“The Adder”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Adder”, Fred Chappell, 1989.

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Cover by Bob Eggleton

There’s lots of reasons not to keep a copy of the Necronomicon around your house or business.

Cultists may show up to read it or steal it. (I wonder if that makes it an “attractive nuisance” under tort law?) And, of course, reading the thing can lead to death, insanity, or the destruction of civilization.

Fred Chappell’s story adds one more reason not to keep the thing around – especially if you’re not dealing with the Latin of the Necronomicon but the pure quill of the Mad Arab’s original Al-Azif.

Our narrator is in the antiquarian book trade, and so is his beloved Uncle Alvin. One day Alvin shows up at the narrator’s shop with a book bound in pink leather, its gilt lettering almost completely worn off, and the text faded to a gray barely visible on the page.

It’s the Al-Azif, and Alvin does not want it in his shop. He’s off to talk to the Library of Congress about buying it. (After all, they probably have the Necronomicon already – even if it’s not cataloged.) He wants the book safe until then. Continue reading

Obscure Poe: “Letter to B—“

Obscure Poe is a series I’ll be running from time to time.

When I say “obscure”, I mean Poe’s essays, reviews, and letters

I’ve read some of those at the Edgar Poe Society of Baltimore’s website, but I picked up a Library of America volume of Poe’s non-fiction, so I’m going to briefly post on some of the pieces there as I read them. Honestly, though, I suspect I’ll have nothing to say on most of them. Poe, the first American who tried to live by the pen alone, had to write a lot of stuff of no interest now.

“Letter to B — “, Edgar Allan Poe, Southern Literary Messenger, July 1936.

McKee Portrait of Poe 1842
Thomas J. Mckee Daguerreotype, dated to 1842 by Michael J. Deas in The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe

This essay was first published in 1831 as the preface to Poe’s Poems under a different title.

Who “B” was is uncertain.

Poe firmly argues that only poets are fit to judge the worth of other poets. The fool may know Shakespeare is great, but it’s received wisdom from his neighbor who “is a step higher on the Andes of the mind”. The neighbor, in turn, got his opinion from someone else. It’s not that Poe disagrees with the valuation of Shakespeare, he just thinks the non-poet is giving an opinion, an opinion he got from somebody else, while the poet gives an informed judgement. Poe likens the opinion of the common man to a book he bought. He owns the book, but he didn’t create it.

Poe goes on to gripe about how the American writer has to work against the “combined and established wit of the world” for a public that has traded the antiquarian’s love of age for a love of distance. The works of foreign authors are revered automatically because they are foreign.

He then goes on to further develop his idea that only poets can judge poetry and that includes the worth of his own.

Even then, a poet can assert what he does not believe. He thinks Milton’s Paradise Regained is the equal of Paradise Lost no matter what the poet said. The real reason people hold that opinion and Milton accepted is that “men do not like epics, whatever they may say to the contrary”. Milton’s readers were “too much wearied with the first to derive any pleasure from the second”.  (Poe did not like epic poetry thinking it too long to preserve a unity of effect.)

Poe spends most of this short essay attacking the idea of metaphysical poetry designed to instruct, and he cites Wordsworth as the big offender. For Poe, the end of poetry is happiness, of course, since happiness should be the “end of every separate part of our existence is happiness”. Instruction of the kind Wordsworth offers is just an end to that happiness. Why not skip the intermediate step?:

… he who pleases, is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs, since utility is happiness.

Then the 25-year old Poe criticizes Coleridge and Wordsworth since he doesn’t think learning has much to do with imagination or age with poetic skill.

Both poets, for Poe, think great truths are found beneath life’s surface.

Wordsworth, in particular, is disappointing to Poe. His youthful work had “extreme delicacy” but his best work is behind him. He talent was squandered in philosophizing.

If you have to explain why your poetry is great, you’re in trouble. Poe says of Wordsworth

The long wordy discussion by which he tries to reason us into admiration of his poetry, speak very little in his favor …

Poe is much more an admirer of Coleridge of whom “I cannot speak but with reverence”. But Poe thinks Coleridge buried his talent in his metaphysical pursuits.

Poe concludes with his definition of poetry. (If it sounds familiar, Orson Welles intoned something similar on the second side of the Poe inspired 1976 album Tales of Mystery and Imagination from the Alan Parsons Project.)

A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.

It stands as Poe’s complete definition of what he thought poetry should be and some of his own work attained. I think it’s a reasonable definition though I’m not sure good poetry can’t have a “definite pleasure”.

And, in case his opinion of the metaphysical poets wasn’t clear, he concludes by saying he holds them in “sovereign contempt”.

How Poe reconciled his disdain for metaphysical poetry with his Eureka — A Prose Poem, a very metaphysical work presented in 1848, I don’t know.

More reviews of Poe related work are indexed on the Poe page.

Dreams of Fear

Once upon a time I wouldn’t have bothered reviewing a book of poetry.

If it’s well-done poetry with elegant and compressed language, the reviewer will either leach the power of the language out by wordy restatements of actual verse or devolve into a technical discussion of interest to poets, maybe, but not necessarily poetry readers.

But I’ve violated that principle already.

Review: Dreams of Fear: Poetry of Terror and the Supernatural, eds. S. T. Joshi and Steven J. Mariconda, 2013.Dreams of Fear

First off, some of these poems are about the subject of horror and not horrifying or terrifying

Second, some are little more than memento mori. Well done memento mori but not necessarily terrifying or involving the supernatural.

Third, all the languages represented are, understandably but unfortunately, European. Specifically, Greek, Latin, French, German, and English.

Arranged chronologically by date of the poet’s birth, the collection goes back all the way back in the Western literary tradition to Homer, and we get expected excerpts from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, Dante’s Inferno, and one of the classic bits of supernatural verse – Satan in Hell from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

As you would expect, supernatural verse really took off with the Gothic and Romantic Movements with their love of the frission of terror and the sublime and weird ballads. Continue reading