It’s been a while since I last read anything by Edgar Allan Poe so I decided to pull my Complete Tales and Poems off the shelf this weekend to re-read a few of his stories. With Halloween on its way, I thought I would concentrate on some of his spooky, unsettling or gothic stories rather than the mysteries, science fiction, essays and other genres which are also included in the collection. Maybe I will write about some of those in a future post, but for now, here are my thoughts on the six stories I’ve managed to re-read over the weekend:
Ligeia – This has always been one of my favourite Poe stories. It begins with the narrator describing his beautiful, talented, intelligent wife Ligeia, whom he met in a ‘large, old, decaying city near the Rhine’. When Ligeia dies, the heartbroken narrator retreats to England where he buys and restores an ancient abbey. Marrying again, he brings his new wife, the Lady Rowena, to live with him at the abbey where he prepares for her a chamber which sounds wonderfully sinister and eerie. The rays of the sun and moon fall ‘with a ghastly lustre on the objects within’, in each corner stands ‘a gigantic sarcophagus of black granite’ and an artificial current of wind behind the tapestries gives a ‘hideous and uneasy animation to the whole’.
The story is notable for the unreliability of the narrator and for the inclusion of one of Poe’s poems, The Conqueror Worm.
The Masque of the Red Death – This is a story I’ve always found slightly confusing. A prince and a thousand friends (could anyone really have a thousand friends?) lock themselves away in a castle while a terrible plague devastates the rest of the country. The moral of the story seems clear enough to me, but I’m not sure I’ve ever understood all of the symbolism, such as why the prince has seven chambers each decorated in a different colour – That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example in blue — and vividly blue were its windows. That’s maybe why this one has never been a favourite.
Metzengerstein – In this story, set in what I assume is medieval Germany, the young Baron Metzengerstein witnesses a horse in a tapestry take on human characteristics: The eyes, before invisible, now wore an energetic and human expression, while they gleamed with a fiery and unusual red; and the distended lips of the apparently enraged horse left in full view his sepulchral and disgusting teeth. Moments later a strange horse appears in his stables outside. Is it just an innocent animal or is it something more sinister? Again, this is not a favourite, but it’s an interesting story with lots of gothic elements.
The Oblong Box – I found this the weakest of the stories I’ve read this weekend. The narrator takes passage on a ship from Charleston to New York City and meets an old friend aboard. The friend is accompanied by his wife, his two sisters…and an oblong-shaped box made of pine. I thought it was quite obvious what must be inside the box – and I guessed correctly. The most interesting thing about the story is that the narrator comes to entirely the wrong conclusion!
Silence: A Fable – This is a very short story (three pages long in my edition) but one that I’ve always loved, mainly for the language Poe uses to create atmosphere. The story is narrated by a Demon, who is describing a region of Libya where giant water lilies ‘stretch towards the heaven their long ghastly necks’, the river ‘palpitates forever and forever beneath the red eye of the sun’ and ‘strange poisonous flowers lie writhing in perturbed slumber’. With its rhythm and repetition it has the feel of a poem in prose. It was night, and the rain fell; and, falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.
As it’s so short, I don’t want to spoil the plot (not that there’s much plot to spoil). Without going into details, I think there are different ways you could interpret this story, but I see it as meaning that while humans may not necessarily be afraid of chaos, noise and destruction, what they fear most of all is complete and utter silence.
The Oval Portrait – Another very short story, at two and a half pages long. Our narrator becomes injured during a journey and takes refuge in a château, a place of ‘gloom and grandeur’. A portrait of a young woman in an oval frame opposite his bed catches his eye and he is fascinated when he learns the tragic story behind it. The similarities between The Oval Portrait and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – and what they each have to say about art and artists – are striking.
Have you read any of these? What are your favourite Poe stories?
If I’ve got you in the mood for more Poe, here are some of my older Poe-related posts which you may find interesting:
Dragonwyck by Anya Seton (Poe makes a few brief appearances in this one)
The American Boy by Andrew Taylor (the title character is the ten-year-old Poe)
Small and Spooky (a short story anthology including Poe’s Morella)