Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Icons of Horror: Edgar Allan Poe

As part of the Catacombs "Strange Terrors" celebration, here is the last of four weekly posts in my 2010 "Icons of Horror" series, with this years set focusing on popular or significant genre authors.

Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, writer, poet, editor and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre and he is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. Poe was the first well-known American writer to attempt to earn a living through his writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career.

Following a stint in the Army, Poe intentionally orchestrated his own court-martial from West Point. On February 8, 1831, he was tried for gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, or church. Poe tactically plead not guilty to induce dismissal and subsequently released his third volume of poems, simply titled Poems. The book was financed with help from his fellow cadets at West Point, many of whom donated 75 cents to the cause, raising a total of $170. The book reprinted previously issued long poems "Tamerlane" and "Al Aaraaf", but also featured unpublished poems including early versions of "To Helen", "Israfel", and "The City in the Sea”.

Poe chose a difficult time in American publishing to start his career. He was hampered by the lack of an international copyright law. Publishers often pirated copies of British works rather than pay for new work by Americans.The industry was also hurt by the “Panic of 1837” (a financial crisis in the United States built on a speculative fever). Despite a booming growth in American periodicals around this time period, fueled in part by new technology, many did not last beyond a few issues and publishers often refused to pay their writers or paid them much later than they promised. Poe, throughout his attempts to live as a writer, had to repeatedly resort to humiliating pleas for money and other assistance.

The Baltimore Saturday Visiter awarded Poe a prize in October 1833 for his short story "MS. Found in a Bottle" and this led to the publication of several poems, book reviews, critiques, and stories. Although Poe released his only long form novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, in 1838 and his frequent reviews enhanced his reputation as a literary critic, his work forced him to move between several cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.
The death of his wife, Virginia, on January 30, 1847, left Poe increasingly unstable. Biographers and critics often suggest Poe's frequent theme of the "death of a beautiful woman" stems from the repeated loss of women throughout his life, including his wife, mother and stepmother.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore in a state of delirium. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in such distress and he is said to have repeatedly called out the name "Reynolds" on the night before his death, though it is unclear to whom he was referring. All medical records, including his death certificate, have been lost. The actual cause of death remains a mystery, something that is strangely appropriate for the designated “Master of the Macabre”.

His most famous works include The Raven, The Masque of the Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher. Most of his eerie tales & poems have been adapted for radio, theater, film, television and comic books, of course. [Portrait illustration (above; left) by Francesco Francavilla].

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