Already primed to love all things spooky by my infatuation with Dark Shadows, it was only natural that a few years later, as I was entering my teens, I became a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe.
I can’t remember exactly where I found my first book of Poe’s tales, but it was a children’s edition called something like “12 Tales of Horror” and contained the best-known stories: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” etc. I eagerly dived in, and was absolutely captivated by the sheer artistry of the language—something that still captivates me every time I read anything by Poe.
I don’t believe that collection had any poetry, but I had a couple of small, well-thumbed children’s anthologies, and I’m pretty sure that “Annabelle Lee” was in one of them. And then I seem to remember having an edition of “The Raven,” one of those tiny little pocket-sized hardbacks with some black-and-white illustrations. “The Raven” was (and still is) absolutely mesmerizing, and opened up a whole new sensibility for me. It has to be one of the most perfect poems in the English language, marrying aural sense to sensibility in a way that was unmatched in my reading experience.
I do remember when, sometime during my early teens, I bought the complete book of Poe’s works that I still own. This was an era when department stores often had sizeable book departments, and I can still remember seeing the book’s substantial spine on the shelf when I went to browse while my mother shopped for clothes. Even now, after decades, its sturdy spine still opens like new. The dust jacket, alas, has not fared so well, but its pen-and-ink illustration of a long-haired woman beneath a leafless tree is still strikingly atmospheric, the tree topped by a bird—doubtless Poe’s Raven—with an Usher-like mansion and more leafless trees in the distance, the object of the woman’s gaze. On the jacket’s back, Poe’s eyes evade the onlooker, staring into the distance, lost in his imagination perhaps, or perhaps merely directing his gaze according to the wishes of the portraitist. The creamy, deckle-edged pages remain like new, unfaded and unblemished despite many readings.
It was Poe who ignited my fascination with foreign languages. Many of his stories begin with an epigraph in French, Italian, or Latin, and I longed to learn those tongues to know what these mysterious words meant. At the same time, not knowing added to the stories’ air of mystery and mystique. I imagine it was this desire to unlock the mysteries of Poe’s epigraphs that was responsible for my choice of French over Spanish—a decision that was to have many consequences for my intellectual and interior life—as well my eagerness to master the new language’s intricacies, to unlock its secrets. In addition, with the advantage of hindsght, I would also venture to say that Poe’s stories were my first steps out of childhood, my first ventures in reading that were not penned with children in mind.
In graduate school, I learned that this sort of art, that which mingles an element of terror or disproportion or unease, is called “the sublime,” as opposed to the classically “beautiful.” Emmanuel Kant wrote a treatise on the subject, and I assume the theory was developed in the late 18th century due to the rise of Gothic tales such as those penned by Anne Radcliffe and others. It certainly applies to the works of Poe.
Every year around Halloween, I get out my old, reliable edition of Poe, and each time, he never disappoints, never fails to move me with the beauty of his language and the psychological penetration of his art. Like the woman in Shakespeare’s sonnet, whom “age cannot wither nor custom stale,” after the passing of decades and many readings, Poe’s work continues to evoke in me a strong emotional response: rapt to the beauty—and terror—of his words.