To most people these days, he’s that creepy guy. That horror guy. That Gomez Addams-looking guy who wrote about premature burials and black cats and a talking raven. And, yes—Edgar Allan Poe was that guy. But he was much, much more.
For which we can all be thankful. Because if you’re reading this magazine, odds are you’re a mystery fan and/or writer. And if you’re a mystery fan and/or writer, you owe Poe...whether you know it or not.
“Poe is so ingrained in us—so deeply encoded into our cultural DNA—that we no longer recognize him,” says Louis Bayard, whose novel The Pale Blue Eye puts Poe at the center of a mystery during his days as a West Point cadet. “And yet whenever we write a mystery, whenever we write horror, whenever we write science fiction—whenever we write about obsession—we’re following in his tracks.”
“He wasn’t just a mystery/suspense writer,” adds the author many fans would describe as the modern Poe, Stephen King. “He was the first.”
So as the Mystery Writers of America prepares to hand out the annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards in April (including a Grand Master honor to King and poss- a Best Novel Award to Bayard), we thought the time was right to remind crime fiction fans why the honor’s named
after Poe in the first place.
After all, it’s not “the Arthur” or “the Dashiell.” It’s the Edgar.
Edgar Poe was born on January 19, 1809. The middle name Allan didn’t come until later, after Poe’s father (an alcoholic actor) disappeared and his mother (an actress) died of tuberculosis. Only two years old when he was orphaned, young Edgar was taken in by John Allan, a wealthy Virginia merchant. But the lad’s luck never improved much after that tragic start to life.
It was Allan’s wife, Frances, who bonded with the child. Allan himself never did—in fact, Allan never even formally adopted him. As Poe matured into manhood, the two quarreled constantly. Poe saw Allan as cold and stingy. Allan considered Poe self-indulgent and irresponsible. Not long after Frances died, Poe found himself penniless and adrift.
He tried to keep himself afloat the only way he knew how: writing. After self-publishing his first books (poetry collections that barely made a ripple before sinking into obscurity), he began selling stories to newspapers and magazines. That eventually led to positions as an editor/staff writer/critic at a string of publications—as well as the appearance of many of the short stories (or “tales” as they were known at the time) for which he would one day be famous.
Although today Poe’s often associated with the horror genre, his tales didn’t dwell on the supernatural. Instead, they often took a psychological approach to stories of crime and tragedy. As Bayard notes, Poe seemed obsessed with obsession. “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are both narrated by psychotic killers driven to destroy themselves by guilt-fueled hallucinations. In “The Oval Portrait,” an artist becomes so fixated on finishing a painting, he doesn’t even notice that his beautiful model—his wife—is dead. And even “The Fall of the House of Usher” isn’t a ghost story, as so many readers seem to remember it. It’s about a twisted, quasi-incestuous relationship between a young woman and the brother who tries to have her interred alive.
Of course, Poe wasn’t the only writer cranking out dark tales about dirty deeds. The day of the “penny dreadful” was dawning, and there were outlets aplenty for blood-drenched shockers. Yet Poe stood apart from the hack pack, partially thanks to his emphasis on aberrant psychology, and partially because Poe’s imagination so far out-stripped his rivals.
“Poe was an innovator,” says Dawn B. Sova, author of Edgar Allan Poe A to Z and Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. “He was not the first to tackle morbid subjects. He just pushed the envelope.”
Eventually, Poe wasn’t just pushing the envelope anymore. With his story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” he created one all his own: the tale of ratiocination. Or, as it later came to be called, the mystery.
Always fascinated with puzzles and cryptograms, Poe frequently wrote columns challenging readers to send him a code he couldn’t break. In “Rue Morgue,” he did what no other writer had yet thought to do—took that kind of intellectual challenge and used it as the hook for a work of fiction.
A mother and daughter are found horribly mutilated in a locked room. The police are baffled. Only a brilliant amateur, C. Auguste Dupin, can provide an explanation, which he arrives at purely through the application of cold, precise logic. The tale is told by the dilettante detective’s unnamed roommate, who later returned to relate two more of Dupin’s cases: “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844), both of which also hinge on detection and deduction rather than blood and thunder.
“Poe almost single-handedly invented the puzzle element of detective fiction that later came to dominate the genres of mystery and crime,” says Boston University English professor Charles Rzepka.
“There were other writers dealing in mystery and suspense, but not this kind of detective work or ratiocination,” adds Scott Peeples, associate professor of English at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and the current president of the Poe Studies Association. “I don’t think someone else would have come up with it, really. Not one of Poe’s contemporaries, anyway. The character of Dupin, the structure of the stories and the idea of proving oneself to be the intellectual champ—that stuff is intrinsic to Poe. Even when Poe’s not writing detective fiction, there’s often a similar element of gamesmanship.”
