A Halloween Treat: Six stories by Edgar Allan Poe

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.

– 5 Ravens


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.

– 3 Ravens


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.

– 3 Ravens


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!

– 2 Ravens


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.

5 Ravens


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.

– 4 Ravens


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:

Mrs Poe by Lynn Cullen

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)

Ulalume: A Poem for Halloween

Small and Spooky (a short story anthology including Poe’s Morella)

Small and Spooky, edited by M.R. Nelson

small-and-spooky As it’s Halloween on Monday, I thought today would be a good time to tell you about the wonderful collection of classic ghost stories I’ve just had the pleasure of reading. It’s called Small and Spooky and the six stories it contains were selected by M.R. Nelson, editor of two other short story collections (she refers to them as ‘taster flights’), one of which – Love and Other Happy Endings – I read and enjoyed earlier in the year.

Three of the stories in this collection are by authors I already know and love, while the other three are by authors who were new to me. All six share a common theme – they all feature a child or the ghost of a child – but otherwise they’re all quite different. It’s difficult to know how much you can say about short stories without spoiling them, so I’m just going to give a brief overview of each one.

The first is The Marble Child (1918) by E. Nesbit, a favourite childhood author of mine. I remember loving her children’s novels The Railway Children and The Phoenix and the Carpet, but had no idea until recently that she had also written ghost stories. This story about a little boy who is fascinated by the marble child he sees in the church gets the collection off to a good start. Part of the story is written from the boy’s perspective and part from an adult’s which, as the editor points out in her notes, makes this story a sort of bridge between children’s and adult fiction.

The next story is a great one: The Wind in the Rose-Bush (1903) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, an American author I had never heard of until now. The story follows Rebecca Flint as she travels to a small, remote town hoping to see her young niece, who has been living with her stepmother since her parents died. From the moment Rebecca arrives and sees a rosebush moving when there’s no wind, she knows something is wrong. I found it easy to guess what was going on in this story, but Rebecca didn’t know and I could really feel her growing sense of unease and confusion as the truth began to unfold.

Next is Their Dear Little Ghost (1890) by Elia Wilkinson Peattie (also another new author for me), which as you might guess from the title is not a scary ghost story at all. It’s actually quite a sweet and moving little story about a child who dies just before Christmas and her godmother’s love for her even in death. I found this one of the weakest stories in the book, but I still liked it and thought it made a nice contrast to the previous one, which was quite creepy!

The following story, Morella (1835), is by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is another author I love and I was already familiar with Morella (I think I read nearly all of his short stories and poems years ago when I was given his complete works as a Christmas present). This tale of reincarnation is not one of his scariest and I don’t think it’s one of his best either, but I can see why it was chosen for this collection as it does fit the theme.

The fifth story is another strong one: The Old Nurse’s Story (1852) by Elizabeth Gaskell. I was convinced I had read this one before – it appears in Gaskell’s Gothic Tales which I borrowed from the library a few years ago – but when I started to read, I didn’t remember it at all. In this atmospheric story set in winter, a ghostly child haunts the Northumberland countryside. I love Gaskell’s writing and this is an excellent example of a Victorian ghost story.

Finally, we have The Doll’s Ghost (1911) by F. Marion Crawford, another author I’ve never read before. This is an unusual story about a child’s doll which is broken and given to a dolls’ hospital to repair. Although I found this story a bit eerie, the ghost was a nice ghost, which meant the collection finished on an uplifting note! I would be happy to read more by this author.

These are six very enjoyable stories and perfect for those readers who, like me, prefer their ghost stories to be spooky but not terrifying! It was good to revisit Nesbit, Gaskell and Poe – and also to be introduced to three new authors, all of whom I’m now interested in exploring further.

Thanks to M.R. Nelson for providing a copy of Small and Spooky for review.

Mrs Poe by Lynn Cullen

Mrs Poe About ten years ago I was given a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete works for Christmas and spent the next few months slowly working through his stories and poems. I was already familiar with the more famous ones, but I hadn’t realised what a diverse writer he actually was and I enjoyed discovering the rest of his work, from the wonderful creepiness of Ligeia and the mystery of The Gold Bug to the satire of The Angel of the Odd and the eerie beauty of Silence: A Fable. By all accounts Poe’s private life was almost as interesting as his fiction, so I was naturally drawn to this new novel by Lynn Cullen with the title Mrs Poe.

I had assumed that the Mrs Poe of the title was Poe’s cousin Virginia Clemm who became his wife at the age of thirteen, but while Virginia does play a big part in the story, the title also refers to another woman – the poet Frances Sargent Osgood, with whom Poe may have had an affair. As the story begins in 1845, Frances is separated from her husband, the portrait painter Samuel Stillman Osgood, and is struggling to earn enough money through her writing to support herself and her young children. Her editor suggests that perhaps the type of poems and stories she writes (children’s stories like Puss in Boots and poetry about love and flowers) are not what people want to read and she should try something darker, becoming “a sort of Mrs Poe”.

However, Frances’ work has already brought her to the attention of Poe himself and when the two are introduced, a friendship begins to form. After this, Cullen’s novel starts to deviate away from the known facts. Poe and Osgood certainly had a relationship of some sort and exchanged romantic poems but it is not known whether they were any more than just platonic friends. In Mrs Poe there’s no doubt that Frances is in love with Edgar, so when she is befriended by his young wife Virginia, who is suffering from tuberculosis, Frances doesn’t know what to think – especially when she starts to experience a series of accidents and misfortunes whenever she’s with Virginia. Does Virginia really want to be her friend or does she have a more sinister reason for wanting to spend so much time with Frances?

