Poe’s telltale heart

Once upon a time, young readers enjoyed the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s “tales of terror” are both horrifying and unforgettable; they bear the stamp of deeply felt nightmares. Poe’s “tales of ratiocination” are fascinating as detective stories, and Poe was of course the inventor of the genre. Not even being required to read Poe in school could destroy the pleasure provided by his work. Does anyone now read Poe, either voluntarily or otherwise?

Well, maybe The Raven — not the poem, silly, the action movie starring John Cusack as Poe that was previewed by the Christian Science Monitor’s Molly Driscoll — will do for Poe what Oprah’s book club did for John Steinbeck and a host of other worthies, near worthies and contenders. Maybe. If so, that would be great.

Twenty years ago Professor Kenneth Silverman published his compelling account of Poe’s life, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. In Silverman’s telling, Poe’s life becomes the counterpart to Poe’s tales of terror. Poe lost both his mother and father by the age of three, was divided from his brother and sister to be raised by a family friend, and suffered the mortal illnesses and deaths of every other person he loved in the course of his life with the sole exception of his mother-in-law, to whom he was unfailingly loyal.

At the same time, Poe struggled manfully with alcohol and destitution. Nevertheless, by the time he died at the age of 40, he had created the impressive body of fiction, poetry and literary criticism that stands as his monument. Silverman conveys the headlong rush of his life by keeping the narrative going without division into chapters. Silverman’s reconstruction of Poe’s life is something of an inspiration. It turns out that Poe was a hero of a kind, just not the Hollywood action kind.

JOHN adds: Loree and I read that biography some years ago; it is terrific. The most remarkable fact, in my view, is that Poe invented both the detective story and the horror story, and yet died broke. Every hack who has gotten wealthy in those genres over the years ought to contribute to some kind of a memorial to Poe, one of literature’s truly original geniuses.

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