Rzepka (whose book Detective Fiction tracks the development of the genre) calls Dupin “the grandaddy of all modern literary detectives.” But it was one literary detective in particular who would pick up where grandpa left off, creating a sensation that helped cement the popularity of the mystery before the genre even had a name.
That detective, of course, was Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, even acknowledged their literary heritage in “A Study in Scarlet.”
“You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin,” Watson tells his friend. “I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”
“No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” Holmes replies. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow....”
Despite the haughtiness of Holmes’ dismissal, the character’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was offering a sincere (if cheeky) tip of the deerstalker to a writer who’d paved the way for him.
“Conan Doyle never failed to acknowledge his debt to Poe,” says Daniel Stashower, who’s written about both the English author (in the Edgar-winning Conan Doyle biography The Teller of Tales) and his American predecessor (in the Edgar-nominated 2006 book The Beautiful Cigar Girl, which explores how “The Mystery of Marie Roget” grew out of a real-life murder case).
“‘To [Poe] must be ascribed the monstrous progeny of writers on the detection of crime,’ Conan Doyle once wrote. ‘Each may find some little development of his own, but his main art must trace back to those admirable stories of Monsieur Dupin....’ Elsewhere, he was more succinct: ‘Poe is the master of all.’”
Such high praise would have come as a surprise to the writers and critics of the previous generation, since to them it appeared that Poe was the master of nothing, except perhaps living shamefully and dying young.
While he had the occasional brush with fame and fortune (most notably after the publication of the poem “The Raven” in 1845), Poe squandered whatever opportunities came within reach. Erratic behavior (exacerbated by alcohol and the long decline and death of his wife) and a string of literary feuds (fueled by his insightful but often vicious reviews) had all but wrecked his career. The sordid, murky details of his death were, appropriately enough, the last nail in the coffin for his literary reputation.
Poe died in 1849 shortly after being found roaming the streets of Baltimore in another man’s clothes. Some accounts say he was drunk, others say he was delirious. Either way, no one knows what exactly killed him. Had he been beaten? Drugged? Bitten by a rabid cat? Infected with cholera? A new theory seems to emerge every year.
Even dead, however, Poe had to withstand one final stab in the back. An editor with whom Poe had often clashed, Rufus Griswold, wrote an anonymous obituary that began, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” It got worse from there, painting Poe as a debauched lunatic.
Later Griswold went even further, penning a Poe “memoir” that was filled with slanders: Poe had been expelled from the University of Virginia for debauchery, Poe was an army deserter, Poe seduced and blackmailed respectable women, Poe was addicted to opium, Poe was insane. And this from the man who (for murky reasons scholars still debate) Poe had named as his literary executor—which gave Griswold the chance to work even more mischief, altering Poe’s letters to make them more scandalous and cheating Poe’s family (in particular, his beloved aunt Maria “Muddy” Clemm) out of profits from posthumous sales of his work.
Sadly, Griswold’s crusade against Poe wasn’t just tireless: For decades, it was effective.
“In large part because of [Griswold], Poe was considered morally reprehensible,” Sova says. “His work was not thought of as a suitable model [for literature]. It was largely pushed aside in the United States and England for 50 years.”
In France, however, the perception of Poe as an opium-addled madman might have actually helped. The French poet Charles Baudelaire came to worship Poe, seeing in him not only a kindred spirit but a victim of parochialism and hypocrisy. Poe was, to him, the classic Misunderstood Genius. Baudelaire set out to right that wrong by praising Poe to anyone who’d listen and translating the writer’s tales into French.
“Baudelaire was a great press agent,” says Peeples, who devoted an entire book (The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe) to the writer’s image and how it’s evolved over time. “He really played up the idea that Poe was rebellious and decadent.”
As a result, Poe was regarded as a master in France long before his reputation was salvaged in his homeland.
When Poe was remembered in the US (which wasn’t by many) it was as a wild-eyed reprobate tortured by demons of his own creation. Which, if you think about it, is exactly the sort of image some PR-savvy horror or crime writers would kill to have today. This gothic, larger-than-life persona meshed perfectly with Poe’s dark tales, and it eventually gave him a sort of romantic glamour he couldn’t quite pull off when he was alive.
“On the one hand, the treatment of him after death created a lag in American appreciation of him,” says mystery/thriller author Matthew Pearl, a Poe enthusiast who edited and wrote the introduction for a recent Modern Library collection called The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales. “On the other hand, it built up a mystique that has helped his writing survive in posterity.”
