Poe’s Demons

In Nightmares with the Bible I use an idea penned by Edgar Allan Poe as one of the threads holding the book together.  One early reader complained that Poe didn’t write about demons, so the use of the great man was inappropriate.  That reader misunderstood me.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  As I think about the influence a writer can have on a young mind, I come back to this reader’s comments.  I can’t think of my book without Poe.  No, Poe did not write about demons, but he set the stage for what I’m trying to do in my book.  I’ve read analysts who claim Poe wasn’t a horror writer.  Certainly in the modern sense that’s probably true.  Still, he, like many others, was brave enough to suggest the tenebrous side of life was worth exploring, even if you only had a candle.  

Poe’s monsters were often interior.  They were psychologically probing, and although Sigmund Freud had not yet been born, it’s not inappropriate to say that Poe explored psychology.  Writers, I suspect, often deal with things they can’t name.  This is the way knowledge moves forward, even with fiction.  Especially with fiction.  As I’m reading books by academics who’ve done well for themselves, I often reflect how their legacy will remain within their field only.  It’s the rare nonfiction writer who manages to reach a cultural status that will find readers from other disciplines.  Most of us, however, will admit to reading a novel or two now and again.  Fiction writers, such as Poe, can claim things without backing them up with footnotes and citations.  That doesn’t mean they were any less astute at observing the world than academic writers are.  Often they’re more so.

I didn’t put Poe into Nightmares to show off.  His work has long been in the public domain.  I don’t cite him to claim that he would have agreed with my use of his insights.  No, I cite him because even if he wasn’t a horror writer my early encounter with him started me on a path of exploration.  Poe had trouble getting along in a literary world where rejection was endemic (it still is, I know from personal experience) and making a living as a literary person was unheard of.  He nevertheless knew that fiction was more honest than the alternatives, at least for some of us.  If we wish to face the world with integrity, we should admit that our heroes may have been made so in our own minds.  That doesn’t make them any less authentic, just because we’ve appropriated them for our own purposes.  We borrow what we find meaningful.

Dayglow

Yellow and orange leaves on a damp pavement.  A sky claustrophobically occluded with gray clouds.  A decided chill in the air.  All you have to do is add a few pumpkins and the feeling of October is complete.  I don’t know why this particular image of the change of seasons grips me the way it does.  As a homeowner I don’t want to turn the heat on too soon because the gas bills will jet up and will stay that way for seven or eight months.  I get depressed when skys are cloudy for days at a time.  Around here the leaves have only just begun to change.  In other words, there’s a decided difference between the way I imagine October and the way that it feels on the ground.  In my imagination there are Ray Bradbury titles, The October Country, The Autumn People, but here in the physical world I shiver and add another layer.

Over the past several weeks I’ve been struggling to figure out why horror appeals to me.  It seems to be the Poe-esque mood rather than any startles or gore.  The sense of mystery that hangs in the air when you simply don’t know what to expect.  Will it be a warm, summer-like day or will it be rainy and raw, a day when you wouldn’t venture outside without the necessity to do so?  October is like that.  It is changeable.  Beginning in late September it is dark longer than it is light and for much of the rest of the year I will go to bed when it’s dark outside.  It’s always still dark when I awake.  Is it any wonder that October has its hooks in me?

Short stories, of which I’ve had about twenty published, seem to be the best way to capture this mood.  You see, it isn’t a sustained feeling.  It’s piecemeal like that extra quilt you throw on your bed at night.  The urge to hibernate creeps in, but capitalism doesn’t allow for that.  October is an artist, and I’m just the guy wandering the galley, pausing before each painting.  This feeling only comes after summer, and it is fleeting.  In November the leaves will be down and the cold will settle in quite earnestly.  The candles we lit for Halloween will be our guide-lights to those we hold out to Christmas when the dayglow will begin to return at an hour that reminds us change is the only thing that’s permanent.  And in this there’s a profound hope.

Not so Hollow

It is difficult to say how an idea might grab you.  I really have no idea why Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” took my childhood imagination prisoner and has kept it stoutly locked up over all these years.  Perhaps it was the Disney version seen as a child that left me with shivers of wonder akin to a species of joy.  The autumnal setting, the implied ghost, the ambiguity of the final scene.  I used to be as avid a philatelist as one can be in a small town, and the Sleepy Hollow stamp of 1974 held me transfixed long before I ever encountered Tim Burton’s vision of the legend.  After having watched the silent Headless Horseman a couple of times, I went back to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and read the original again.  This time I followed it up with the appendix in my edition, written a decade or two after the story by an older Irving.

