Friday, January 19, 2018

Edgar Allan Poe, A Tribute

"The Raven" by Edmund Dulac (1912)
        Today, January 19, marks the birthdate of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), a journalist and foundational architect of American Literature, whose macabre stories and poems display the highest artistry of construction and effectiveness. It is upon these works that Poe’s substantial reputation rests. Poe refined the short story as a form, invented the detective story (and in the process established the model for a literary archetype which continues to this day), and wrote tales of fantasy and horror which expertly bridged the excess of the Gothic tale with the high literary standards of the emerging English ghost story. His tales of scientific romance still serve as models for much science fiction of today. Poe preferred to be considered a poet first and foremost. To us he left a relatively small but striking sheaf of melodic and melancholy verse. So seminal is Poe to American literature, and so integral to the establishment and direction of the imaginative fields of horror, suspense, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction, that, although he was never directly adapted on the series, one could safely say that without Edgar Allan Poe there would be no Twilight Zone.

"Ligeia" by Byam Shaw (1909)
Born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to traveling actors, orphaned before the age of three by a father’s abandonment and a mother succumbing to the effects of Tuberculosis, Poe was adopted by Virginia merchant John Allan, with whom Poe battled until Allan’s death in 1834. Such was Poe's relationship with his foster father that Allan made no mention of Poe in his will. Poe was one of the earliest writers to attempt to support himself solely through the use of his pen. For the remainder of his short, unhappy life, Poe worked a variety of jobs, the most satisfying of which was as a journalist, toiling on the staffs of various periodicals, including an unfortunate attempt to produce his own magazine, while providing literary reviews, short stories, and the occasional volume of verse, the most successful of which, The Raven and Other Poems, appeared in 1845. Poe’s combative nature and occasional drunkenness cost him employment and opportunity. Unhappiness followed Poe to the grave. He unwisely (and unknowningly) appointed a bitter enemy as his literary executor. Rufus Griswold, whose work Poe had savaged in a review years earlier, committed such extensive, deliberate damage to Poe’s reputation that the negative effects can still be viewed today in the largely embellished depictions of Poe which proliferate in the culture.

"The Black Cat" by F.S. Coburn (1901)
Poe’s works have inspired interpretation across virtually every medium of creative expression in the 169 years since he died under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. In no medium has Poe been so well represented outside of his native literary province than in motion pictures. Cinematic adaptations of Poe arrived at the very dawn of the medium and his life and work has been the subject of more than a hundred films, documentaries, and television series. Widely considered among the finest adaptations of Poe’s works are a series of films from American International Pictures and director Roger Corman, films which were scripted almost entirely by the same writers who contributed to The Twilight Zone.

The first film in the series was House of Usher (1960), an adaptation of Poe’s 1839 short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson. The film featured a towering performance from Vincent Price, who appeared in nearly every AIP Poe film. The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), again with a script by Matheson and based on Poe’s tale of 1842, appeared a year later, followed in succession by The Premature Burial (1962), featuring Ray Milland in an adaptation of Poe’s tale of 1844 by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont and Playboy fiction editor Ray Russell, Tales of Terror (1962), an anthology film featuring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone, based on a script by Richard Matheson adapting Poe’s “Morella” (1835), “The Black Cat” (1843)/”The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), The Raven (1963), a comedy scripted by Matheson which, though enjoyable, bears little resemblance to Poe's poem, The Masque of the Red Death (1964), based on Poe’s 1842 fable, with a script by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, and The Tomb of Ligeia, from the 1838 tale “Ligeia” and a script by Robert Towne and Peter Mayersberg. Another film, The Haunted Palace (1963), though ostensibly based on Poe’s 1839 poem, is actually an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The script for that film was provided by Charles Beaumont.

