Politics Magazine

Poe Knows

Posted on the 05 December 2013 by Steveawiggins @stawiggins

CambridgeEdgarAllanPoeA recent trip to Baltimore prompted me to read Benjamin F. Fisher’s The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe. Well, that and the fact that I had purchased the book from an overstock table on a visit to a local indie bookstore (support your local!). Poe is a difficult writer to get to know. His personal life seems to have been largely an effort to find financial security while he knew his intellect was greater than those who employed him, and yet he was the one left without means. His literary talent, now considered one of the brightest constellations in the American writers’ heavens, was denigrated and demeaned and not fully appreciated until after he died of unknown causes in a city where he no longer lived. There is a profound sadness about Poe, and he seems a tragic figure. I do wonder, however, whether success would have ruined him. The more society woos you, the more you’re willing to lower your standards, I shouldn’t wonder. Not that I would know.

Fisher’s guide is a basic introduction that only toys here and there with Poe’s religious outlook. I’ve not run across much about Poe and religion, but there is a deep spiritual awareness, along with ratiocination, in his tales and poems. I suspect it might go back to the fact that religion and fear are so tightly intertwined. If a religious element is missing, it sometimes leaves a reader hungry. I’d also been reading Ramsey Campbell’s Ghosts Know concurrently with Fisher. This is a novel where a skeptical radio talk-show host takes on a stage psychic to see who really knows who might’ve killed a young girl. As the story unfolds it becomes less and less likely that the psychic is tapping into anything other than individuals’ wish projections.

While I found both of these books interesting, I pondered the fact that Poe referred to the scariest elements in his works as “terror of the soul.” The supernatural in Poe, as Fisher points out, is often really just a projection of an interior state of one of the characters—the eponymous tell-tale heart is guilt breaking through, not an undead heart beating. In an era where belief in the soul is waning, scary books seem less frightening. We’ve been robbed of both the supernatural and the soul, so what is left to fear? If death is only a more profound kind of sleep and morals are only a matter of social convention, then we are truly alone in this vast universe. Of what should we be afraid? Still, when the night stretches on for many long hours this December, I find myself inclined toward Poe and I wonder if ghosts truly do know.

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