That mystique didn’t just allow Poe’s works to live on: In a way, it’s kept Poe himself alive. He’s such a fascinating character that he’s been reincarnated time after time in other writers’ works.
Harold Schechter has penned a series of historical mysteries starring Poe (beginning with Nevermore in 2000), while English writer Andrew Taylor put a young Poe in peril in London in his 2003 novel The American Boy (released in the US as An Unpardonable Crime). More recently, Pearl and Louis Bayard both released Poe-focused books last year—on the same day, in fact. (Pearl’s The Poe Shadow imagines efforts to recruit the real C. Auguste Dupin to solve the mystery of Poe’s death). And this year, Joel Rose’s The Blackest Bird made Poe a suspect in the sensational murder that inspired “The Mystery of Marie Roget.”
Bayard says he’s not surprised in the slightest that so many other authors have wanted to use Poe as a character.
“It’s an act of humility,” Bayard explains. “You read Poe, you read Doyle, even Agatha Christie, and you realize they’re still the masters. And since every writer begins as a reader, it’s entirely fitting to pay homage to these masters in some way—in my case, by placing one at the center of a detective story, the genre he himself created.”
By the end of the 19th century, Poe was finally getting his due. Not only were his contributions being acknowledged by Conan Doyle, the man who’d picked up the detective fiction torch he’d lit, Poe also had a host of other high-profile champions, including W.H. Auden, H.G. Wells, Fyodor Dostoevsky and George Bernard Shaw.
By the time the 20th century reached its mid-point, Poe wasn’t just famous again. He was respectable enough to pop up on high school reading lists alongside Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, Hemingway and other authors who’ve shaped American literature.
Which is no guarantee of immortality given the (complete lack of) enthusiasm the typical teenager brings to reading assignments. Fond of long, clause-choked sentences and untranslated quotes in Latin and French, Poe certainly doesn’t make it easy on young readers.
Could Poe have been rescued from obscurity only to be forgotten all over again by the next generation? Stephen King would like to think not.
“Poe’s stories are wonderful, and they still stand up,” the bestselling author says. “They’re as readable now as they were when I first encountered them in my teens.”
Of course, when King was a teen, he didn’t have MTV and PlayStation competing for his time (and shortening his attention span).
“Most kids today need some help to get hooked on Poe,” says suspense novelist Karen Harper, who has taught English at both the high school and collegiate levels (and wrote about her debt to Poe in the book Mystery Muses: 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Mystery Writers). “As with someone like Dickens, today’s students don’t get why he doesn’t just ‘cut to the chase,’ as they are used to with horror flicks, TV or short stories today. The idea of setting the mood is something they need to understand.”
Take, for instance, the following sentence from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (which opens with several pages of philosophizing about logic and “the analytical power” before even introducing C. Auguste Dupin).
“The faculty of re-solution is possibly much invigorated by mathematical study, and especially by that highest branch of it which, unjustly, and merely on account of its retrograde operations, has been called, as if par excellence, analysis."
To which your average high school freshman eloquently replies: “Huh?”
“The style’s certainly not what we think of as ‘modern,’” admits Bill Crider, another former college English teacher (and an Edgar nominee for a story in the 2006 anthology Damn Near Dead). “The opening paragraph of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ has more adjectives in it than most novels now. [And in] his detective stories, like ‘The Purloined Letter,’ the solution can take up two-thirds of the story.”
Yet as dated as Poe’s work can sometimes seem, Crider insists that the author’s best tales are just as relevant as ever—particularly to anyone interested in the craft of writing.
“Poe’s always in the back of my mind,” says Crider (who contributed Poe pastiches to the anthologies Dark Destiny and Cat Crimes II). “‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is still a great revenge story, maybe the best ever.”
Rob Kantner agrees. The Shamus-winning author of the Ben Perkins PI series, Kantner also eulogized Poe in Mystery Muses, picking (like Crider) “The Cask of Amontillado” as an example of the author’s most powerful, enduring work.
“Compared with Poe, most of today’s authors, even the very respected ones, seem to me flabby, self-conscious and pretentious,” says Kantner. “I think studying him can still be good for writers, both new and experienced; for spareness, economy of prose, ability to build suspense.”
So even if the public-at-large remembers Poe as, alas, the creepy, Gomez Addams-looking author of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, mystery writers will always remember him differently.
“We are entwined with Poe,” says MWA historian and archivist Barry T. Zeman. “Without him, we would not have had this genre. He is our father and our symbol.”
MWA’s newest Grand Master puts it another way.
“Poe’s The Man,” King says. “What more can I say?”