The 1922 movie runs fairly close to the literary original (for the most part), especially when you add the appendix.  The appendix (in the edition I have—The Modern Library, 2001) is an essay titled “Sleepy Hollow.”  It reflects on Irving’s recollections of what Sleepy Hollow was like in his youth (he returned to the area to settle later in life).  The village church, which features in “The Legend,” provides a source of much of his reverie and this is incorporated into the early cinematic version as well, in the Sunday morning scene.  I also noticed how frequently psalmody enters the original story.  The tale does not mention the Bible, but psalmody was an early form of church music, and “The Legend” has Ichabod use it when he’s afraid as well as for teaching students to sing, for a few shiny shillings.

Washington Irving is sometimes credited with the invention of the short story as a literary form.    His younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe worked in that format, and the two of them contended with making a living (the former more successfully) purely as literary writers.  Irving’s spooky tales, however, often have something of the comic about them.  His story-telling style uses folksy, folkloric exaggeration and humor to prevent it from becoming too dark.  Poe would snuff the candle and let the fear be unhindered.  I knew of Sleepy Hollow before I discovered Poe, and this recent resurgence is perhaps a way of exploring my own literary roots.  It’s nearly half-way through September already, and Tarrytown beckons. 

Detective Daniel

In a recent article, which will hopefully be published, I explore the origins of the horror tradition in the Bible.  That should come as no surprise since the Good Book is really the beginning of the western literary canon.  Yes, there are earlier works—the Epic of Gilgamesh may be considered part of that canon as well, for the canon has no official curator—but because of Scripture’s status literature in the western world takes off from there.  In any case, the other day I was considering the additions to the book of Daniel in the Apocrypha.  The Apocrypha is, of course, part of the Catholic biblical canon, but not the Protestant.  The additions to Daniel roughly fall into three stories, or two stories and a poem.  The two stories—Bel and the Dragon, and Susanna—involve Daniel as an early kind of detective.

Traditionally the inventor of the detective story is Edgar Allan Poe, and certainly in the modern literary canon that may be so.  One wonders, however, if Poe might have drawn his inspiration from these apocryphal stories.  Susanna goes like this: two nasty elders fall in lust with Susanna, the beautiful wife of a local prominent judge.  They stalk her, learning her habits, and when they know she’ll be alone they confront her demanding sex.  If she won’t, they’ll claim they caught her with another man and since the law requires two witnesses, well, she was screwed.  Since she won’t comply they accuse her and she is condemned until a young Daniel in turn condemns the court for not questioning the men separately.  When Daniel does so the details of their story don’t match and Susanna is vindicated.  Part courtroom drama and part ratiocination, this is an early detective tale.

Bel and the Dragon involves a couple stories together, but the story of Bel is the one involving detective work.  The priests of the god Bel take food into their temple every night to offer as a sacrifice.  Since it’s gone in the morning, they offer this as proof that Bel is real.  Daniel, however, knows Bel is just a statue and so he sprinkles a fine layer of ash on the floor around the food one night.  The next day as Bel’s followers announce the food is gone and the temple was sealed for the duration, Daniel takes them back and shows the footprints in the ash—the priests have been entering from a secret access and eating the offering.  There may not be a direct line from these stories to Poe, but they nevertheless reinforce the idea that the western canon begins with Holy Writ.  If we explore this with our own ratiocination we’ll discover, I believe, much more.

The Zone

My youth—who am I kidding?—my life has been a search for father figures.  Since I grew up with television, many of them came from the tube.  The professor from Gilligan’s Island, Mr. Rogers, Barnabas Collins, and Rod Serling.  Serling was like the father I couldn’t remember in that he was always smoking.  But unlike my father, Serling had an imagination in sync with mine.  The Twilight Zone was in reruns by the time I caught up, but it gave me an odd kind of happiness.  The sort that you had as a kid after the bath was over and you were wrapped up snuggly and warm in a bathrobe, and you got to watch one of your favorite shows before going to bed.  I discovered Serling as a writer when I was in Junior High School.  He was right up there next to Ray Bradbury, in my book.

I have to admit to feeling anxious as I read Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.  You see, she actually was his child and I’m afraid of learning too much about those I put on my personal pedestals.  Her book, however, didn’t disappoint.  Serling lived a writer’s life, something I’ve coveted since I was a kid.  If I couldn’t have a father, at least I could write about life as I saw it.  I still write fiction inspired by, among others, Rod Serling.  Spending much of my time in Binghamton and Ithaca for my own family reasons, I was only obliquely aware of how much I was traversing the region Serling considered home.  As I read his daughter’s autobiography—or is it a biography?  Who can tell the difference?—I was inexorably drawn in.  Fathers and daughters can be the best of friends.

