Its first stanza is imperishable:

The skies they were ashen and sober;

The leaves they were crispéd and sere—

The leaves they were withering and sere:

It was night, in the lonesome October

Of my most immemorial year:

It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,

In the misty mid region of Weir:—

It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,

In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. (ll. 1—9)

Easily parodied as this may be, it is still capable of transporting readers, by a kind of verbal hypnosis, into a never-never-land of the imagination that prepares them for the supernatural incidents to follow.

In the fiction, the tendency toward deliberate imprecision of setting, both temporal and topographical, was gradual. In “Metzengerstein” Poe unambiguously states in the second paragraph that the tale is set in Hungary and, while an explicit temporal setting is not noted, the use of noble protagonists leaves little doubt that the narrative purports to relate events several centuries in the past. “MS. Found in a Bottle” adopts the device of geographical remoteness to render the supernatural events plausible. It also utilises what would later be a much-ridiculed means of establishing a partial imprecision of time: “After many years spent in foreign travel, I sailed in the year 18—, from the port of Batavia, in the rich and populous island of Java, on a voyage to the Archipelago of the Sunda islands” (CW 2.135). But this setting in Indonesia, itself sufficiently remote, is substantially compounded once the protagonist boards the supernatural Discovery, whose ultimate goal or mission is shrouded in deliberate obscurity. The spectacular image of “stupendous ramparts of ice, towering away into the desolate sky, and looking like the walls of the universe” (CW 2.145) suggests a descent into the far south, perhaps in the direction of Antarctica; but the ship’s destination is the least interesting feature of the narrative.

“Berenice” is an interesting case. There is virtually no indication of either the temporal or geographical setting of the tale, and all we are left with are the manifestly artificial names of the two protagonists, Egaeus and his cousin, Berenice. The fact that, as Mabbott points, out the former is “the name of Hermia’s father in Midsummer Night’s Dream” (CW 2.208) may be of significance, as indicating that we are in some kind of fantasy realm. Berenice, of course, is the name of an historical figure (the wife of King Ptolemy III Euergetes of Egypt [third century B.C.E.]) who was then incorporated into some late Graeco-Roman myths articulated by Callimachus, Ovid, and others; but we are scarcely to think of the tale as being set in antiquity, especially with the citation of a sixteenth-century Italian writer, Caelius Secundus Curio, whose book De Amplitudine Beati Regni Dei Egaeus reads. Suffice it to say that the story’s imprecision of setting focuses our attention exclusively on Egaeus’s increasingly frenzied narration of his own shifting emotional state.

“Ligeia” is similarly almost wholly lacking in specificity of setting, but the full name of the protagonist’s second wife—“Lady Rowena Travanion, of Tremaine” (CW 2.321)—suggests a mediaeval setting, perhaps fittingly so given Poe’s derivation of the name from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, where a Rowena figures significantly. As for “The Fall of the House of Usher,” its celebrated opening paragraph deliberately fails to establish the house and its locale with any kind of precision, instead opting to stress the imaginative and emotional overtones the house inspires:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country … I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul … (CW 2.397)

The time of year is autumn because, perhaps, autumn is the prelude of the death of the year, just as the narrator arrives at the House of Usher in the period just prior to its dissolution. It goes without saying that Poe’s topographical vagueness is triggered at least in part by the plain fact that no actual locale could ever feature the collocation of details he wishes to emphasise, in particular the bizarre feature of the “barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” (CW 2.400—a detail, however, borrowed in part from Hoffmann’s “The Entail”), a suggestion of the house’s instability that anticipates the cataclysmic denouement. In regard to the temporal setting, however, it is worth noting that, even though the house’s “principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity” (CW 2.400), the fact that Roderick Usher at one point played a “wild air from the last waltz of Von Weber” (CW 2.405) surprisingly places the narrative within a period perhaps no less than ten years prior to its first publication, for the death of Karl Maria von Weber (1786—1826) was a relatively recent occurrence.

One could continue the catalogue indefinitely. It is of interest, from this perspective, that “A Descent into the Maelström” is much more precise in its geographical setting—the fjords of Norway—than many of Poe’s fantastic tales, for the obvious reason that the maelström in question is specific to this region. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” conversely, is a tour de force precisely because not a single name or place—not the name of the protagonist, nor that of the “old man” he kills, nor the city or country in which the tale takes place—is cited. The result, again, is an almost unendurable fixation upon the bare events of the narrative—or, more precisely, on the narrator’s unreliable account of those events. Somewhere between these extremes is “The Pit and the Pendulum,” where the mention of “inquisitorial voices” (CW 3.681) makes clear that the Inquisition is somehow involved, as does the later citation of “the horrors of Toledo” (CW 3.685), as that Spanish city was a focus of the Inquisition’s activities. But it is only in the final two sentences that we learn that Toledo has been sacked by the French—an event that occurred in 1808, suddenly thrusting us from what could easily have been a mediaeval or Renaissance temporality to something approaching contemporaneousness.

