Edgar Allan Poe was born January 19, 1809 and died October 7, 1849. The forty years between were marked by drunkenness, abstinence, lying, bragging, and writing brilliant pieces of verse and poetry familiar to students more than 150 years later. Stern notes in his introduction that “no man drinks without cause,” and certainly Poe’s early years were void of security and affection. One of many writers to whom success came after death, Poe is the most-read author of anyone of his time -with good reason. Current literature abounds with tales of violence; we are fascinated with serial killers, alienated students who carry out their visions of violence upon their classmates, and splatter films that make Poe’s work seem almost pastoral. Poe’s work went beyond this, of course, examining inner conflict with a keen eye for detail. His melancholy reaches across time to demonstrate that however much technology advances, the human heart remains the same.
The book is divided up into six sections: Letters, Tales (of fantasy, terror, death, and mystery), Articles, Criticism, Poems, and Opinions. The letters are often petulant and whiny as Poe beseeches his foster father for money to pay debts and buy food. Two love letters to Sarah Whitman included in this section seem a bit over the top to modern readers, but one has to keep in mind that Poe wrote in a Victorian style and had a passion to find the perfect woman. Perfection is always elusive, of course, and he seemed to adore women the best after their deaths.
The short story section is where this volume shines. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” are a few of the best known of the twenty-four stories found in this section. His sadistic streak shows itself here, as does his genius. Revenge, murder without apparent reason, death in any form is the theme of all but three of the stories. It is too easy to forget the hard work that produced these masterpieces that have withstood the test of time and have influenced surely every suspense and horror writer in this country.
A fair sampling of the fifty poems he left the world is included, the most well-known being “The Raven” and “The Bells.” The Opinions section deals with snippets that Poe offered to editors as fillers for magazine and make for some interesting reading. The best part of the volume is the fiction, however. Despite all his personal shortcomings, Poe is still the master of the horror genre.