Edgar Allan Poe, born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809, died October 7, 1849.
What is it that makes an author famous? I don't mean famous in the sense a news article reports that "Jack Greylea's novels sold 15 million copies last year," but in the sense that he is thought of as being profound, and seminal. That he is quoted, and scholars analyse his works, and he is looked upon as being the original voice of his style, or the font from which many imitators have drawn inspiration.
Edgar Allan Poe is one such. The very hint of his name calls up images of midnight graveyards, of crumbling mansions lit by wax candles, the home of strange and tormented aristocrats, till the description "Poe-like" can draw as vivid a picture in our minds as "elephant-like."
Yet his output was not great. Basically a short story writer and poet, he produced only one full-length novel, which received more censure than praise, and which very few people today can name. Without wishing to run him down as an author (what he did, he did well, but what he did well, was to be Poe) he was a limited writer, and all of his works over twenty-two years can be contained in one thickish book.
So what is the secret of Poe, whereby a scanty writer becomes the cult-centre of a world of horror that carries his own stamp? It lies I think in two things.
Not to place these two in any order of importance as regards his continuing fame - I leave this to you - but I would say....
Firstly, that it was his choice of subject and execution of it. The mournful, weird and macabre, in which man becomes little more than an instrument of darkness, and that usually the worst darkness, that which wells up from within, whose black light shows us as being not the pawns of evil, but the source of evil itself. But to seize on this idea - or any other idea - as inspiration is nothing, merely the starting point from which the quill hits the paper. It is in the execution of his vision that Poe's genius emerges. Not with a great deal of subtlety, nor a much complexity, but with great and disciplined fixity on the horror of his intentions, Poe moves relentless to the nasty culmination of his stories, and they come to us with all the rawness of unconsoled misery. His art was that of the short story writer, and as such he wrote little, but when reading Poe a little is more than enough.
Secondly, that Poe more than any other author is identified as a man with his works. An orphan and an outcast from his adopted family, overly sensitive and reckless, he lived wildly, lied readily, lived in poverty, married strangely to his thirteen-year old cousin, was widowed miserably, and finally died mysteriously at age forty, from uncertain causes that speculation has named as anything from drug addiction to murder. As if this were not enough, his works were controlled after his death by his executor, who attempted to blacken his name. More than any other author that I can readily think of, Poe was his own tormented, tragic hero, and his oppressed characters were him.
In the nineteen-sixties, several of Poe's stories and poems - The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, The Raven, The Tomb of Legeia and others - were made into popular, low budget films, cementing Poe's reputation firmly into the mythology of modern horror movies. It's common of course for movies to be nothing like the original written work, but all of these are based on not on fully worked out novels, but ideas that Poe dealt with in comparatively few pages.
Incidentally, the principal actor in many of these was Vincent Price, whose tall, mournful frame instantly springs to mind as well nigh inseparable from Poe's weird gems.
Graham Worthington, author, Wake of the Raven