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Edgar Allan Poe was fascinated with death. All his major works were about death. He was not only fascinated, but obsessed with it. It is, therefore, interesting that a writer who, wrote about death in the early part of the 19th century, commands the same respect as the contemporary authors of detective novels. Edgar Allan Poe is still relevant today as he was in the 19th century, having been at the top of his game (Johnson, 2001). The reason for his relevance is based on two things. First of all he wrote about a subject matter that could easily fascinate and terrify his readers (Panek, 2006). Secondly, he produced written works that paved the way for modern day detective stories. Edgar Allan Poe is still relevant in the 21st century, because his readers identify with him fear and fascination of the macabre, and the people that were able kill in cold blood.
Before going any further, it is important to clarify that Poe was fascinated with a singular theme and that is none other than death (Bloom, 2006). The claim that he was obsessed with death is not an exaggerated statement judging from the theme and imagery contained in his popular works such as The Cask of Amontillado; The Black Cat; The Tell-Tale Heart; and The Masque of the Red Death. It can also be said that he was not only fascinated with death, but also terrified by it. Poe was a master not only of the macabre, but also of the way he interspersed his story with suspense and, as a result, the readers were on the edge of their seats.
The nail biting suspense was tempered with brutal efficiency as the author preferred to write in short stories. He talked about death right in the beginning, and it does not relent until the last page. In the story entitled The Pit and the Pendulum, Poe immediately described the ghastly details of the Inquisition. In another remarkable work entitled The Premature Burial, Poe wasted little time and went immediately into the horrible details of what it is like to be buried alive.
Furthermore, the author placed the subject matter of death front and center, and he was not content to simply talk about death in the most acceptable terms like murder, accidents or the demise due to an incurable sickness, instead he seemed to enjoy shocking his readers with a macabre theme of blood flowing, decapitated head, masked figures, psycho killers and a level of terror greater than any horror story ever written. There are so many people that are thrilled and excited to read stories about cold blooded murders, especially those that are brilliant enough to conceal their crimes.
Poe’s ability to weave and intricate tale that delivers a surprising ending was still a powerful technique that never failed to win him new fans as the years went by. But there is another reason why Poe is still relevant in the 21st century, and it is due to his insight on human nature that enabled him to write about characters that seemed to jump out of the pages of the story. This talent was not just a byproduct of countless hours of practice, but it was also the result of a personal life filled with emotional pain, anger and death.
He is Well-Acquainted with Death
Edgar Allan Poe did not have need to imagine what it felt like to lose someone unexpectedly. Before the author became a popular writer of fiction about a tragic death and the horror it brings to the lives of people, Poe was already acquainted with death as a result of a terminal disease, heart-wrenching despair, destructive relationships, financial turmoil and a heart pierced with the trials and tribulations that came his way. He was introduced to the pain of death, as he was barely two-and-a-half-years old. His mother died, and all of a sudden Edgar Allan Poe has no one that could demonstrate to him the tenderness of unconditional love. Even though, there was nothing strange or unique to be orphaned at a young age, the tragedy that befell him was made more acute by the fact that her mother died in a ramshackle house. According to one commentary, “the house was poorly heated and the place where he and his brother and sister slept, it had nothing but a floor covered with straw” (Sova, 2007, p.3). There was no one with them.
As Poe’s mother died, the three children were instantly orphaned because their father was not with them and when relatives found them they were found huddling close to the dead body of their mother (Sova, 2007, p.3). It is like a scene from one of his stories. It can be argued that even when he was not yet three years old at that time, the incident traumatized Edgar Allan Poe, and this explains why he loves to write about ghastly stories of people trapped, screaming, and begging relief from the suffering that they are going through.
The death of her mother was just the beginning because it ushered Poe and his brother and sister into the cruel world of foster care. The three children were separated and adopted by three different families. Imagine its impact into the frail psychological condition of a child who saw her mother die and then in just a short while he could no longer draw support and love from his brother and sister. He was intimate with the pain of separation. It can also be argued that Poe did not succumb to mental health problems because of his adoptive parents. The author was adopted by John Allan and Frances Allan. The couple belonged to an affluent and influential family in Richmond Virginia.
