On January 19, 1807 gothic author and horror genius Edgar Allan Poe was born. To celebrate the legacy of this mastermind, here are (in no particular order) 13 of Poe’s greatest works.
“William Wilson” – This short story, published in 1839, features a character who shares Poe’s birthday. The title character, the story’s narrator, is a man “of noble descent” who, while attending school in a sleepy English village, encounters his double. The doppelganger haunts him throughout his life, usually alerting authorities to his schemes. When he attempts to seduce a married woman at Carnival in Rome, he other William stops him. The enraged protagonist drags his “unresisting” double — who wears identical clothes — into an antechamber, and stabs him fatally. Then, a mirror appears and William sees his reflection and realizes it is the reflection of his double’s dead body. The narrator feels as if he is speaking the words: “In me didst thou exist — and in my death, see […] how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.” This story is about how acting immorally “murders” the wrongdoer (the double is essentially William’s conscience), but also about Poe’s own feelings of going insane, a common theme in his works.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” – Best known as one of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, starring Vincent Price, this short story is another story about the conscience. The narrator visits the house of his friend, Roderick Usher, and meets Roderick’s lovely twin sister, Madeline. Roderick is strange and sickly, as is Madeline. Roderick later informs the narrator that his sister has died and asks him to help entomb her. Later, while being told a story, Roderick becomes increasingly hysterical, and eventually exclaims that the sounds described in the tale are being made by his sister, who was in fact alive when she was entombed. The bedroom door is then blown open to reveal Madeline. She falls on her brother, and both land on the floor as corpses. As the narrator flees, he sees the Usher home ripped to pieces.
“Annabel Lee” (poem) – One of Poe’s most romantic poems, this piece focuses on one of Poe’s favorite subjects, a beautiful woman who has died. The standout of this poem is the ultra-romantic lines: “And neither the angels in Heaven above / Nor the demons down under the sea / Can ever dissever my soul from the soul / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.”
“The Bells” (poem) – This onomatopoeic poem was published in 1849 after Poe’s death. Its repetitive use of the word “bells” and its changes in meter evoke the different sounds a bell can make, from “the jingling and the tinkling” of part 1 to the “moaning and the groaning” of part 4. This poem is a standout among Poe’s works because of it showcases his ability to evoke emotion and sound.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) – Poe’s only novel, this tale focuses on the young Pym, who stows away aboard a whaling ship called the Grampus. Various adventures and misadventures befall Pym, including shipwreck, mutiny, and cannibalism.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” –Likely one of Poe’s most well-known works, this story is about murder and guilt. An unnamed narrator who lives with an old man, who has a particularly gross disfigurement, eventually kills the man. He dismembers the man and hides the body under his floorboards. When the police come by to investigate a complaint (neighbor’s heard the old man’s death cry), the narrator is so bold that he actually put the police in chairs directly above the body. But then he begins to hear the beat of the old man’s heart, getting louder and louder. Eventually, the nagging beat drives him wild and he confesses his guilt. Fun fact: The 2004 release of Hellboy on DVD contained a special 10-minute adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” in the special features.
“The Black Cat” – Published in 1843, this short story, often paired with “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is another story of conscience. In it, a man unreliable narrator tells of how he had a pet black cat named Pluto. One day, for no reason, he gouges out one of the cat’s eyes. While his conscience tells him this was wrong, he instead gets even madder at the cat. The next day, the narrator returns to the ruins of his home to find, imprinted on the single wall that survived the fire, the apparition of a gigantic cat, with a rope around the animal’s neck. The man finds a new black cat to keep as a pet, but the white spot on its chest seems to change shape and turn into a gallows. Angered at the cat and pained by his guilt, the narrator attempts to kill the cat with an ax, instead murdering his wife. He buries her inside their cellar walls and the cat goes missing. When the police come to investigate his wife’s disappearance, the overconfident killer knocks on his cellar walls and suddenly an inhuman wail is heard: he had buried the still-alive cat as well.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” – Poe is usually cited as the man who invented the detective story, and this short story is the proof.
“Masque of the Red Death” – In this short story, rich people, attempting to distract themselves from the Plague, hold a huge ball. Apparently, Death got an invitation as well. Poe’s morals were never ambiguous, and he shows that everyone at the party gets what they deserve. No one, including the rich, can escape their own mortality.
“A Descent into the Maelström” – One of Poe’s only pieces of science fiction, this story is about a man who recounts his survival of a shipwreck in a whirlpool. The story is bleak, but beautiful.
“The Cask of Amontillado” – Another Poe story featuring murder and being buried alive.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” – This story is especially effective at inspiring fear in the reader because of its heavy focus on the senses, such as sound, emphasizing its reality, unlike many of Poe’s stories which are aided by the supernatural. Described as a torture session during the Spanish Inquisition, a prisoner is tortured by an increasingly gruesome device – hanging above him is a gigantic pendulum with a crescent razor measuring “one feet from horn to horn,” and swinging slowly back and forth. The pendulum is inexorably sliding downwards and will eventually kill him. As we read the story, we feel as if we are also being tortured because it Poe’s descriptions are so realistic.
“The Raven” – Analysis of this poem could go on forever. It is haunting, beautiful, and without a doubt the best piece of Gothic poetry. Here, for your enjoyment, is the “Simpson’s” version. Also, I recommend looking up Christopher Walken’s performance (it really is wonderful).