Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Very Poe Halloween

Looking for ways to celebrate this Halloween the Poe way? Here are my top five* recommendations (I'm hoping it's a good mix of "the classics" with a couple lesser-known ones sprinkled in).

"Metzengerstein" (1832) — Poe's first published tale features a long-standing family rivalry. When the patriarch of one family dies, a young man becomes the rightful heir to his estate. However, the mischievous young man is known for his "shameful debaucheries — flagrant treacheries — unheard-of atrocities." Compared with Caligula, we are told this man "out-heroded Herod." When he finds a mysterious, ill-mannered, rogue horse, he obsesses into breaking it in — no matter the cost.

"Berenice" (original 1835 version, before the more "repulsive" section was self-censored) — "Misery is manifold," the narrator (Egeaus) says at the beginning of the story. As he prepares to marry his cousin Berenice, he tells the reader how both are afflicted with disease — she, a physical one, he a more mental one. When Berenice's disease kills her, or so the narrator thinks, his monomaniacal obsession over the one part of her that never shrivels from disease (her teeth) leads him to one final repulsive act.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) — A true haunted house in the strictest sense, Roderick Usher is overcome by feelings of dread and doom, while his twin sister Madeline is sick and dying. The narrator rides up to visit in the middle of all of it. Soon, Madeline dies and is locked in the family crypt. Trying to cheer up Roderick is fruitless, until finally: "Not hear it? — yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long — long — long — many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it — yet I dared not — oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am! — I dared not — I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb!"

"Life in Death" (later "The Oval Portrait," 1842) — A wounded traveler makes his way into a mysterious castle to rest in a room with walls covered in paintings. Arrested by one particularly striking portrait, he reads a book which explains its origins. "But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me." Indeed, the provenance of the portrait is much more horrible than the traveler imagined.

"The Masque of the Red Death" (originally 1842, but I'm recommending the 1845 version) — When a plague sweeps over the land, the "sagacious" Prince Prospero invites scores of his friends to escape sickness in his abbey. There, he throws a masquerade throughout seven large chambers to celebrate their success at staving off death. But, as the clock chimes midnight, a strange uninvited guest arrives daring to imitate the disease which rages outside the castle walls. "His vesture was dabbled in blood — and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror."

"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845) — Mr. Valdemar is dying of tuberculosis and volunteers for his friend's experiments with Mesmerism, specifically an attempt at putting a person in a trance just as he is at the edge of death. He is successful and, in his trance, Valdemar reports he no longer feels pain but is still dying. "I now feel that I have reached a point of this narrative at which every reader will be startled into positive disbelief. It is my business, however, simply to proceed." I leave it up to you, the reader, to proceed. This story probably has the single most memorable ending of any story ever written.

Happy Halloween reading!

*Okay, so I had trouble choosing only five. Choosing only six wasn't too easy either, but that's what I did.


RSM said...

Excellent suggestions! The only one I haven't read yet is "Metzengerstein." But I'll be sure to remedy that immediately! I'm surprised there was no "Tell-Tale Heart" or "Cask of Amontillado" or "Black Cat" here.

Hope you had a good Halloween.

Rob Velella said...

Those are all great Poe classics - but it's nice to highlight some of the ones that aren't part of the Poe "required reading" list.

Kristen M. said...

I think that Berenice is one of the most disturbing stories I have ever read. It makes me shiver just to think about it. There's a good chance that I will never read it again.

Rob Velella said...

Yes, I agree - "Berenice" is one of Poe's most disturbing tales. What I frequently note, however, is that there is not one single scene of violence. Instead, Poe frightens you with what you don't see, with what is implied. I love it!