Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Please Forgive Me for Passing Edgar Allan Poe's Birthday Without a Mention


Yesterday, January 19th, 2010, was 201st anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's birth. Poe is a figure who looms so large over the genre that I most enjoy, that it is truly impossible to imagine my reading world without his early contributions.

What would Detective and Mystery fiction be without Poe's invention C. Auguste Dupin?

For that matter, what would Weird Fiction be without Dupin and his obsession with "Darkness" and his, and his Bosworth's, obsession with ancient and mysterious tomes?

What would modern Thrillers be without stories like "William Wilson" or "The Black Cat"? Poe's use of unreliable narrator in these tales, as well as in "A Cask of Amontillado," provides a wonderful tool for authors of Thrilling tales -- for authors of any tale.

What would the world of Literature be without The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket? It is possible there would have been no At the Mountains of Madness, Moby Dick, Land that Time Forgot, or "Dust of the Gods."

Poe helped to set the foundation for modern Science Fiction, Weird Fiction, modern Horror, Mystery, Fantastic Fiction...etc. Quite a remarkable achievement for a man who was long overlooked as a creator. Overlooked until those he inspired referenced him so often that his legacy could not be ignored.

To these reviewers Poe would have written (and G.R. Thompson argues that Poe did write in the Library of America edition of Poe's Essays and Reviews) the following:

THE GREAT FAULT of American and British authors is imitation of the peculiarities of though and diction of those who have gone before them. They tread on a beaten track because it is well trodden. They follow as disciples, instead of being teachers. Hence it is that they denounce all novelty as a culpable variation from standard rules, and think all originality to be incomprehensible. To produce something which has not been produced before, in their estimation, is equal to six, at least of the seven deadly sins -- perhaps, the unpardonable sin itself -- and for this crime they think the author should atone here in the purgatory of false criticism, and hereafter by the hell of oblivion. The odor of originality in a new book is a "savor of death unto death" to their productions, unless it can be destroyed. So they cry aloud -- "Strange! incomprehensible! what is it about?" even though its idea may be plainly developed as the sun at noon-day. Especially, we are sorry to say, does this prevail in this country. Hence it is, that we are chained down to a wheel, which ever monotonously revolved round a fixed centre, progressing without progress.


Thankfully, Poe cracked the spokes of the wheel and allowed future generations of writers to feel free to attempt originality and push the boundaries of what constitutes literature. After all, how dull would the world of Literature be if all short stories were -- as Michael Chabon describes much of modern short fiction -- "contempory, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory stor[ies]," devoid of fantastic, horrific, whimsical, or bizarre counterparts? Chabon laments that the "short story" post 1950 has returned to Poe's wheel and cries out for us to forget the critics and look for the new.

It was Poe's lesson first, but it is a lesson that requires constant renewal.

While I got so caught up in RPG/Conan geekiness yesterday that I forgot to honor Poe's birthday, our friends at The Cimmerian were not guilty of the same oversight.
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