“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

No, I haven’t given up blogging. I’ve been on a rare vacation and am catching up on the weird fiction readings over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1841.Annotated Edgar Allan Poe

Yes, it’s the story with the razor-wielding orangutan. As I did with my review of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, I’m not going to bother summarizing or reviewing such a well-known story. Rather, I’ll summarize some observations on the tale made by others and talk about some of its oddities.

I’d forgotten that it takes awhile for Poe to get to his story. The first two pages of a 26 page story in the Stephen Peithman annotated version are taken up by Poe discussing the superiority of analysis (its original etymology deriving from disentangling elements) to mere calculation (which derives from combining elements). Analysis, which Dupin is the epitome of, requires reason, imagination, and observation.

This leads to Poe arguing that checkers and whist are games requiring the successful player to have greater intellect than chess. Whist, in particular, he argues, requires skills more applicable to general application in life – observation of players to know when they are bluffing, deducing what they are concealing, and memory – than life. I’m half convinced by this argument. I’m sure there have been some men (and, yes, virtually all the top players are men) who are expert chess players and who have been, as they say, well-integrated socially, but, having recently read a biography of Bobby Fisher, I know that’s not always the case. In any case, I’m, at best, a mediocre player of all three games, so I can’t claim any great personal insight. Continue reading

“A Descent Into the Maelström”

Last week’s piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing was . . .

Review: “A Descent Into the Maelström“, Edgar Allan Poe, 1841.Annotated Edgar Allan Poe

Because this is Poe and you might know the story already, I’m going to spend less time discussing the plot and more time summarizing the criticism around the tale and its relevance as a scientific metaphor.

The tale is pretty simple in outline. The narrator has climbed to the top of a 1500 foot peak overlooking the sea. With him is an old, white-haired man who still seems spry despite his aged look. And he’s definitely not as nervous as the narrator as he overlooks the crashing waves and is buffeted by blasting wind.

Moskstraumen — Site of the Tale

On Mount Helseggen, they look at a gigantic whirlpool that’s been known to take down entire ships. The old man tells how he once was trapped in that whirlpool, but, unlike his two brothers who were also aboard, he escaped to tell the tale, an event which aged him and turned his hair white in a day. (The Oxford English Dictionary notes that Poe is the only known example in English of putting an umlaut in Maleström.)

Harry Clarke Illustration for the Tale

The Sources

Stephen Peithman’s notes in his The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe’s reworking of various sources. The immediate inspiration was Edward Wilson Landor’s “The Maelstrom: a Fragment” from 1834. (Sam Moskowitz, in the “Prophetic Edgar Allan Poe” chapter of his Explorers of the Infinite says a manuscript of Poe’s story exists from 1833. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore says no original manuscript is extant. I know which version I’ll believe.) Both stories have a ship trapped in the whirlpool with a hero escaping alive. But, whereas Landor’s hero faints after he escapes and can’t remember how he did it, Poe’s story is very much concerned with the how of the escape, the epitome of Poe’s applied ratiocination — though it’s not quite that simple as we’ll see.

Poe then seems to have gone to the Encyclopedia Britannica – anywhere from the third to sixth editions – and the 1834 Mariner’s Chronicle (which seems to have copied a lot from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry). The Mariner’s Chronicle added the supposedly true account of an American sea captain who went into the Maelstrom and lived. The Encyclopedia Britannica article also used material from the 1755 The Natural History of Norway by Erik Potoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, and Poe references his name.

Ian Miller Illustration for the Tale

The Style

Peithman notes that Poe is frequently criticized for obscure, vague, and convoluted language. That, however, is usually used by him when describing a character whose mental state is unbalanced by terror or insanity. The old sailor’s account is quite lucid in its details and straightforward. Continue reading

Private Perry and Mister Poe

Before reading the Poe tribute anthology nEvermore! (review forthcoming), I decided to read this, the only unread Poe-related book left in the house.

Review: Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems, 1831, ed. William F. Hecker, 2005.Private Perry and Mister Poe

As I’ve said elsewhere, the United States Army was the one institution that appreciated Edgar Allan Poe in his lifetime – even if he did get expelled from West Point.

But what did Poe do when he was at West Point and in his days as a private soldier?

The late Major William F. Hecker answers those questions with some unique expertise.

Hecker, before he died from an IED in Iraq in 2006, taught English at West Point. He passes on the folklore surrounding Cadet Poe – stories Hecker’s father and great-uncle heard when they were at the school and that Hecker heard when he was a cadet and from his students. These are stories are of drunkenness and wild ill-discipline.

In fact, Poe doesn’t seem to have drank when at West Point and made a conscious decision to get himself expelled by failing to show up for roll call and not going to class. Continue reading

Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe

(That’s Poe to the seventh power in case you’re counting.)

I came to Poe relatively late. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe cover

Oh, I read “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” in fifth grade in a collection. “The Casque of Amontillado”, for some reason, bored me senseless at that age, and that was the end of my Poe reading except brushes with it in high school literature classes. (It’s now my favorite Poe story, and I’d recommend Vincent Price’s gloating rendition of the tale in An Evening with Poe.)

As an English major, I again came across Poe in my Early American Literature class. It was a largely worthless class taught in a desultory way. But I did do an extensive paper on Poe’s influence on science fiction.

There’s a fairly strong case to be made for regarding Poe as “the father of science fiction”, and Sam Moskowitz’s Explorers of the Infinite seems to have been the first to do that. I don’t believe you can push science fiction as a genre back to anything before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But Poe influenced Jules Verne, and, when Hugo Gernsback started Amazing Stories, the first science fiction pulp magazine, he said he wanted to publish stories in the spirit of Poe among others. But we’re not here to talk about that. You can get some idea of Poe’s influence on and use of science fiction ideas with his entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.

While I listened to all three versions of The Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, a concept album, centered on Poe, it was twenty years before I really dived into Poe. Continue reading