As if to counteract the topographical and temporal imprecision of many of his tales of psychological and supernatural horror (a feature that does not apply to his tales of ratiocination, where specificity of time and place is emphasised), Poe indirectly established the contemporaneousness of many of his narratives by the use of science and philosophy. The point is important as distinguishing Poe from his Gothic predecessors, who rarely placed their narratives in the contemporary world. Although the burden of Poe’s early “Sonnet—To Science” (1829) is that science has impoverished the world by its destruction of myth, Poe was keen on keeping abreast of the latest developments in science and in infusing them into his tales. We have already seen that mesmerism plays a role in several stories. Poe also reveals, in his essays and reviews, a credulous belief in phrenology (see ER 329—32). The late “Von Kempelen and His Discovery” (Flag of Our Union, 14 April 1849) is worth studying here, for this story—Poe’s response to the California gold rush of 1849—is his ultimate refinement of the “philosopher’s stone” topos of Gothic fiction. Von Kempelen’s discovery of the secret of making gold from lead is couched, not in terms of alchemy, but in terms of the most advanced science, making the story a kind of proto-science-fiction tale. Dispensing scornfully with the “old chimera of the philosopher’s stone” (CW 3.1363), the narrator blandly quotes what appears to be Von Kempelen’s utterance (the italics are Poe’s) that “pure gold can be made at will, and very readily, from lead, in connection with certain other substances, in kind and in proportions, unknown” (CW 3.1364), but cagily refrains from giving any precise formula. The story, in its excessively sober journalistic narration, is the last of Poe’s hoaxes, and a prose pendant to his poem on the same subject, “Eldorado” (Flag of Our Union, 21 April 1849).

In spite of his frequently stated hostility to didacticism, Poe was not immune from the prevailing tendency to regard fiction as somehow frivolous or illegitimate unless it conveyed something in the way of facts, information, or philosophical truth. I refer here not to Poe’s hoaxes—which purport to be true accounts of bizarre, unusual, or fantastic events, and are really a facet of his satirical writing, the object of satire being the credulousness of his readers—but to a wide array of tales whose ponderous openings seek to establish some broad philosophical axiom of which the narratives themselves are (or implicitly claim to be) exemplifications. His very first published tale, “Metzengerstein,” begins: “Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages” (CW 2.18). Then there is the celebrated opening of “Berenice”: “Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform” (CW 2.209). The entire paragraph must be read to perceive the degree of Poe’s expression of hopeless pessimism. But in this and in other instances, there is a question whether the subsequent narratives do in fact constitute a real-world “proof” of the axiom in question. Is Poe here also teasing the reader by enunciating a cosmic truth, only to have the events of the story fail to live up to it? How, really, is the narrator’s obsession with Berenice’s teeth an expression of the idea that “Misery is manifold”? One begins to suspect satire here also—not in the sense that the tale itself is to be regarded as some kind of self-parody, but in the sense that the didactic implications of the opening are confounded by the actual narrative, by the end of which we have in fact forgotten the weighty philosophical axiom with which the tale opened.

Entire narratives are essaylike in construction and tone; but here too there are some oddities. Two of the three stories to be considered here—“The Man of the Crowd” (Casket, December 1840) and “The Premature Burial” (Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, 31 July 1844)—partly, and no doubt deliberately, subvert their messages by the skilful introduction of anomalies and ambiguities. Both tales deal with what would come to be regarded as one of Poe’s signature achievements as a writer, and specifically as a writer of horror (not necessarily supernatural) fiction—the psychology of fear. While there is no doubt that Poe’s searching examination of this topos is one of his great contributions to the literature of terror, and one that wellnigh revolutionised the subsequent history of the field, these two stories treat the matter in peculiar ways. In “The Man of the Crowd,” the first-person narrator finds himself fascinated by observing, from a comfortable seat in a coffeehouse in London, a man—“a decrepid [sic] old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age” (CW 2.511)—who continually appears in the crowds of passersby and appears to be afraid to be alone. Presently he takes to following the man, finding that the latter appears to have no fixed purpose in his peregrinations: “He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare” (CW 2.513). The narrator follows the man all night, including a venture into “the most noisome quarter of London, where every thing wore the worst impress of the most deplorable poverty, and of the most desperate crime” (CW 2.514); in the end he can only conclude: “This old man … is the type and genious of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds” (CW 2.515). It is only at this point that we realise that the man of the crowd has not uttered a word in explanation of his behaviour, and that all the motives and goals attributed to that behaviour have come from the narrator—who could be (and probably is) quite wrong about the man’s motivations, since it is difficult to credit that merely tracking a man for a day and a night, without interviewing him or probing the rationale for any of his actions, could in any way lead to a plausible account of his behaviour. In effect, the narrator is a kind of proto-Dupin (the story was written just before “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”), but, unlike that pioneering detective tale, there is no way to confirm that the narrator’s assumptions regarding the man of the crowd are in any sense accurate.

