Mark Dawidziak's fresh new biography of Edgar Allan Poe, A Mystery of Mysteries, is cleverly framed as an investigation into the writer’s puzzling demise: Poe died in Baltimore in 1849 at age 40 under murky circumstances that have sparked enduring fascination among fans and scholars. Dawidziak surveys the most commonly proposed causes of death, including “binge drinking, rabies, murder, a brain tumor, encephalitis brought on by exposure, syphilis, suicide, [and] heart disease. Though he resists offering a definitive culprit (even as he identifies tuberculosis as the prime suspect), Dawidziak's sharp analysis of Poe’s life and how his more macabre pieces came to overshadow the rest of his work will give readers a fuller understanding of Poe’s artistry and character.
If Edgar Allan Poe could be guided back to this earthly realm and shown the grand extent of his fame, he probably would be both absolutely delighted and more than a little appalled. Certainly, the writer so thoroughly convinced of his own genius would be positively giddy to see that, yes, he is remembered, and continues to be universally read and celebrated. But Poe also would be a bit perturbed to know that this enduring reputation primarily rests on such a small group of wonderfully crafted short stories, so much so that we overwhelmingly identify him as our grand master of the macabre and the mysterious.
Poe prided himself on being a versatile writer, and only a small fraction of his impressive literary output could be classified as horror or mystery. Yet even his best-known poems, starting with “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” tend to fall on the shadowy and spooky side of the street. It speaks to why this aspect of Poe’s writing, more than anything else, has kept him alive: he was simply flat-out better at it than anyone else. Poe created both the modern horror story and the model for such super sleuths as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Writing short stories for the magazines of his day, Poe took the horror and mystery forms and, in Ray Bradbury’s estimation, “made literature of them.”
Selecting the 10 best Poe short stories, therefore, would inevitably leave out something of greatness. Rather, then, let’s classify these 10 terrific tales as the essentials.
1. “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Is it a crime story? A horror tale? It’s both, of course, and it’s also a chilling masterpiece that finds Poe brilliantly prowling the murky boundary between obsession and madness. As the author’s “dreadfully nervous” narrator tells us how an old man’s filmy “pale blue eye” drives him to murder, Poe gives us a master class in establishing mood, building suspense, and maintaining pace, all while expertly employing wonderfully specific gradations of light and sound. Not just a remarkably constructed model for the short story form, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a near-perfect monologue, with Poe, the son of actors, displaying his ever-keen sense of the dramatic. He tells us just what we need to know, leaving enough unexplained that we continue to speculate about the characters long after the histrionic “tear up the planks” climax. Small wonder this chilling 1843 tale has remained a classroom favorite and a popular performance piece.
2. “The Masque of the Red Death”
Poe, who made spectacular use of obsessed and sometimes unreliable narrators, shifted to third-person narrative for this magnificently baroque 1842 story of the “happy and dauntless and sagacious” Prince Prospero, who, at the height of a plague known as the Red Death, seals himself off from the world (and supposedly the pestilence) with 1,000 “hale and light-hearted friends.” Poe is at the height of his fantastic descriptive powers as the dreamlike quality of Prince Prospero’s masked ball turns into a grotesque and ghastly nightmare. Symbolism awaits in each of the masquerade’s seven glaringly illuminated chambers packed with “much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” It’s a tale that never loses its resonance because, even when infectious disease isn’t raging, there is never a shortage of human vanity, pride, and folly.
3. “The Cask of Amontillado”
It has been said that the best of Poe’s macabre stories and poems should be read out loud. And, indeed, this 1846 story is another stirring example of his ability to construct a gripping soliloquy that artfully draws the reader/listener through the calculated steps leading to murder. A tale of revenge, “The Cask of Amontillado” is narrated by Montressor, who tells us that he bore the thousand injuries of the noble Fortunato as best he could. But when the vain and pompous Fortunato crosses the line and insults Montressor, his fate is sealed. Written when Poe’s feud with former friend Thomas Dunn English had escalated to open warfare, this journey into the catacomb vaults of the Montressors is not just terribly grim, but also grimly humorous. Poe lets us in on the dark and ironic joke as the insulted Montressor toys with the oblivious and inebriated Fortunato, slyly playing on his frailties during their descent into the darkness.
