The 13 Days of Halloween: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Earlier, I wrote about the plentiful reasons I believe that Edgar Allan Poe is the greatest American writer.  Well, to support my assertion, here are a few of my favorites from Poe’s many and varied literary efforts. Given that his work was written over a century and a half ago, they are now well beyond copyright.  Click on the titles of any of the stories or poems listed below and you can read the associated work in its entirety.

The Raven

Is this the best poem ever written?  Quite possibly.  By now, everyone knows the gist of this one.  Exactly how far reaching has this work’s influence been?  We’ve got an NFL team in Baltimore named after it.  When will this poem’s effects ever die out? Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

The Tell Tale Heart

Here’s another piece that everyone, and I mean everyone, is intimately familiar with.  The imagined sound of the murdered man’s beating heart under the floorboards has become an all-encompassing metaphor for inescapable guilt.

Fall of the House of Usher

Has there ever been a more bleak description of a house and surrounding landscape than the opening of this tale?  It’s an intimate little story about a young woman’s inability to escape her family’s long history of madness as it finally comes crashing down around her and her brother.

Annabel Lee

This is another one of Poe’s masterworks of poetry.  While it doesn’t possess the wide-spread longevity of The Raven, the deep emotional scars from a loss of love resonates throughout.  What else can you say about the tale of a love so great that even the angels in heaven were envious enough to kill the fair maiden out of spite?

The Cask of Amontillado

Somewhat similar in tone to The Tell Tale Heart and The Black Cat, this is the story of a well-to-do wealthy man’s attempt to steal the wife of a local drunkard.  In the end, the rich man’s avarice is his undoing, as he’s led to a death walled into an ancient catacomb by the temptation of some particularly rare and fine wine.

Ligeia

An odd tale of death and possible resurrection.  The narrator, who happens to be an opium addict, marries the hauntingly beautiful Ligeia, only to see her fall ill and die.  Later, he marries again, but his new bride also is stricken and dies.  However, her body goes through a process of slow revival after death, eventually rising from the dead as a reborn Ligeia.  Did she really come back or was it all an opium dream?

The Murders In The Rue Morgue

Possibly the very first detective story ever written, this tale introduces the amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin to the world, a character that laid the groundwork for Sherlock Holmes and virtually every other literary detective since.  In this tale, there are two mysterious murders, and it’s up to Dupin to use his considerable deductive reasoning to suss out the inhuman murderer.

The Conqueror Worm

The third poem on this list, and by far the least well-known, this one has stuck with me ever since I’ve first read it.  All of human existence is but a tragic play and, in the end, it’s the worms that feast on their bodies that are the heroes.  This poem was originally a part of another story on this list dealing with tragedy and death, Ligeia.

The Oblong Box

During a sea voyage, a man notices his friend has brought along this large oblong box and kept it with him in his stateroom.  Every night, his friend’s wife leaves the cabin and he can hear his friend inside opening the box and sobbing throughout the night.  Much like in the movie Seven, “What’s in the box?” is a very pertinent question.

The Masque of the Red Death

Talk about some snotty rich people getting their comeuppance!  This tale is about a cruel prince who seals himself and a large group of nobles into his castle to escape a plague ravaging the countryside.  They decide to have a masquerade ball one evening, and a very special guest appears, the Red Death himself, there to infect them all.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween concludes…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

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The 13 Days of Halloween: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest of American Writers

One thing has always bothered me whenever a discussion turns to an argument about who is the top of the line amongst American writers.  That is, the guy I consider the best of the best is hardly ever listed as such.  Certainly, he gets a mention, somewhere in the top 10 typically, occasionally top 5, but those are often a rarity.  I think his exclusion is usually due to two long-standing biases against writers: one, he didn’t write novels and, two, his primary excellence was in writing horror.

I’m talking, of course, about Edgar Allan Poe.  Poe’s use of language is unmatched, in my opinion, in American literature.  No one could convey as palpable a sense of atmosphere in a simple sentence like he could.  Read a little Poe, and you can literally feel the chill in the air or smell the decay from a damp crypt. 

Poe was an expert in conveying emotions in subtle, indirect ways.  His use of language is nearly Shakespearean in scope and tone.  A short story of his is like a symphony in words.  To be sure, the emotions he chose to convey were almost uniformly dark, the atmospheres he created almost always dreary but, to me, that is what is best in Poe.  He never shied away from the shadows that creep over life, from the struggles and the hardships, the sometimes anguished loss and occasional bouts of madness that can consume us all.  His tales are exaggerations, often tinged with the supernatural, but underneath, I believe his words have more effectively spoken to those darker aspects of the human condition better than any American writer before or since.

Who really cares that he never wrote novels?  Novels are, in an historical sense, a pretty overrated medium and very often over-long, anyway.  And why should his primary focus on horror be an issue?  It’s a genre like any other, and often more effective at making larger points than any other.  Besides, one of Poe’s other great contributions to literature the world over, not just in America, is that he essentially invented the detective tale.  His sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin, is the forerunner of an entire class of literature populated by the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and infinite others.  How impressive was this accomplishment alone? Dupin first appeared in a story in 1841, about a decade before the term “detective” even came into popular use. 

Please, let’s also not forget that he was also a world-class poet.  The Raven, The Bells and Annabel Lee alone can attest to his skills within that particular discipline.

So who is his competition for this mythical honor of Greatest American Writer?  To be sure, there are many others who have been exquisite practitioners of the craft, and many more who have produced transcendent works.

There’s Hemingway, of course, always a popular number one choice.  But at this point, I think that may be more on reputation than actual skill.  Hemingway’s the best because a lot of people just assume he is.  Steinbeck is another popular choice but I’ve always found his prose so dry I needed a glass of water after each chapter.  Fitzgerald certainly left a masterwork in The Great Gatsby, probably even more topical these days as history seems to be repeating itself, but how many people can name anything else he wrote?  Hawthorne gave us the immortal Scarlet Letter, but his work is aging badly, unlike Poe’s which holds a certain timelessness. 

The only other American writer I could reasonably make a case for above Poe is Mark Twain.  Twain has had a similar vast, lasting cultural impact, and produced a prodigious body of work.  I still have Poe higher because of craftsmanship alone.  Say what you want about their collective greatness, and both are undoubtedly among the best to ever put pen to paper, Poe was a better pure writer than Twain.  Twain may have been better at knowing his audience and communicating with them at their level, but Poe possessed more skill and style, I believe.

Poe defined horror, was equally artful at both prose and poetry, created detective fiction and provided a lasting, deep, affecting style of writing that hasn’t been matched in American literature since.  He is, in my opinion, quite simply the best of all American writers. But don’t just take my word for it. Here are some of my favorite Poe efforts, complete with links to the full stories.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

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