"The Pit and the Pendulum" by H. Meyer (1908)
A personal favorite of Poe on film is not based on a work by Poe but is rather a macabre fantasy based on the idea that new works by Poe were being created from beyond the grave. “The Man Who Collected Poe” is the final segment of the horror anthology film Torture Garden (1967), the second in a series of films by Amicus Productions, who specialized in horror anthology films. The script was by Robert Bloch (Psycho, Twilight Zone: The Movie novelization) based on his own 1951 short story. The segment features Jack Palance as a greedy book collector and Poe enthusiast who encounters the world’s greatest Poe collector, played by Peter Cushing, and discovers that Cushing has somehow acquired new works by Poe through supernatural means. As a writer, Bloch was certainly kindred to Poe and paid his respects to the master many times over the course of his career. Perhaps the most memorable of these moments was when Bloch completed Poe’s unfinished tale “The Light-House” for the January/February, 1953 issue of Fantastic magazine. Others have attempted to complete “The Light-House” and a fine collection of such attempts is editor Christopher Conlon’s 2006 anthology Poe’s Lighthouse from Cemetery Dance. That volume contains collaborations between Poe and Twilight Zone writers George Clayton Johnson and Earl Hamner, among many others.

"The Lighthouse" by Virgil Finlay (1953)
Other memorable Poe film adaptations include the gruesome pre-code Bela Lugosi vehicle Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), a consolation prize for Lugosi and future Twilight Zone director Robert Florey after the pair were removed from Universal’s production of Frankenstein; Vincent Price’s one-man-show, the filmed stage production of An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe (1970); Two Evil Eyes (1990), a two-segment anthology film from directors Dario Argento and George Romero; and Extraordinary Tales (2015), an animated anthology of Poe’s tales. In October, 2017, PBS produced the exceptional documentary film Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive.

"The Raven" by Arthur E. Becher (1903)
Poe has inspired generations of novelists, short story writers, and editors, as well as magazines, comic books, radio shows, musical performance, visual art, and fashion. Poe’s works are in the public domain and various editions, scanned from American libraries, can be accessed on the Internet Archive.

Happy birthday, Mr. Poe, and thank you for gracing us with such exquisite tales of beauty and terror.

Poe's works have been reprinted in an endless array of editions since his death, from thrift paperbacks to lavishly illustrated limited editions. Here is a primary bibliography of books published during Poe's lifetime, taken from The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy (Penguin Books, 2006):   

-Tamerlane and Other Poems by a Bostonian (Calvin F.S. Thomas, printer, Boston: 1827)

-Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems by Edgar A. Poe (Hatch & Dunning, Baltimore: 1829)

-The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (Harper & Brothers, New York: 1838)

-Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, 2 volumes (Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia: 1840)

-The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe (William H. Graham, Philadelphia: 1843)

-Tales (Wiley and Putnam, New York: 1845)

-The Raven and Other Poems (Wiley and Putnam, New York: 1845)

-Eureka: A Prose Poem (Putnam, New York: 1848)



  1. So many episodes have a Poe flavor -- from "The Tell-Tale Heart" - esque "Deaths-head Revisited" to "The Masks" echoing "The Masque of the Red Death." Serling and his fellow "TZ" writers certainly owe a lot to the Master of the Macabre. Another writer they owe a debt -- Kafka -- deserves a great write up like this as well. Will you be giving Kafka the same treatment you gave Poe here in the forseeable future?

    1. I completely agree with you on the Poe-esque flavor of several episodes. You're right about "The Masks," one of my absolute favorites, in that it could almost have been written by Poe. I would even point to Poe's tales of paranoia (particularly "The Masque of the Red Death") as reflected in Serling's "The Shelter" and "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," the idea of the "other" invading the security of an enclosed community. Poe also wrote a great doppelganger tale, "William Wilson," whose subject matter can be seen in Serling's "Mirror Image."

      As for Kafka, I'm afraid I haven't read enough of his work to reliably comment on his connection to the series. In time I may familiarize myself with his works and offer the same critical commentary as I've afforded Poe, whose work I've been actively reading since I was a child. Time will tell.

      Thanks for reading!