Notes on Notes on Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

From Literary Kicks, here’s a fascinating article written by Michelle Glauser about notes found in a book about Edgar Allan Poe.

Glauser begins:

Have you ever found something in an old book that took you by surprise? It’s not unusual to find a name or maybe even a phone number. Sometimes you’ll find evidence that the book once belonged to a library. But extensive notes and criticism of an author as well-known as Edgar Allan Poe and his biographer? Maybe in a textbook. I certainly wasn’t expecting what I recently found.

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Locked Room Mysteries


One of my goals is to write a good “locked room” mystery with an original solution. You know, a murder that takes place under seemingly impossible conditions. I refuse to believe all the ideas have been used up. In the meantime, here is a mammoth 7 part review of a locked room anthology that appears on a blog called Beneath the Stairs of Time

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries was compiled by an award-winning editor, Otto Penzler, who, judging by the content page, took great care in avoiding the pitfalls of such previous anthologies as The Locked Room Reader (1968) and Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982) – covering too many over anthologized stories. There are some of those familiar stories collected here, but they’re, by and large, contained in the first portion of the book.

Familiar As the Rose In Spring deals with “the most popular and frequently reprinted impossible-stories of all-time” and serves as a 1920s-era drawing room to gather all of the usual suspects in: Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Jacques Futrelle‘s “The Problem of Cell 13,” Wilkie Collins‘ “A Terribly Strange Bed,” Melville Davisson Post‘s “The Doomdorf Mystery” and G.K. Chesterton‘s “The Invisible Man.” I have skipped these stories, but there was one I hadn’t read before.

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The word “uncanny” is often used interchangeably with words like “eerie” and “weird.”  After Boris Karloff  portrayed the Frankenstein monster in the classic 1931 movie, he was sometimes billed as “Karloff the Uncanny.” I recently decided to look up the actual definition of uncanny and discovered a treasure trove of cool information, including some psychology from Sigmund Freud and Ernst Jentsch, short stories by E. T. A. Hoffman (especially Der Sandmann), which inspired the likes of Poe, Baudelaire, and Kafka, all the way up to Neil Gaiman’s acclained graphic novel, The Sandman.

Wikipedia describes the concept of uncanny as “an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange.”

A 1906 essay by Ernst Jentsch called On the Psychology of the Uncanny cites the fiction of German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann as examples of uncanny tales. Sigmund Freud also made extensive references to Hoffman’s work. Both psychologists focused mainly on a macabre little tales called Der Sandmann (The Sandman).

I found Hoffmann’s The Sandman to be a wonderfully bizarre treat, and Thanks to Gaslight, you can read the entire text here.

Hoffman is associated with German Romanticism. He wrote a novelette called The Nutcracker, which was later the inspiration for the famous ballet by Tchaikovsky that has become a Christmas tradition. Hoffmann’s story Das Fräulein von Scuderi  may be the first detective story, coming even before Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series of graphic novels feature a character created by Morpheus (“the Sandman”) called the Corinthian, who steals the eyes of his victims, similarly to Hoffman’s Sandman. Here is a good source of information on Gaiman’s Sandman: Master of Dreams.

Old, Dark Houses

“The Oaks” mansion in The Bat (1959, Liberty Pictures), one of several movies based on the book and play of the same name by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Click on the mansion, if you dare.

                                             Click on the picture

From the PBS web site, Masterpiece Mystery Casebook Index, here’s Ron Miller on that classic staple of mystery fiction, Old, Dark Houses :

When newly married Alice finally arrives at Carwell Grange, the sprawling country mansion that will be her new home in The Wyvern Mystery, she’s greeted at the front steps by a cluster of glum-looking servants.

“I’m sure I will like such an old, quiet place,” Alice exclaims, eagerly striding past the gloomy servants into the spacious entry hall.

If we all could tell her something right then, no doubt it would be, “Sure, you will, Alice. At least until the sun goes down.”

However, we can’t fault her innocence about “old dark houses.” In 1869, when J. Sheridan Le Fanu first published The Wyvern Mystery, people like Alice hadn’t read many thrillers like his — and there weren’t any movies or radio and television shows at all, let alone ones set in spooky old houses.

The tradition of the spooky old house goes back even further than Le Fanu. You can find it in Edgar Allan Poe, father of the modern mystery. In 1839, he wrote: “I know not how it was, but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.”

That would be The House of Usher. Poe was one of the first authors to give a house a physical persona, telling us it had “eye-like windows” that looked down upon the visitor, filling him with dread.

Read Entire Essay here

Creepy Cut-Up, sort of

Astral Weeks columnist Ed Park finds that horror story quotes take on a life of their own (via the Los Angeles Times).

While assembling my notes for a review of the Library of America anthology “American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny” (Library of America, two volumes, edited by Peter Straub: “From Poe to the Pulps,” 746 pp., $35; “From the 1940s to Now,” 714 pp., $35), I noticed a peculiar thing. The quotes that I had quarried seemed to assemble themselves into a sort of ur-story, a template of the unheimlich. As I stitched together sentences from the works of writers as varied as F. Scott Fitzgerald and H.P. Lovecraft, John Cheever and Kelly Link, something about the common gambits and rhythms, across nearly two centuries, sent a chill through me. The following text has been constructed entirely from sentences found in “American Fantastic Tales.” Each is numbered and identified at the very end.

Read it at The Los Angeles Times

I Declare Cooping Day

Cooping Day is almost here!

As if literary folks needed another excuse to get drunk and wear each other’s clothes, I propose that Election Day, November 4, be declared “Cooping Day” in memory of Edgar Allan Poe’s demise.

According to The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, the majority of biographers give the following theory as to the death of Edgar Allen Poe:

            “Coincidence or not, the day Poe was found on the street was election day in Baltimore and the place near where he was found, Ryan’s Fourth Ward Polls, was both a bar and a place for voting. In those days, Baltimore elections were notorious for corruption and violence. Political gangs were willing to go to great extremes to ensure the success of their candidates. Election ballots were stolen, judges were bribed and potential voters for the opposition intimidated. Some gangs were known to kidnap innocent bystanders, holding them in a room, called the “coop.” These poor souls were then forced to go in and out of poll after poll, voting over and over again. Their clothing might even be changed to allow for another round. To ensure compliance, their victims were plied with liquor and beaten. Poe’s weak heart would never have withstood such abuse. This theory appear s to have been first offered publicly by John R. Thompson in the early 1870s to explain Poe’s condition and the fact that he was wearing someone else’s clothing. A possible flaw in the theory is that Poe was reasonably well-known in Baltimore and likely to be recognized.”

I believe we can pull this off without the beatings. Drinking is not uncommon at political rallies, and I, for one, have been known to wear ill-fitting clothes that don’t belong to me. Once, in my younger days, I won a prize for best Little Nell (Columbia) at a Rocky Horror party.

Of course, we have to vote first! This is important (understatement); but after we cast our ballots and are waiting, longing, for a change in the wind, we might as well do something to take the edge off.