4. “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Widely admired by Washington Irving and others when first published in 1839, this fascinating tale has inspired endless discussion and debate about its haunting imagery. Poe probably drew on aspects of his personality for both the doomed Roderick Usher and the unnamed narrator, but neither should be taken as a self-portrait. As both Roderick’s disturbed mind and his decaying ancestral mansion collapse, Poe weaves several of his favorite themes into the richly textured fabric of this tale: premature burial, a beautiful and mysterious young woman stalked by death, a descent into madness, and a cataclysmic storm. “It was a mystery all insoluble,” we are told of this story about Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline. Perhaps, but the “Usher” mysteries continue to invite all manner of allegorical interpretation. Are the Ushers and their house victims of the supernatural? Poe provides no answers, leaving the terror in the eye of the beholder.
5. “The Purloined Letter”
Poe’s 1843 buried-treasure mystery tale, “The Gold-Bug,” was one of his most popular compositions, and his 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” had the distinction of introducing his master detective C. Auguste Dupin. But his most perfectly wrought mystery story by far was his third and final Dupin puzzler, “The Purloined Letter,” first published in 1844. Poe certainly realized what he had accomplished with this ingenious story, rightly considering it his finest tale of ratiocination. The third time was the definite charm for Dupin, for here we find a challenge and a solution worthy of his reputation as a dazzlingly shrewd amateur detective. “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” famously asked Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. On another occasion, Doyle said, “Dupin is unrivaled. It was Poe who taught the possibility of making a detective story a work of literature.” And “The Purloined Letter” is the full realization of that claim.
6. “The Pit and the Pendulum”
The unnamed narrator of this 1842 story is a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition in Toledo. He is sentenced by his accusers to “the most hideous of fates.” He will be subjected to a series of insidiously designed tortures until he breathes his last. First he is placed in a completely dark room, and, upon tripping, discovers he is at the rim of a pit. Having escaped a fatal plunge, he is bound to a wooden frame. Overhead, a large pendulum scythe begins to swing, slowly descending toward him. One of Poe’s most suspenseful terror tales, “The Pit and the Pendulum” traps you in that dungeon cell, making you face each vividly described fear and experience the mounting nightmare horror of it all. And yet, as the narrator reminds us, “In death—no! Even in the grave all is not lost!”
This 1838 story was singled out by Poe as one of his favorites, and you can easily see why. Like the earlier (and more lurid) “Berenice” and “Morella,” “Ligeia” tells of a doomed attempt at marriage and the death of a beautiful woman. But “Ligeia” is not merely a far more intriguing and adroitly crafted story. In many ways, the story signals Poe’s arrival as a mature storyteller, beginning an eight-year golden period that saw most of his greatest horror and mystery tales. The slender, raven-haired, dark-eyed Lady Ligeia creepily demonstrates her belief that human will can be stronger than death. She does this by rejuvenating herself in the body of the unnamed narrator’s second wife, the fair-haired, blue-eyed Lady Rowena. George Bernard Shaw was so impressed by the story that he deemed it “not merely one of the wonders of literature: it is unparalleled and unapproached.”
8. “William Wilson”
Poe gave the title character his birthday, January 19, and drew on his boyhood experiences at Scottish and English schools for this 1839 doppelgänger story that some too easily and obviously claim as autobiographical. Poe is, however, probing the nature of duality with his narrator, William Wilson, “prey to the most ungovernable passions,” and his double, also named William Wilson, who increasingly takes on the role of his conscience. If Poe understood this ongoing battle within himself, he also recognized the universality of his theme. Echoes of this inner conflict between the perverse and nobler inclinations are noticeable in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, just one of many writers to acknowledge Poe’s influence.
9. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
Exploiting the era’s widespread fascination with mesmerism, Poe put readers under his spell with this 1845 terror tale of a hypnotist’s attempt to use the trance state to prolong the “life” of his dying friend, M. Ernest Valdemar. Forestalling death and delaying decomposition is not likely to end well, and, after creating some deeply unsettling horror effects, Poe gives us his grisliest gross-out payoff. Yet the tone of the narration is so realistic, many believed this fantastic flight of fiction to be a true account. Stephen King has said that horror stories can hit you on three levels: haunting the brain, racing the heart, and turning the stomach. This works its gruesome magic on all three levels.
Like “The Cask of Amontillado,” this is a revenge tale, but it’s markedly different in tone and effect. It’s also the only one of these 10 essential Poe stories that didn’t appear during his 1838–1846 creative stretch. Published in 1849, less than seven months before his death, “Hop-Frog” features a title character who has our total sympathy, despite his horrific plan for retribution. A court jester callously abused by the king and his courtiers, Hop-Frog is a dwarf forced to play the fool while enduring endless humiliation. The cruel monarch laughs with his jester but also at Hop-Frog’s diminutive size and the deformity that gives him a walk that’s part leap, part wiggle. When the king lashes out at the beautiful and kindly Trippetta, an exquisitely proportioned little woman, Hop-Frog plans a hellish form of payback.