The story of the two Mrs Poes is set within the world of nineteenth century American literature, which means there are lots of descriptions of meetings with publishers, salons attended by authors and literary critics, and even some brief mentions and appearances from Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other writers and poets. This does help to give us a feel for what life was like in the literary world of 1800s New York, but when P.T. Barnum, Samuel Morse and other historical characters began to appear as well, I thought it started to feel too overwhelming.

I have tried two of Lynn Cullen’s books now – this one and The Creation of Eve, the story of female Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola – and while they are both entertaining enough, I’m not sure she is really an author for me. I love the fact that she chooses such interesting subjects for her novels, but neither of the two I’ve read have the depth I look for in historical fiction. This one had the potential to be a great story but the focus on gossip, scandal and the social lives of the characters started to bore me. I think with a title like Mrs Poe I had also expected something more gothic and mysterious and was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t – although the story did become a lot more compelling halfway through when Frances began to feel threatened by Virginia.

This book wasn’t a great success for me, but I would still recommend it to other readers who are interested in the lives of Edgar Allan Poe and Frances Osgood.

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley

The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

After I read The Anatomy of Ghosts earlier in the year, I asked for opinions on Andrew Taylor’s other books. Well, I’d like to thank the three people who left comments recommending The American Boy (published in the US as An Unpardonable Crime) as I thought this one was even better than The Anatomy of Ghosts. As someone who loves classic sensation novels (Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood etc) it’s maybe unsurprising that I enjoyed this book so much. It has all the elements of a sensation novel and although it was published in 2003 it almost feels as if it could have been written in the 19th century.

The American Boy is set in England during the final months of the reign of George III. The story begins in September 1819 when our narrator, Thomas Shield, is starting a new job as a teacher at a small private school in the village of Stoke Newington. One of the boys at the school is the ten-year-old Edgar Allan Poe, the ‘American boy’ of the title. Shield is given special responsibility for tutoring Edgar and his best friend, Charles Frant, and through the two boys he becomes acquainted with two rich banking families – the Frants and their cousins, the Carswells. He soon becomes caught up in the dramas that are unfolding within the Frant and Carswell families and when two murders take place it seems that Shield’s own life could also be in danger.

The plot is so intricate and complex I won’t even try to go into any more detail, but in addition to the murders, there’s also a disputed will, mistaken identities, family secrets, betrayal, revenge and even romance. Thomas Shield’s adventures take place in a variety of wonderfully atmospheric locations from the dark, foggy streets and over-crowded slums of London to the snowy landscape of the Carswells’ country estate in Gloucestershire, complete with an ice house and ruined abbey. Taylor made his settings feel vivid and real without going into pages and pages of description.

I should point out that although Edgar Allan Poe does have an important part to play in the story, he’s really just a minor character. I actually thought this whole aspect of the book was unnecessary as the plot would have been strong enough without it and a fictional character could easily have been used in his place. I’m not complaining as I do like Poe and found his brief appearances interesting, but I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking this is a book about Poe because it really isn’t.

Although I hadn’t included this book on my list for the RIP challenge, I’m going to count it as my first book for RIP anyway (I don’t know why I bother making lists for challenges as I never, ever stick to them!) The American Boy isn’t what I would describe as a scary book, but it is a very dark and suspenseful mystery – a perfect book to curl up with and enjoy at this time of year.

I know it’s a cliché but I didn’t want to put this book down and the very short chapters made it even more tempting to keep reading. If it hadn’t been so long (500 pages) I could have read it all in one sitting. I also appreciated the author’s attempts to make the book feel like an authentic 19th century novel through his use of language and Thomas Shield’s narrative style. It won’t be for everyone though; you either like this type of book or you don’t, but for anyone who has enjoyed books such as The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox or The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, I can highly recommend this one.

A Poem For Halloween: Ulalume by Edgar Allan Poe

As today is Halloween, I decided to post one of my favourite poems by Edgar Allan Poe. Like a lot of Poe’s work this poem looks at the themes of loss and death. The narrator is walking through the woods on a dark night in October and finds himself at the tomb of Ulalume, whom he had buried there on the same night the year before.

There are several references to mythology throughout the poem and you may need to look up the meanings of any unfamiliar words and phrases. The name Ulalume, for example, is thought to be taken from the Latin verb ululare which means to shriek or wail.

(Note: The following poem is in the public domain)

The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped 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.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul–
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll–
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole–
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere–
Our memories were treacherous and sere,–
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year
(Ah, night of all nights in the year!)–
We noted not the dim lake of Auber
(Though once we had journeyed down here)–
Remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

And now, as the night was senescent
And star-dials pointed to morn–
As the star-dials hinted of morn–
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn–
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

And I said: “She is warmer than Dian;
She rolls through an ether of sighs–
She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion
To point us the path to the skies–
To the Lethean peace of the skies–
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
To shine on us with her bright eyes–
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
With love in her luminous eyes.”

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
Said: “Sadly this star I mistrust–
Her pallor I strangely mistrust:
Ah, hasten! -ah, let us not linger!
Ah, fly! -let us fly! -for we must.”
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
Wings until they trailed in the dust–
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust–
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

I replied: “This is nothing but dreaming:
Let us on by this tremulous light!
Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybilic splendour is beaming
With Hope and in Beauty tonight!–
See! -it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
And be sure it will lead us aright–
We safely may trust to a gleaming,
That cannot but guide us aright,
Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom–
And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
But were stopped by the door of a tomb–
By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said: “What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?”
She replied: “Ulalume -Ulalume–
‘Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere–
As the leaves that were withering and sere;
And I cried: “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed -I journeyed down here!–
That I brought a dread burden down here–
On this night of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber–
This misty mid region of Weir–
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

[Ulalume – Edgar Allan Poe]