Incursion into the origins of American Gothic and crime fiction


Romantic, alcoholic, interested in crime and the supernatural, makes a (poor) living out of writing – do you recognise the character? After decades, I rediscovered this American and cracked his secret. And I will share it with you in this review. If you are a bookaholic, just like me and my friends reviewing books here, you could try and guess who he is.

Warning! Contains spoilers. 

Let me give you a final hint: he is considered the father of detective crime fiction. I chose to revisit his short stories after Use of Weapons for a reason. It just felt like the right book after Iain M. Banks crushed me with the resolution to his novel. I wanted something dark, intense, and bizarre to exorcise the demons left by Zakalwe and The Culture.

Beautiful dead women populate Poe’s world of anguish



Reaching the middle of my edition of Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I realised what I was looking for and Edgar Allan Poe’s secret were one and the same thing. In his Gothic horror stories, he exorcises his own fears. Having lost his mother very young, misfortune haunted his personal personal life throughout. His first fiance engaged another man while Poe joined to army to make a living. And later, he lost his beloved wife to tuberculosis.

Any reader will recognise the theme of beautiful dead women coming back one way or another. While this pervades Romanticism as a literary movement, the tale of the beautiful, intelligent, life loving, cruel Ligeia confirms Poe’s obsession. And who could blame him for it?

Buried alive, with a happy ending

But it wasn’t these Gothic fantasies which triggered my realisation. I unwrapped Poe’s mystery as an author through The Premature Burial, a story laden with romantic images of doom and suffering.  Just as I studied in High School and University, the picture of the millions buried alive, shown in a vision, under the moonlight, to the main character, links deeply with the core of literary Romanticism. Even our Romanian poet, Mihai Eminescu, another romantic author, uses a similar picture in one of his poems.

Poe’s story about this man deeply tormented by the fear of being buried alive ends on an unexpected note. One night, on a difficult journey by boat, he wakes up from his cataleptic slumber, as usual, not knowing where he is. Everything around him, from the pitch dark, to the space constrained by wooden planks, makes him think he lies in his coffin. The man made preparations for this, due to his prolonged cataleptic episodes. However, he finds none of the features he devised to let him out of the coffin, should he awaken. So he releases a howl of desperation… waking up all his fellow travelers on the boat.

Thus, having lived his fear in reality, the man finds cure for it. After this happening, his cataleptic episodes cease, he starts to exercise, leave a healthy lifestyle, and travels the world.
Such a wonderful end! Who would have expected it when the beginning reads:

“There are certain things of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction. These the mere romanticist must eschew, if he doesn’t wish to offend, or to disgust”

You must have surely noted the tongue-in-cheek planted there, in the second sentence of the quote.

As a central theme in his writings, fear fascinates Poe. It is that sort of fascination which cuts through your bones. You cannot stop looking deep inside it, once you took a glance. In The Pit and the Pendulum he displays all of his skill in use of language and of tension creating techniques too. Again, one would not necessarily have expected a happy end for this story either.

How Poe created the mind frame for today’s thriller series

Another story, shortly following this one, confirmed my revelation. In The Black Cat I read the Poe’s fears of how alcohol transforms people. To me, this writing contains his terror of the monster inside, who could assault and even kill what he loved most. However, he resolves to punishing the soft, kind man turned murderer by vapours of poisonous liquid and his own guilt. Just as in other of his stories, the murderous husband falls prey to his own arrogance and gets discovered.

As we stepped into the realm of crime fiction, I couldn’t cease being amazed by his detective stories. I particularly enjoyed The Murders in Rue Morgue  and The Purloined Letter. The first struck me with its bizarre, the second, with its think out of the box resolution. At the time I was reading the book on my commute, I kept telling everybody how he created the same techniques which nowadays keep viewers in front of the screen for CSI type series. And this man lived in the first half of the 19th century…

The giggle behind horrors and crime scenes

Advancing through the romantic darkness of his stories, another aspect stood out, in my eyes. Murderers foolishly gave themselves away due to being too arrogant and too convinced nobody would discover them. One man literally loses their breath. Then his body suffers multiple mutilations before he runs into the exact person who inadvertently stole his breath. The young man with his golden bug seems mad until they actually dig out the treasure he had been relentlessly looking for.
In this story, the black servant, driven into despair by his master’s madness, almost whips him back to his senses. I need to admit this particular aspect made me laugh. Who would have thought that course of action possible?


Another pattern developed under my eyes as I progressed through the book. Poe actually possessed one of the best dark humour senses I have ever met in a writer. I sense him giggling, a cheeky muffled laughter, behind all these horrors and murders. And the darkness in his short stories is not all that dark.

Sure, we have the occasional terrifying result, with no redemption possible. The Fall of the House of Usher superbly unravels the doom hidden in the joints of many romantic stories. However, many of the above mentioned tales end in a positive note. Either the criminal gets caught, or the victim survives.

When I finished reading the book, I was returning home from work, on my train from Birmingham. And I laughed. I wholeheartedly laughed reaching the end of  Some Words with a Mummy. See, as Poe is also named the father of the sci-fi genre, this story could well stand at the foundations of the ancient aliens theory. His mummy, revived by the use of an electric device, talks about how technologically advanced ancient Egypt was. And he 19th century witness concludes:

“I have been up since seven, penning these memoranda for the benefit of my family and for mankind. The former I shall behold no more. My wife is a shrew. The truth is, I am heartily sick of this life, and of the nineteenth century in general. I am convinced that everything is going wrong. Besides, I am anxious to know who will be President in 2045. As soon, therefore, as I shave and swallow a cup of coffee, I shall just step over to Ponnonner’s and get embalmed for a couple of hundred years”.


No Comments

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.