Joker Poe, Part 3: Horrific Humor

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.

In some respects, the humor in this short story is obvious, and readers more attuned to Poe’s practical joking might have picked up on those aspects of the tale right away. I am certainly not the first to notice. Among the critics who have observed the satire of this tale, let me mention one: Benjamin Fisher, in his excellent essay “Playful Germanism in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: The Storyteller’s Art,” reveals the tale to be a parody of the Gothic mode or of “Germanism,” in which Poe “burlesques” the cultural archetypes that both Roderick Usher and the narrator represent. Readers of early nineteenth-century Gothic novels or of then-recent issues of Blackwood’s Magazine, of which Poe had published a well-known parody only two years earlier, would have easily recognized the Gothic typology in Poe’s tale. Similarly, they would probably have recognized Poe’s playful tweaking of these conventions. Of course, it is still possible to read “Usher” as a tale of terror, as so many adoring fans still do, but the sheer silliness of some of its elements could be viewed as evidence of Poe’s understated mockery. Or, if you prefer, both are possible: Fisher notes that “Usher” could be regarded as “one of many examples of American romantic writing that simultaneously uses and attacks the Gothic legacy from European literature.”

Space does not permit a detailed analysis, so for now I want to focus on two memorable scenes: (1) the opening scene of the narrator’s arrival at the House of Usher, which sets the tone for the rest of the story, and (2) the climactic scene in which the gruesome fate of Madeline Usher is revealed. In these scenes, it seems to me, an atmosphere of gloom and horror is leavened with a tincture of utter absurdity that makes the entire tale somewhat hard to take seriously. As with a lot of Poe’s humor, it may not be “Ha, ha” funny, but it is humorous nonetheless.

The opening paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a masterpiece in the establishment of a literary tone and atmosphere for which the word “gloom” almost seems to have been specifically coined:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was — but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me — upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain — upon the bleak walls — upon the vacant eye-like windows — upon a few rank sedges — and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees — with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium — the bitter lapse into every-day life — the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart — an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

The narrator, who is clearly a scholar of romanticism, then engages in what he himself terms a “childish experiment” in order to explain and to alter this terrifying sensation:

What was it — I paused to think — what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down — but with a shudder even more thrilling than before — upon the re-modelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

The narrator’s experiment, in which he examines the reflection of the mansion on the murky surface of a dark lake in an effort to alter the gloomy effect that the house has upon his spirits, turns out only to increase the “gloom” felt by that scene. But this experiment is itself a spoof, a comical attempt to implement the romantic philosophy of the sublime for practical effect by rearranging the elements of the scene in order to disarm their power to affect the viewer. Should we be surprised to learn that the gloomy mansion would appear even gloomier by being distorted, not to mention appearing upside-down, in the water’s reflection? Here Poe seems to be mocking the romantic view that the poet’s use of the imagination can transform nature into the sublime, a theory expressed in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and also adopted by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his belief that poets are “liberating gods.” While subtly poking fun at the hyper-philosophical attitudes of contemporary writers, Poe uses this gloomy Gothic scene to set up a late joke. For the reader who thinks he can turn a gloomy view into a more pleasant experience by simply looking at things differently may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Later in the tale, Poe includes a scene of reading in order to introduce and frame the story’s climax. In what amounts to an absurd blend of horror and humor, Poe’s narrator reads the grotesque chivalric tale of a doughty knight Ethelred, the “Mad Trist” of Launcelot Canning, a romance invented by Poe for this tale. The point of reading “The Mad Trist,” preposterous as it seems, is to calm Roderick Usher’s nerves, but the effect is just the opposite, of course. As the narrator reads about the ludicrous Ethelred’s adventures, he is interrupted by distant sounds that seem to echo the noises describe in the tale. Thus, for example,

‘And Ethelred uplifted his mace, and struck upon the head of the dragon, which fell before him, and gave up his pesty breath, with a shriek so horrid and harsh, and withal so piercing, that Ethelred had fain to close his ears with his hands against the dreadful noise of it, the like whereof was never before heard.’

Here again I paused abruptly, and now with a feeling of wild amazement — for there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did actually hear (although from what direction it proceeded I found it impossible to say) a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound — the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the dragon’s unnatural shriek as described by the romancer.

The increasingly silly doings of the knight form a stark thematic contrast with the increasingly horrific events taking place within the House of Usher, in which the prematurely buried Madeline times her escape from the crypt to coincide exactly with the antics of Sir Launcelot’s not-quite-heroic hero. The exploits of the doughty Ethelred, “who was now mighty withal, on account of the powerfulness of the wine which he had drunken,” perversely mirror the movements of Lady Madeline. This juxtaposition renders the interpretation of the scene—a terrifying vengeance of the apparently undead Madeline upon her guilt-ridden brother, leading to the literal collapse of the House of Usher—somewhat laughable. Indeed, among Roderick Usher’s final words can be found the mirthless “ha! ha!” of Poe’s little joke:

And now — to-night — Ethelred — ha! ha! — the breaking of the hermit’s door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the shield! — say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault!

As with the earlier “childish experiment,” the apparently mortifying image is made risible in its combination with a silly adventure.

According to a review of Poe’s 1845 Tales, which was possibly written by Poe himself, the “thesis” of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is identified as “the revulsion of feeling consequent upon discovering that for a long period of time we have been mistaking sounds of agony, for those of mirth or indifference.” I think it is unlikely that most readers of “Usher” would agree, but if true, then Poe suggests that the “single effect” of the tale is to produce in the reader this “revulsion of feeling” at the moment when a tragic misunderstanding is suddenly recognized. That revulsion might be akin to the narrator’s own sense of gloom and horror in the opening and closing scenes of the tale. But it might also approximate the uneasy feeling that comes from an unexpected reversal, as when we cannot be certain whether all this laughter of Poe’s is not, in the end, at our own expense.


© 2014 Robert T. Tally Jr.

Robert T. Tally Jr. is an associate professor of English at Texas State University. His books include Fredric Jameson: The Project of Dialectical Criticism; Poe and the Subversion of American Literature; Spatiality (The New Critical Idiom); Utopia in the Age of Globalization; Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel; Melville, Mapping and Globalization; and, as editor, Geocritical Explorations; Kurt Vonnegut: Critical Insights; and Literary Cartographies (forthcoming). Tally is also the general editor of Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies, a Palgrave Macmillan book series.


4 responses

  1. […] Joker Poe, Part 3: Horrific Humor […]

  2. […] O Mores!”) that was itself composed and presented as part of an elaborate practical joke. In Part 3, I argued that many of Poe’s most well-known stories, which are usually read as Gothic horror or […]

  3. […] which can be seen not only in those works which are clearly hoaxes, but also in his poetry, his tales, and his criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe made enemies, some of whom have not been so sanguine in […]

  4. […] modification of gothic conventions, can be read as a parody of Germanism or gothic literature. (This analysis by Poe scholar Robert Tally Jr. provides further […]

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