Edward McPherson is the author of The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats and Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat. He has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, the New York Observer, I.D., Esopus, Absolute, Salon, and Talk. Originally from Texas, Edward lives in Brooklyn. Here he writes about Edgar Allan Poe.
Edward McPherson on Edgar Allan Poe
A confession: I'm surprised by how few books I ever re-read in their entirety. Short stories, sure, and there are passages in novels I thumb to again and again. (Some I revisit obsessively - to the point that I worry about them leeching so deeply into my brain that whenever I do actually manage to write a sentence I enjoy, I often spend half the day searching through books and the internet to make sure I'm not making an unwitting homage.)
But I really have only one reading ritual, and it's seasonal in nature - and a little clichéd. For the three weeks or so preceding Halloween, I read as much Poe as possible. So if you wanted to hold me to a single book, my leather-bound Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe would be it, though my smaller paperback, The Portable Poe, is easier to carry on the subway.
The latter volume, published in 1945, has an introduction from Philip Van Doren Stern that begins 'There is a ghost haunting America...' Indeed, read just a little Poe and you'll soon be possessed. Everything about him is - to use one of his favourite terms - mesmeric: his stories, his poems, his essays, even his troubled, tragic biography. (Poe died at the age of 40 after disappearing en route to New York; they found him in Baltimore, dirty and delirious, wearing another man's clothes.)
First there's the language, Poe's peculiar Latinate and Greek diction. (Flipping the pages, I see 'ichor', 'runic', 'boreal', 'sere', 'senescent', 'liquescent' - you get the idea.) It's a grammar that girds many of Poe's cultured, composed narrators who, by the story's end, often have given way to baroque fits of broken expression. When choosing his words, Poe has the ear of an angel (or devil). It probably doesn't need to be said, but has there been a poet since him daring - and deft - enough to use 'tintinnabulation' to pitch-perfect effect ('The Bells')? And then there's the haunting, alliterative phrase 'of my most immemorial year' ('Ulalume'), which often comes unbidden to me in the strangest of circumstances.
But Poe's mind, while dark and eccentric, was not always ghoulish. There's humour in a voice that can be so masterfully over-the-top. Consider the narrator of 'The Fall of the House of Usher', who shrieks again and again, 'I dared not speak!' (Not a problem now!) How about the semi-serious punch line of 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar', which is that the man in question has literally dissolved, by the final line, into an unspeakable mess (note the dash): 'a nearly liquid mass of loathsome - of detestable putridity.'
And behind the joker was the mathematician. Poe prized - or perhaps fetishized - the rational mind. (Critic Joseph Wood Krutch: 'Poe invented the detective story in order that he might not go mad.') Read Poe's detective stories (indeed, he wrote the first), with their long, almost tedious passages of deduction and reason. See his stories and essays on the science of cryptography. (Secret writing - could there be anything more Poe?) It's no coincidence that the great fabulist would also write 'Maelzel's Chess-Player', a lengthy article debunking a machine that could supposedly play chess (after 29 pages, the conclusion: there's a man hiding inside).
Poe certainly wasn't above wit and whimsy; he hid the names of women in flirty acrostic poems, and in a critical essay pronounced - without a shred a proof - that 'the death... of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world'. The 'unquestionably' is what tips his hand - this is science in the service of art.
It is no mistake that even upon first reading them, his tales of horror, adventure, mystery, murder, science fiction, and fantasy feel so familiar; they've saturated our culture - they're the stuff of TV. This is genre fiction in the best sense, and its concerns are universal: the nature of obsession and torture, guilt and revenge, and how the psyche - upon close inspection - is inevitably fractured. In addition to the essays, stories, and poems I've already mentioned, I usually read 'The Man of the Crowd', 'Hop-Frog', 'The Pit and the Pendulum', 'Berenice', 'Ligeia', 'The Masque of the Red Death', 'The Purloined Letter', 'A Tale of the Ragged Mountains', 'The Cask of Amontillado', 'Annabel Lee', 'The City in the Sea', and, of course, 'The Raven'. Then I read everything else.
Of course, I've only just scratched the surface of why I read Poe. In the end, maybe it's a gut call. In his essay, 'The Philosophy of Composition', Poe writes that the writer must begin by choosing not a thesis or a narrative, but an 'effect' (Poe's italics). It seems a strange thing to think on this hot and sunny summer afternoon, but, come October, to behold such a fantasy of erudition, such a pose of rationality - ever crumbling, ever tumbling - feels both comforting and thrilling, as the world tilts to winter and to darkness.