Domestic Terror: Edgar Allan Poe’s Most American Gothic Tales

My previous post pointed to a problem of categorization: Edgar Allan Poe is an undeniable master of the Gothic tale (and poem), but his work cannot necessarily be framed as American Gothic. Too often, Poe recurs to European–or geographically vague–settings, eschewing a native context. In “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Poe even takes a much-publicized American true crime (the murder of New York City cigar-girl Mary Cecilia Rogers) and transforms into a Parisian puzzle for C. Auguste Dupin to solve. All this is not to say, though, that Poe never scripts a specifically American version of the Gothic. The following handful of tales prove that local haunts are not out of bounds in the author’s oeuvre:

 

“The Gold-Bug” (1843)

A reclusive eccentric and descendant of a family that has fallen into misfortune, William Legrand no doubt recalls Roderick Usher. But whereas “The Fall of the House of Usher” takes place in an unidentifiable setting, “The Gold-Bug” unfolds on Sullivan’s Island and the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina. As the anonymous narrator ponders, the story’s treasure-hunting adventure connects to “innumerable Southern superstitions about buried money.” The darker elements of “The Gold-Bug”–death’s-heads, excavated skeletons–also prove contextually appropriate: they are the bones of pirates fatally betrayed by Captain Kidd after the latter hid his stolen riches on the American coast.

 

“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (1844)

Poe’s ambiguous narrative features a Rip Van Winkle-like excursion into the eponymous “chain of wild and dreary hills that lie westward and southward of Charlottesville” (these Ragged Mountains have inspired local lore about “uncouth and fierce races of men who tenanted their groves and caverns”). The Gothic preoccupation with textuality is reflected by the strange rapport between an American mesmerist and his hapless subject, who experiences his strange vision (while wandering through the Ragged Mountains) of riotous violence in India at the seemingly same time as his doctor records that historical event in a notebook. Poe also draws unnerving parallels between domestic and foreign scenes, as the snake-resembling “poisonous sangsue of Charlottesville” that kills Augustus Bedloe when mistakenly applied as a medicinal leech pairs with the serpentine arrow that fells Bedloe’s double Mr. Oldeb in the Indian vision.

 

“The Premature Burial” (1844)

Poe’s phobic narrator ranges across the globe in supplying examples of the titular terror, but admittedly essays such task while residing in a city “neighboring” Baltimore. His own macabre experience as a sentient “tenant of the grave” also proves distinctly American: he mistakenly believes he has become a victim of premature burial after awakening in the dark confines of a small sloop while on a gunning expedition along the banks of the James River near Richmond, Virginia.

 

“The Oblong Box” (1844)

The subject matter here–a male figure maddened with grief after the sudden death of his beloved–is typical of Poe, yet noteworthy for its American setting. This underrated tale centers on the secret transport of a coffined corpse on a packet-ship traveling from Charleston to New York. Poe earns bonus points, too, as the the story’s climactic hurricane strands the characters nearby a quintessential scene of American mystery: “the beach opposite Roanoke Island.”

 

“The Sphinx” (1846)

In this late piece, Poe makes almost unprecedented (for him) use of the American scene. The “dread reign of cholera” in New York City not only prompts the narrator’s retreat to the Hudson Valley, but also (as continuing reports of the epidemic’s ravages spread north) molds the morbid mindset that leads to his misperception of a monstrosity descending the hillside landscape outside his window.

 

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