In my previous entries in this series, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe might best be thought of as a literary prankster, a “diddler” or a practical joker, who delighted in “putting one over” on his readers. This flies in the face of the wildly popular depiction of the nineteenth-century poet and littérateur. To his legions of fans and to the multitudes of merchants making commercial hay (and no small amount of money) off of Poe’s mythic image, Poe remains best known and best loved today as dark, brooding, alcoholic, madman-genius. However, to the great disappointment of my own students, all biographical evidence suggests that this image is largely false. Yes, Poe had his occasional problems with the bottle, although in this he was not all that far from the norm in his besotted epoch, and yes, he wrote some stories about madness, mayhem, mystery, and mortality, although he wrote far more burlesques, hoaxes, satires, and spoofs. Above all, Poe was a canny magazinist, an astute judge of the appetites of the reading public, and he used his own literary talents and business acumen to give the people what they wanted.
One of the things that readers desperately wanted, as Poe knew better than most, was a shock, especially in the form of tales combining elements of the bizarre, extravagant, terrifying, and weird. If Poe is best remembered today for his tales of terror, it is in part because he recognized that such tales would be the most popular in his own time. For example, after one publisher objected to the gruesomeness or bad taste of “Berenice” (a rather disturbing tale, it’s true, but well worth the read!), Poe explained that “to be appreciated, you must be read,” and he pointed out that such stories are “invariably sought after with avidity.” What kind of stories are so popular? “The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles” whose nature consisted of the following: “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.” In other words, Poe asserts, excessive, over-the-top stories are what the people demand. So, again, if Poe became a master of horror, it is because Poe knew that horror sells.
How does this relate to my argument that Poe is best viewed as a literary practical joker? Poe’s burlesques, hoaxes, bizarreries, and practical jokes are obviously examples of his perverse sense of humor. But what about those stories that are “clearly” meant to be read as works of horror, mystery, or suspense? It is not for nothing that Poe is widely considered a master of Gothic fiction, right? (My use of the scare-quotes is an obvious giveaway, indicating my skepticism over whether any of Poe’s work could “clearly” be so described.) I would assert that even Poe’s apparently Gothic tales of terror are, on one level or another, also examples of satire, humor, or hoaxing. That is, even in his apparently serious fiction, Poe’s impish, satirical, and critical attitude prevails. This is not to say that we need to re-categorize Poe’s tales of terror as comical pieces, but it is to suggest that the prankster’s spirit infuses all of Poe’s work. As an example, I would like to look at “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of Poe’s most famous and celebrated works of Gothic horror. Notwithstanding its gloomy atmosphere, mysterious characters, and horrifying climax, the story of Roderick and Madeline Usher’s frightening downfall is thoroughly suffused with playful humor. Continue reading →