Sometimes I wonder if those who know writers the best are their true fans.  I don’t mean groupies or the like, but rather those whose lives have been transformed by their words.  I’m reminded of Evermore, written by a relative of Edgar Allan Poe.  Family, it is true, see a side of a person that the reader does not.  But who are we, really?  Those of us who write may be saying more in our fiction than we care to admit even to those who know us well.  Rod Serling recognized dimensions well, I suspect.  A writer’s life requires sacrifice and keeping things hidden.  Anne Serling’s book is a gift to those who write, even if it is about someone else’s father.

Double the Magic

Since The Prestige came out over a decade ago I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers below.  This post also comes with another caveat: if you watch this film you’ll be left scratching your head and finding yourself strongly tempted to punch the replay button immediately.  Like most Christopher Nolan films, the movie is complex and intelligent.  It also plays on an age-old horror theme of the doppelgänger.  There be spoilers here!  

Following the rivalry of two stage magicians seeking the ultimate illusion, there’s a great deal of sleight of hand in the way this movie manipulates its viewers.  You are in the audience of a magic show and you’ve volunteered to go up on stage.  I watched this film on the recommendation of a friend without even checking the genre.  That can be a disorienting experience in itself.  One of the first questions we bring to movies as well as to texts is “what kind is it?”  I had the assurance that it was “the good kind” and that was about all.  That assessment was right.  While the credits rolled—it was already late at night, for me—I was strongly tempted to start it all over.  Sometimes people ask me why I watch horror films (and no, this is not horror) and I think the answer is related to what I find here.  Like most people I want the advice of others on what to do should things go wrong.  And in The Prestige they do go wrong.  Spoilers follow.

The crux of the film involves actual doppelgängers that result from Nikola Tesla’s experiments.  Tesla was a mysterious person in real life, and without knowing the genre you can watch this film and find it believable.  There’s a kind of faith involved in movie-going, after all.  One of the early exploiters of the doppelgänger was Edgar Allan Poe.  In “William Wilson” he narrates a tale of a double that might indeed be the real William Wilson.  The Prestige plays the same card.  Most of us live knowing that daily our senses can be fooled.  We actually enjoy it once in a while.  Stage magicians stake their livelihoods on it.  Nolan is a master of bringing complex twists to the silver screen.  In Holy Horror I briefly discuss his Memento.  I have a suspicion that I might’ve had more to say about it had I watched this film earlier, with a copy of Poe in hand.

Poe et Tree

When winter gets a little dreary with its constant chill and perpetually gray skies, I often think of Edgar Allan Poe.  There’s been so much going on lately, however, that I overlooked that today is his birthday until my friend over at Verbomania reminded me of the fact.  I’ve posted on Poe many times, but this morning I had an email concerning my work on Nightmares with the Bible stating that my use of Poe in that book was a nice touch.  Sometimes I need to be hit over the head with things, though, to make them sink in.  It seems impossible that it was 210 years ago that Poe was born.  Our Januaries have become remarkably crueler since those times, what with inaugurations and all.

I have often mused that we’ve lived beyond the era where one person can have the widespread impact (for good, that is) that influences an era.  In the area of my doctorate, for example, like him or not William Foxwell Albright rearranged the field of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies.  Nobody has been able to do it since because, well, Albright already did it.  Poe gave us many things—the struggling writer determined to make a living by his pen, the scary short story, detective fiction, the Raven.  Those of us who dabble in fiction do so in his shadow.  (I know Poe wasn’t the only writer of his era, but it’s his birthday, so let’s celebrate him!)  Other writers like H. P. Lovecraft, now a hot commodity, would draw their inspiration from Poe.  And from Poe and Lovecraft came the early work of Stephen King.

A winter storm advisory is in effect.  Outside it looks bleak and the clouds appear as if they wish to weep.  A nation founded by immigrants (my apologies, first nations) has come to believe that it was here first in a world full of need and suffering.  Building a silly, expensive, and utterly pointless wall is a telltale sign that the heart has ceased to beat.  Two centuries and a decade ago a writer was born.  He had penetrating insight into what makes people behave wickedly toward their fellows.  Just when things seemed to be making progress we find ourselves prematurely buried under masonry and rubble.  How could I have forgotten Poe’s birthday?  Too much has been crowding my January, I’m afraid.  I don’t take the time I should to gaze out at the winter and wonder.