One hundred seventy-one Octobers ago, Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore. Judging by the frequency with which cultural references to him and his works pop up—Poe and Raven masks, the Edgar Awards, t-shirts, mugs, you-name-it—it seems he haunts us still. Now, in 2020, perhaps his shade’s message is, “What didn’t you get about ‘The Masque of the Red Death’?”
The late mystery writer Julian Symons’s Poe biography, The Tell-Tale Heart, is a painful journey. Time and again, Poe’s precarious financial situation would start to brighten, and time and again, he would get in his own way, sabotaging his prospects.
Poe’s parents were itinerant actors. His heavy-drinking father deserted the family in Poe’s first year, and his mother died of consumption when he was two. Certainly retrospective psychoanalysts of his personality make much of these early traumas. For his part, Symons believes a combination of predilection and early experience marked Poe, ‘and his life can best be understood as a play in which he half-consciously cast himself as a tragic hero.’
He dropped out of the University of Virginia, resentful of the aristocratic young men he met there, and moved to Maryland. In Baltimore, he connected with his aunt and later married her not-quite fourteen-year-old daughter. Having a family gave him a sense of purpose, but the problem then and ever after was earning money.
Today we know Poe best for his short stories, and that one poem. Yet Poe’s greatest desire was to be a poet and literary critic, to have his own magazine. Unfortunately, the caustic reviews he wrote for literary journals cost him many friendships and connections with people who might have helped him. Eventually, Symons says, ‘his drinking and critical quarrelsomeness were too well known for anybody to employ him.’ A modern reader can’t help but think Poe suffered from some psychiatric disorder that today might have been treated.
His last, disastrous decision was to name Rufus Wilmot Griswold his literary executor. For reasons of his own, Griswold made false and scurrilous accusations about Poe’s work and character that tarnished the author’s reputation for nearly a century. To a degree, they persist today.
In the last couple of years, I’ve written two short stories inspired by Poe’s “Berenice,” in which a young man becomes obsessed with his wife’s teeth. After she dies, he yanks them out before her body is relegated to the family crypt. Alas, (and you know this is coming), she isn’t dead.
They appeared in an entertaining anthology of contemporary stories with roots in classic Poe called Quoth the Raven, edited by Lyn Worthen; and in an anthology with the premise that Sherlock Holmes is called in to investigate the strange doings Poe set up. It’s Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Brian and Derrick Belanger. No doubt Poe would never have imagined that the stories he dismissed so casually just to put money in his pocket would continue to fire other writers’ imaginations these many years later.