As for “The Premature Burial,” the fact that it appeared in a newspaper, and that for the great proportion of its narrative it reads like a sober essay, replete with actual instances of premature inhumation, has apparently led many to believe that Poe is speaking of his own fears. But in fact a (presumably) fictional narrative, and narrator, do emerge toward the end of the story—one in which the narrator, although professing that he took “elaborate precautions” (CW 3.965) against premature burial while travelling, appears to find himself in just such a predicament, only to discover that he is in a very narrow bed on a boat. The result is dramatic:

… out of Evil proceeded Good; for their very excess wrought in my spirit an inevitable revulsion. My soul acquired tone—acquired temper. I went abroad. I took vigorous exercise. I breathed the free air of Heaven. I thought upon other subjects than Death. I discarded my medical books. “Buchan” I burned. I read no “Night Thoughts”—no fustian about church-yards—no bugaboo tales—such as this. (CW 3.968—69; emphasis in original)

This delicious self-dynamating of his own narrative makes one strongly suspect parody. It perhaps cannot be denied that Poe himself was endowed with a fear of premature burial, since it crops up in story after story (most notably “Berenice,” “Ligeia,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”), but Poe here is perhaps having a bit of fun at those of his critics who chastised him for dwelling so obsessively on doom and gloom. In effect, he is having his cake and eating it too: his depiction of the fears of premature burial are enough to chill the stoutest hearts—

The unendurable oppression of the lungs—the stifling fumes of the damp earth—the clinging to the death garments—the rigid embrace of the narrow house—the blackness of the absolute night—the silence like a sea that overwhelms—the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm—these things … carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. (CW 3.961)

But that self-refuting ending shows Poe stepping back from the horrors of his own creation with a knowing wink and nod.

The final essaylike story in the Poe corpus, “The Imp of the Perverse” (Graham’s Magazine, July 1845), is a bit more orthodox. We have seen that Poe had already touched upon the element of perverseness in “The Black Cat.” He here elaborates exhaustively on the subject, spending perhaps two-thirds of the story in a searching examination of this psychological malady and only toward the end declaring, in the guise of his first-person narrator, “You will easily perceive that I am but one of the many uncounted victims of the Imp of the Perverse” (CW 3.1224). He goes on to tell how he had planned the perfect murder and executed it, but then must fight the urge to confess—a matter that he explicitly likens to a ghost: “And now my own casual self-suggestion, that I might possibly be fool enough to confess the murder of which I had been guilty, confronted me, as if the very ghost of him whom I had murdered—and beckoned me on to death” (CW 3.1225). Of course, in the end he does confess. In this particular context, the imp of the perverse appears to function as the result of a process of socialisation that impels one to feel guilt at the commission of a crime, and so to confess it; but Poe’s psychological acuity in identifying this trait—the fact that we “perpetrate [certain actions] merely because we feel that we should not” (CW 3.1223)—is undeniable.

If I have not spoken sufficiently about what may well be the most signal attribute of Poe’s work, either in supernatural or psychological horror—the meticulous, painstaking, and actually horrifying analysis of the disturbed psyches of his most noted protagonists, from Egaeus to Roderick Usher to the unnamed narrators of “The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”—it is because this trait is singularly difficult to analyse without a line-by-line study of the given narratives. On occasion Poe’s narrators will assert an initial rationality that will be progressively undermined as the tale progresses (“MS. Found in a Bottle”: “Upon the whole, no person could be less liable than myself to be led away from the severe precincts of the truth by the ignes fatui of superstition” [CW 2.135]); in other cases, as we have seen in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator’s grasp of sanity and reality seems at the very outset to be severely in question. Poe augments this subversion of his protagonists’ psyches by a manner of story construction whereby the climax of the tale occurs simultaneously with the protagonists’ psychological collapse, a feature that renders both his supernatural tales and his tales of psychological terror the more powerful and credible. It is facile to say that Poe drew his portraits of disturbed psyches chiefly or even largely from his own mental instability—an assumption that perhaps deliberately seeks to minimise the manifest artistry of Poe’s analysis of the conclave of eccentrics he puts on stage.