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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Poe

Edgar Allan Poe.  Yes, I sort-of talked about Poe previously in the Public Domain Resources For Your Game post here, but Poe deserves more, much more than a quick paragraph and a link to his work out on the net.  He was an incredibly gifted writer, original thinker, and man of many talents who is still surrounded by mystery, mythology and misunderstanding after over 200 years.  People still read his works, his poetry is still sublime, disturbing, macabre and yet beautiful and moving (consider Ulalume, Annabel Lee, or Ligeia /Conqueror Worm for three quick examples of something other than The Raven).  Poe is one of the few poets whom I do not recommend reading in a Shatner-voice, but rather more of a Max Von Sydow kind of rumble works wonderfully.  Or you could scream it out like death metal, if that's more your thing.  Whatever and however you read it, his work is well worth investigating and since there are quite a few places online that will let you grab it for free, why not give the guy a chance?  You can go ahead and skip the poetry, the out-of-date literary criticism, his one play, even the work that he considered to be his literary magnum opus Eureka! (now in Free or Scholarly Tome flavors) and just dive into the short stories he is so well-remembered for.

Free Works of Edgar Allan Poe Online
EAPOE
Poe's Stuff at the English Department at The University of Virginia
Poe at Online Literature
Poe at eServer
Poe's Poetry (A Complete Collection, they say...just in case you decide to test out the poetry after all)
Poestories
Read Book Online
and there are dozens more such sites out there for anyone wanting to Google Poe.

My (personal) top three short stories by Poe are: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Cask of Amontillado, though I like The Gold Bug quite a bit as well, in a cryptic sort of way.  But don't let me rail-road you into anything; there are quite a few other stories to sample and explore, and The Tell-Tale Heart is not to be overlooked, despite having be re-told so many times that you can probably recite the majority of the story off the top of your head.  Poe wrote a lot more than just The Raven, and as cool as that piece is, you're doing yourself a disservice if that's the only bit of Poe's work that you've bothered to read or watch (Vincent Price's dramatic reading or Roger Corman's movie.)

You can now watch Poe narrating The Raven at Youtube, or perhaps you'd prefer to hear Christopher Walken read it to you, or maybe you'd rather hear James Earl Jones perform The Raven, and if you want to waste invest a few hours, you can find quite a few other dramatic recitations of this super-famous poem.  I actually prefer Sydney Greenstreet's presentation of The Cask of Amontillado, but then I've always been a big fan of Casablanca, the Bogart-version of The Maltese Falcon, and any other movie that has Greenstreet in it.  Long Live The Fat Man!
Imagine Sam Spade striding into Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca as he is tracking down a missing person, what should have been a simple case and an easy couple of bucks, only to learn that the guy was walled-up in the basement by the owner in order to settle an argument over some dame.  Too bad he arrived just as the place was quarantined as Ugatti fell dead at his feet, covered in the characteristic red splotches of the plague sweeping through North Africa after a mysterious incident involving a crashed Nazi UFO...and it just gets more twisted and weird the longer it goes on with a shoggoth in the drains, some washed-up opera singer sitting ominously in the corner behind his leather mask (they say he has ties to the Underground), and the revivified corpse of the Marquis deSade who was arrested while parading about in the souk only this morning--he was babbling something about mesmerism and some Bohemian doktor whom he alledged was conducting unholy experiments that made even Mengele uncomfortable.
Cool.  Poe is a perfect fit for bringing the Weird into the Noir, and how can you go wrong with adding-in bizarre fringe science and conspiracy theories?  It just gets better the more you stir things together, like making a delicious stew or chili in my new crock pot.

"When I write stories, Edgar Allan Poe is my model."
- H.P. Lovecraft

You could do much worse than lift a few things here and there from Edgar Allan Poe.  But there is no need to just rip the guy off, even if his work is in the Public Domain and free and there's nothing stopping you from doing just that.  Just because you can, doesn't always mean that you should.  And with Poe in particular, there is a lot of inspiration lurking just behind those darksome and melancholic words, inspiration, imagination and tons of atmosphere and style.  The more I have dug into Poe's work, the more and more I see his influence all over the place, beyond anything that I had ever imagined back when we were required to read his stuff in High School English class.  Lovecraft wasn't the only big-name author who was inspired by Poe, but he was one of the more honest ones to admit his debt to the brooding genius from Baltimore.  Poe even wrote an essay on The Philosophy of Composition which has had no small influence on a wide range of authors, including a certain Marxist auteur of the Weird you might have heard of by the name of China Mieville.  If you haven't read Perdido Street Station yet, you might want to give it a try.  That book and The Scar are both very good.  Mieville is one of those modern authors who really gets how to loot the good stuff from out of the older works of people like Poe and transmute it into some serious literary gold.  He's a tremendously talented guy who makes his fiction fun despite the literary aura that surrounds his stuff, lest it descend into the murksome depths of mere genre fiction.  I'm looking forward to Kraken.

