Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)

U.S. writer best known as a poet and short story writer. In the latter capacity he pioneered several modern genres and subgenres, including the detective story, psychological horror fiction, and science fiction, making extensive experiments with narrative form. These extended to fiction imitative of contemporary scientific reportage, in ‘‘The Effects of Mesmerism on a Dying Man’’ (1845; aka ‘‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’’), and an extraordinary book length ‘‘poem in prose’’ popularising and extrapolating contemporary discoveries in *astronomy in Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe (1848).
Poe’s unparalleled literary inventiveness received such a hostile reception in his homeland that one of his biographers, J. A. T. Lloyd, titled his life story The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe (1931), identifying Poe’s literary executor, Rufus W. Griswold, as the chief assassin. It was Griswold who permanently saddled Poe’s by-line with a middle name derived from the surname of his stepfather (which Poe incorporated only briefly while he was alive) and wrote the deceptive memoir that gave him a posthumous reputation as a drunkard of dubious sanity. In fact, Poe drank little—although alcohol did go straight to his head, perhaps because he was perpetually on the brink of starvation—and was perfectly sane, but it is conceivable that he instructed his executor to demonise him. It is difficult to imagine that the nakedly vicious obituary that appeared under Griswold’s name could have been penned without prior sanction, and it may even have been written by Poe himself, as an ironic gesture. That would have been typical of Poe’s traffic with what one of his fictionalised essays called ‘‘The Imp of the Perverse’’ (1850).
Poe was much more successful in France than in the United States. His leading French translator was Charles Baudelaire, who saw his own perceived plight—as an unjustly neglected poet and a harshly treated stepson—mirrored in Poe’s unlucky life. Aided by Baudelairean style, Poe became a highly influential writer in Europe, and might be regarded as the true progenitor of the *Decadent Movement, whose central myth he developed in ‘‘The Fall of the House of Usher’’ (1839); he also modelled its stylistic affectations in ‘‘The Masque of the Red Death’’ (1842) and provided a guide to decadent lifestyle fantasy in ‘‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ (1841).
Poe was the first writer seriously to tackle the problem of finding appropriate narrative forms for literary extrapolations of the scientific imagination, and he did so in a determinedly experimental spirit. In addition to the innovative formats cited above he toyed with visionary poetry in ‘‘Al Aaraaf’’ (1829), extraordinary voyages in ‘‘MS Found in a Bottle’’ (1833), The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), and ‘‘The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall’’ (1835; rev. 1840), mock-philosophical dialogue in ‘‘The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion’’ (1839) and ‘‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una’’ (1841), the tall tale in ‘‘The Man That Was Used Up’’ (1839), visionary fantasy in ‘‘Mesmeric Revelation’’ (1844) and ‘‘A Tale of the Ragged Mountains’’ (1844), and fake newspaper reportage in material reprinted in ‘‘The Balloon Hoax’’ (1844) and ‘‘Mellonta Tauta’’ (1849).
The experimental tentativeness of this material makes much of Poe’s science fiction seem odd to modern readers, but no one else—not even H. G. *Wells—ever matched his innovative flair and daring. The imaginative reach of Eureka seemed merely bizarre at the time, and no one noticed that it contained the first correct solution of Olbers’ paradox: the question of why the night sky is dark if the universe is illimitably vast and replete with stars. The analysis of the pretensions of empirical science contained in its early chapters—which dismisses the methods favoured by ‘‘Aries Tottle’’ (*Aristotle) and ‘‘Hog’’ (Francis *Bacon) in favour of intuitive inspiration—is sufficiently pompous and sarcastic to alienate lay readers and scientists alike, but it is best regarded as a typical example of defensive perversity. The middle section of the book is an earnest and perceptive description of astronomical discovery, whereas the final section is a poetic vision of the death and rebirth of whole cosmic systems (what would now be termed galaxies) whose transient light takes unimaginably long periods of time to reach the Earth. All *Omega Point fantasies and similarly grandiose visions of universal crisis owe their ultimate origin to Eureka. Poe’s literary influence was enormous, but is most evident in genres other than speculative fiction; he is much more frequently cited, acknowledged, and imitated in the fields of horror fiction and detective fiction. Stories in which he features as a character usually focus on his relevance to these other genres; examples include Manly Wade Wellman’s ‘‘When It Was Moonlight’’ (1940), Robert Bloch’s ‘‘The Man Who Collected Poe’’ (1951), Fritz Leiber’s ‘‘Richmond, Late September’’ (1969), Anne Edwards’ Child of Night (1975), Barbara Steward’s Evermore (1978), Marc Olden’s Poe Must Die (1978), Manny Meyers’ The Last Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe (1978), N. L. Zaroulis’ The Poe Papers (1978), Angela Carter’s ‘‘The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe’’ (1982), Walter Jon Williams’ ‘‘No Spot of Ground’’ (1989), Charles L. Harness’ Lurid Dreams (1990), Stephen Marlowe’s The Lighthouse at the End of the World (1995), Sophia Kingshill’s play The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe (1997), Kim Newman’s ‘‘Just Like Eddy’’ (1999), Harold Schechter’s Nevermore (1999) and its sequels, Randall Silvis’ On Night’s Shore (2001), and Hugh Cook’s ‘‘The Trial of Edgar Allan Poe’’ (2002). Rudy Rucker’s The Hollow Earth (1990) and Fred Saberhagen and Roger Zelazny’s The Black Throne (1990) are notable exceptions.

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