a zoo in hell


7 Scary Things #3 - Edgar Allan Poe

Okay, so based on the traffic from the last post, my readers are less interested in Led Zeppelin as a Halloween topic than I had hoped. I'll bring it around to someone more in line with what most think about when they think scary. Edgar Allan Poe.

Obvious, right? It's a sure bet that anyone in the U.S. who's gone through a formal education has read at least one Poe story, for most of them it's the last horror story they will ever read. Most likely the story is The Tell-Tale Heart, which of course is a wonderful bit of fiction and also infused with the malaise which infected most of Poe's fiction. There are no real happy endings in Poe's work, and any victory is at best a temporary one which is cast in a glow that will fade as surely as a setting sun. Poe's world is one of finality, entrapment and decay.

I am not normally claustrophobic, but during a MRI session sometime ago, I was taken by a complete terror of the small chamber which didn't offer me enough room to itch my nose. In that lonely dark, I could easily imagine the ultimate confined space -- a casket. After I got out of the MRI and was safely away, I though about the many boxes, traps and tombs of Poe's fantasy. Much critical fodder can be made of his obsession with dying trapped in a small space, but the inarguable fact which he explored again and again is that no matter what, we all end our days in a one container or another. Which is true, but it's not what makes Edgar Allan Poe scary.

Poe is scary because he is both what writers want to be and what they fear being. There's some truth in the notion that a writer can imagine his world and his characters from a blank page, but I think the anxiety behind many written words rises from the idea you can never really write something you haven't yourself experienced. Young writers seek out adventures, drugs, or the underbelly of the city in search of some trial that will deepen their work. I've seen it, been there myself to some extent, but even this kind of vision quest is still little more than an expedition. This trip is sought after and usually can be ended anytime the ride gets too rough.

Excuse the phrase, but Poe didn't choose his own adventure. Poe's life was filled with disappointment, illness, crime and loss. Poe wrote a dark world, because he lived in a dark world. While his writing was fiction, for him it was a kind of journalism. A report, not unlike Dante's, of the shaded lands he walked alone. Poe never got the escape or the happy ending. Things always in his life ended badly and with no hint of the acclaim he would get long after he wound up in his own little box.

Poe paid the price for his mastery and elegance, and like the contradictions of life and death, it is hard to say what begat what. That is what is most terrifying about Edgar Allan Poe; the apprehension that our own journey is doomed to follow the inescapable embrace of cold earth that haunted him all of his days.