200th Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe
by Patrcia Miller, CPL Librarian
Originally published by the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Jan. 19, 2009, is the 200th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth. His creative imagination produced the genres we know today as horror, suspense, mystery, crime, fantasy and paranormal or even science fiction. He created the first fictional detective, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, who relied on deductive reasoning years before Sherlock Holmes appeared. He used the popular sensational press as both source and outlet for his short stories and poetry. If Dupin is Poe’s alter ego, as many claim, it is not surprising that many writers use Poe as a fictional character in historical thrillers and mysteries.
True crime writer Harold Schechter pairs Poe with Davy Crockett in "Nevermore" (Pocket, 1999), P.T. Barnum in "The Hum Bug" (Pocket, 2001), Kit Carson in "The Mask of Red Death" (Ballantine, 2004) and Louisa May Alcott in "The Tell-Tale Corpse" (Ballantine, 2006) to solve bizarre murders in these atmospheric period mysteries. Louis Bayard’s "The Pale Blue Eye" (Harper Collins, 2006) foreshadows the real Poe’s life in his tale of Poe as a young West Point cadet who helps solve a horrific crime. Bayard’s new historical novel, "The Black Tower" (William Morrow, 2008), steps further back in time to Paris and to another historical figure, criminal turned detective Vidocq, whose methods are scorned by Poe’s fictional detective Dupin.
In Joel Rose’s "The Blackest Bird" (W.W. Norton, 2007), Poe himself becomes a suspect in the murder of the young woman whose story he fictionalized and published as "The Mystery of Marie Roget," Gang life, grave robbery and clues from Poe’s poetry form a shadowy background to the novel’s ingenious solution to the real-life mystery of Poe’s death. Daniel Stashower’s well-researched "The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder" (Dutton, 2006) reveals how Poe had to change his story as the facts of Mary Rogers’ death emerged and how precarious his livelihood and literary reputation were at the time. Poe’s mysterious disappearance and death form the starting point of Matthew Pearl’s novel "The Poe Shadow" (Random House, 2006), in which a young lawyer and admirer of Poe refuses to accept the infamous obituary by Poe’s vindictive editor and searches for the real-life model of Dupin to unearth the truth.
Rudimentary medicine, amateur police work and serial murder in the urban underworld are common elements of sensational novels. Historian Caleb Carr’s "The Alienist" (Random House, 1994) features the first investigative team in crime fiction - an alienist or psychologist who studies criminal behavior, a crime reporter and a reform-minded police commissioner - to transform the gothic elements of suspense into a psychological thriller. Charles Palliser’s English thriller "The Unburied" (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999) is a challenging story within a story, complete with an antiquarian ghost story. Also reminiscent of 19th-century novels is Palliser’s complex novel "The Quincunx" (Ballantine, 1989), which has been compared to the work of Charles Dickens.
Major thriller and mystery writers often use Poe’s visual imagery, quotations and allusions to provide atmosphere. In Michael Connelly’s "The Poet" (Warner, 1996), a serial killer forces his victims to leave suicide notes taken from the works of Poe, and in Sheldon Rusch’s "For Edgar" (Berkley, 2005), the murderer is known as The Raven and leaves tributes to Poe. In "Wild Nights" (Ecco, 2008), Joyce Carol Oates enters the psyches of four major American writers, including Poe, with an invented diary written months after his death.
Several new anthologies recognize Poe’s contribution to the mystery and horror genres. "Poe’s Children" (Doubleday, 2008), edited by Peter Straub, includes stories by Stephen King and Joe Hill. "Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark Fantasy, and Horror Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe" (Solaris, 2009) is edited by science fiction and fantasy doyenne Ellen Datlow.
Neil Gaiman, himself a creative genius, concludes: "The best of Poe doesn’t date. ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is as perfect a tale of vengeance as ever was crafted. ‘The Tell–Tale Heart’ is a clear-eyed look through the eyes of madness." Gaiman’s essay on Poe can be found at www.neilgaiman.com.