In Grave Condition

Following yesterday’s Poe post, here’s a poem that suggests it’s not just premature burial we should dread.

 

In Grave Condition

By Joe Nazare

 

I don’t rake ragged fingernails against the casket’s lid
Or shriek hysterics into the enshrouding blackness

My skin doesn’t crawl when I imagine
Something centipedal
Getting under my shirt collar

No
I just lie here
Endlessly pondering a monstrous mystery

Why consciousness lives on
Yet remains trapped in a cranial crypt

 

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.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Selected Tales and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe

The fifth installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

“Hop-Frog,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven,” “The City in the Sea,” “Ulalume–A Ballad,” “Annabel Lee,” and “Dream-Land” by Edgar Allan Poe

Crow’s headnote hails Edgar Allan Poe as a “master of the Gothic tradition, in poetry and prose,” and so perhaps not surprisingly Poe (with four tales and five poems) is the most widely represented author in the anthology. Nevertheless, Poe makes for a curious case, for while he is an American writer of Gothic works, he is not necessarily a writer of American Gothic works.

Poe typically turns overseas for his tale settings, in either identifiably European (such as the Italy of “The Cask of Amontillado”) or vaguely feudal locales. While “The Fall of the House of Usher”–with its gloomy mansion, decadent family, instances of premature burial and seeming revenant vengeance–is suffused with Gothic elements, there is nothing to mark the Ushers or their eerie estate as distinctly American. In “Hop-Frog,” the fiery uprising by the titular court dwarf might (as Crow suggests) touch upon the dread of slave rebellion in the antebellum South, but only on a subtextual level. Although Poe’s macabre (and ultimately gruesome) tale of mesmerism, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” points to the cultural fascination with such pseudoscience in mid-19th Century America, the story itself proves only passingly American: the title character is noted as a longtime resident of “Harlaem, N.Y.,” and is cited as the perfect specimen for the narrator’s entrancing experiments simply because the transplanted foreigner has “no relatives in America who would be likely to interfere.”

Likewise, Poe’s poems–with their entombed females and grief-stricken male speakers (of suspect reliability)–often feature Gothic scenes and scenarios, but there is little that is recognizably American about such pieces. “Ulalume” transports readers far afield to the “woodlands of Weir,” “Annabel Lee” to some “kingdom by the sea”; “Dream-Land” and “The City in the Sea” deliver us to more phantasmagoric remotes. The most prominent decorative item in the speaker’s chamber in “The Raven” is a bust of the Greek goddess Athena, and the “lost Lenore” finds her nominal precursor in the doomed heroine of Gottfried August Burger’s 1773 German supernatural ballad.

Ironically, these works by the preeminent Gothicist Poe anthologized here actually end up diverting the focus from the American Gothic. Their inclusion doubtless speaks more to the popularity of the author than to their own exemplarity.

Now You Know Poe

The latest episode of PBS’s American Masters series, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive points a corrective lens at an author who is ever-popular yet has been long misrepresented/misunderstood (thanks in no small part to the character assassination performed by literary nemesis Rufus Griswold, and to Poe’s own crafty adoption of an offbeat public persona). Narrated by Kathleen Turner, the 90-minute documentary is stuffed with commentary by Poe biographers and scholars, film directors and novelists. The true highlights, though, are the interspersed scenes in which a Poe-impersonating Denis O’Hare performs monologues or equally-dramatic readings (the actor might not cut quite as striking a figure as John Astin did in his earlier “Once Upon a Midnight” one-man shows, but he does superlative work in bringing classic Poe creations such as “The Premature Burial” and “The Raven” to life). Writer/director Eric Stange’s film excels both in its placement of Poe’s life and work within the historical context of the first half of the 19th Century and in its exploration of the psyche of the unfortunate and often-tormented writer. If there’s one shortcoming here, it’s that Buried Alive conducts the postmortem of Poe posthaste; more time could have been devoted to delving into the mystery of Poe’s death, weighing the various theories as to what actually befell him and taking an interpretive stance. Nevertheless, this is an undeniably enlightening biography of the dark scribe, and the viewer will be left thinking of Poe as just some deranged, depraved drunkard nevermore.