So yes, I am definitely a fan of Mieville's literary work, but it is Edgar Allan Poe with whom I find a great deal of commiseration and inspiration and from whom I started exploring many of the notions and ideas that have since coalesced into Riskail.   In some ways Mieville is too modern for me, if that makes any sense.  I prefer the old stuff like Poe, Dumas and Haggard.  I can and do enjoy his stuff, but I find more inspiration from the forgotten, overlooked and neglected works that he too is reading, enjoying and mining in his own way.  I guess that's something that we both have in common, for whatever that might be worth.  When I read Poe or Haggard, Hammett or Welles, I find myself getting ideas of how to use their ideas, how to go them one better or to turn their ideas around -- to begin toying and playing with their concepts and conceits and see what I can come up with to either meet or exceed them if possible.  It's a fun game, digging into the sources of inspiration, not the work itself, and to see what you can do with the kernel that they worked from perviously.  In some ways it is like going back to the original scribble that they started with and seeing what you can do with it from here and now, not recreating their already existing work, but seeing what new stuff can be wrung out of the little chunk of wonderful-stuff at the core of those old stories, the notions that set things into motion.  Even something as simple as inverting the premise can be fun to explore or one can re-examine the assumptions that someone like Poe made like in Eureka! and in spotting where he went 'wrong' in terms of his science, coming up with either a fresh take on the idea(s) in question or going off on a tangent that explains things differently in light of prevailing, modern science just like he would have done himself, were he able.

Poe was a big believer in science and he worked a great deal of what once was cutting edge scientific theory or conjecture, and sometimes flaky-fringey pseudo-science as well, into quite a few of his tales.  Like how he dealt with mesmerism in The Case of M. Valdemar, or consider this quote from Manuscript Found in a Bottle:

“To conceive the horror of my sensations is, I presume, utterly impossible --yet a curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of these awful regions predominates even over my despair, and will reconcile me to the most hideous aspect of death. It is evident that we are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge --some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.”

Wow.  No wonder Lovecraft rated the guy so highly.  He could make a whirlpool seem cosmically ominous.  Not bad for the guy who once stated that he wished he could write as mysterious as a cat.

Or consider this quote that I've lifted from the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe edited by Professor Harold Beaver:

"Electro-chemistry dominated the early nineteenth century, Galvani and Watt, Volta and Ohm, Ampere, Bunsen, Morse -- its pioneers embedded their very names into the language.  Sir Humphrey Davy's researches led to the isolation of potassium and sodium in 1807; of calcium, barium, boron, magnesium and strontium in 1808.  His assistant Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction and developed the first dynamo.  It was the age of voltaic cells, electrodes, Leyden jars, piles, conductors, ions, insulation, electric circuits, batteries, generators, dynamos, condensers, galvanometers.  The fundamental nature of all matter, it became apparent, was electrical."
Cool stuff.  Reading through this book has made a firm connection in my mind between Poe and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  Poe is regarded by many to have been the father of Science Fiction as well as the Mystery novel.  Reading his more scientifically-oriented romances, especially The Balloon Hoax, the claim makes good sense to me.
I've barely scratched the surface, so here are some more links for you, if you're inclined to learn more about Mister Poe:

Finally, for now, I leave you with Matthew Pearl, another one of those Literary Authors who manages to make his work interesting and not boring while staying literary, who has delivered Mysterious Forevermore in which Poe's mysterious demise forms a central theme.  This is the guy who wrote The Dante Club, so it is probably worth checking out.  You can find Missing Chapters to The Dante Club here.
Two Awesome Poe-Quotes:
"I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity."
&
"I have great faith in fools; self-confidence my friends call it."
Edgar Allan Poe

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see an update and glad you enjoyed Mieville!

    BTW, your Plane Speaking post has got all sorts of wacky ideas tumbling around in my head!

    ReplyDelete

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