Black Cat Variations: Nine Further Lives of Poe’s Frightful Feline

No one has done more than Poe to popularize the black cat as an animal of ill-omen (and perhaps active supernatural menace). In the years since its first publication in 1843, Poe’s “The Black Cat” has returned in an array of dark forms. Here are nine terrific instances:

1.”The Black Cat” by Gino Severini (1910-11)

Decades before ever being projected onto the big screen, Poe’s story was splashed across canvas by Italian Futurist painter Gino Severini. The image is at once dizzying and disturbing, with its depiction of dismemberment and a glassful of suspiciously crimson liquor. No doubt Poe’s “The Black Cat” (notice the doubling of the titular creature) is aptly adapted here; the Cubist-derived aesthetic of simultaneity also captures the Gothic sense of the past impinging upon the present.

 

2.The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)

Murderous schemes are unfortunately foiled in this classic roman noir (“And the cat came back! It stepped on the fuse box and got killed, but here it is back!” the femme fatale Cora exclaims toward’s novel’s end). The debt to Poe becomes more glaring in the final chapter, which shapes the narrative as the confession of a condemned man (charged with the death of the “hellcat” Cora, whose gruesome demise in a traffic accident might actually have been prompted by the narrator’s subconscious disgust).

 

3.Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

A killer attempts to conceal the body of his female victim in the basement, but is tormented by an intrusive white cat (that embodies his overwhelming dread of the dominant culture). With its imagery of maiming and lynching, Poe’s story has been read as a veiled critique of Southern slavery, but Richard Wright brings racial matters to the unmistakable forefront. In the closing lines of his accompanying essay, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright boldly states: “[W]e have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.”

 

4.”The Cat from Hell” by Stephen King (1977)

Anticipating Pet Sematary‘s Church (intriguingly, King’s short story also features a character surnamed Gage who dies in a horrific car accident), the eponymous demonic creature simultaneously hearkens back to Poe with its terrible resilience (its “half black, half white” face” recalls the streak of white ringing the neck of its counterpart in “The Black Cat”). King ultimately outdoes Poe for grotesquerie, as the latter’s suggestion of necrophagy at tale’s end here develops into something much more graphic and visceral.

 

5.”The White Cat” by Joyce Carol Oates (1987)

An upper-crust husband sinks to awful depths, as his repeated attempts to off his wife’s white Persian cat prove uncannily ineffective. Oates’s story, much longer than Poe’s and narrated in the third person, deftly probes the psyche of the antagonistic husband, whose unacknowledged hostility towards his (much younger and perhaps adulterous) wife is seemingly displaced onto a pet likewise indifferent to his attentions.

 

6.The Matrix (1999)

Poe occasionally authored what can be retroactively classified as science fiction, and has had his works memorably adapted as such (e.g. Ray Bradbury’s Mars-set homage “Usher II“). Still, one wouldn’t expect “The Black Cat” to pop up in the Wachowksi Brothers’ post-cyberpunk mindbender. But that’s exactly what happens when protagonist Neo twice sees the ebon animal cross his path. Such deja vu is explained as a computer glitch, but the echoes of Poe grow even stronger when Neo and friends (trying to evade the Matrix’s relentless Agents) subsequently secret themselves behind the walls of the Gothic building.

 

7.Masters of Horror: The Black Cat (2007)

The various screen adaptions of “The Black Cat” over the years have been merely nominal or hardly phenomenal, but not so this Stuart Gordon-directed episode of the Showtime anthology series. While it doubtless does a disservice to Poe by equating him with one of his own madman narrators, this purported origin story of the composition of “The Black Cat” cleverly blurs author biography and dark fantasy. It is also includes the most cringe-inducing (cat’s) eye-gouging scene ever filmed.

 

8.”Cats in the Catacombs” by Kristin Lawrence (2009)

The renowned Halloween Caroler Lawrence (who has also set Poe’s “The Raven” to music) likely proceeds more from a sense of wordplay, but the prominent image of a mouser inside a human tomb is nonetheless suggestive. The black cat that provides background yowls for the song’s recording adds another Poesque touch.

 

9.”Phoenix” by Chuck Palahniuk (2013)

The high notes from Poe (a despised sable pet, a spectacular house fire, the theme of retribution) echo throughout Palahniuk’s offbeat and wickedly witty rendering (involving a robotic vacuum cleaner, kitty litter, and toxoplasmosis). The key difference between the two compositions, though, is that here the obsessive, intemperate, and devious viewpoint character is the wife, not the husband.