The love he received from Frances Allan was a healing balm to his soul. His adoption to the Allan family gave him the means to travel and at the same time, access to some of the best education in the land. But there was only one problem, his stepfather was not particularly thrilled that he is around, and Poe’s biographers describe the relationship between them as cold and distant (Sova, 2007, p.4). Poe loved his step-mother so much, so he was deeply hurt and very much angry when he discovered that John Allan was unfaithful to Frances Allan (Sova, 2007, p.4). His contentious relationship with his step-father was the reason why Poe would never inherit the wealth of the Allan family, and, as a result, he would die poor. It used to be a tragic story considering that Poe was adopted into a rich family and had the opportunity to study in reputable schools.
His relationship with his step-father was strained even more when he rebelled against him by joining the army. Although he went to West Point, Poe was unable to complete his studies in this prestigious military school, and he became more onerous to his step-father as he decided to become a full-time writer. His time in the army gave him rest from dealing with the pain of loss, but soon after death came to revisit Poe. He learned that his brother died young from tuberculosis, but the most painful experience of his adult life was the death of his step-mother who died from tuberculosis as she was only forty-four years old (Sova, 2007, p.5). However, he was about to experience another traumatic episode as an adult.
It has to be pointed out that he fell in love with his cousin named Virginia. There is no need to elaborate the scandal it brought to the family. One can just imagine how this relationship has driven him to create a shell to protect him from the sharp words. Nevertheless, he had a blissful relationship with Virginia, so for a moment, he was a successful man with a flourishing literary career. All of a sudden tragedy struck him once again. Virginia contracted tuberculosis, and once, as she was playing piano, a blood vessel in her throat broke, and she began to spew blood from her mouth (Sova, 2007, p. 7). Poe was never the same again after that incident. He was crushed by the thought that he was so poor he could not bring Virginia to the best doctors and according to a biographer, Poe was overburdened with guilt that he could not bring “the great love of his life to die in peace and dignity” (Quinn & Rosenheim, 1998, p.524). The story of his life explains why Edgar Allan Poe was obsessed with the idea of death.
Death in the Stories
He went through a series of heart-breaking episodes in his life, so that as he set out to write, he could easily revisit those times and pull out an idea or a feeling that when translated into writing and was able to frighten the most wary reader. It is not simply about the murder that intrigues readers but Poe’s ability to enhance the brutality and ice-cold determination of the killer to eliminate his prey and then cover up the crime in the most gruesome way possible. As mentioned earlier, there is also the added element of a detective story wherein the killer tries to outsmart the authorities in order to achieve the perfect crime (Engelhardt, 2003). His writing resonates with the readers because Poe did not simply imagine the scenes; he based his stories on the ghastly sights he had seen in real life.
It was his experience with death, anger and tuberculosis that provided him with the ammunition to write short stories that discuss deep-seated hatred or anger that cannot be controlled and must find release. His acquaintance with tuberculosis gave him the imagery of blood and suffocation that figured prominently in his stories. Consider, for instance, the amount of blood that he had to deal with in The Tell-Tale Heart where the killer cut and sliced his victim. Imagine the amount of blood that flowed in the tub. In The Pit and the Pendulum the author described various strategies used to torture a person, so that readers can just imagine the amount of blood that flowed to the floor of the dungeon.
Another aspect of tuberculosis is the suffocating feeling because of the blood that comes out from the lungs. In the case of Poe and his wife, he probably witnessed how his wife choked on her own blood when a blood vessel ruptured in her neck. The suffocating feeling may have been the reason why Poe was fascinated with the idea of burial and forced his characters into claustrophobic positions. This concept was made to the manifest in The Premature Burial wherein the author said that the experience was both horrific and frightful (Covino, 2005, p.9). The same thing can be said about The Cask of Amontillado, the murderer employed a ghoulish strategy that forced his victim to die from a slow and painful death by burying him alive.
Edgar Allan Poe remains the relevant figure in the 21st century, because this is a generation that is fascinated with detective stories, crime drama in television and stories about the macabre. The author’s work is being recognized today because of the way the writer combined the thrill associated with detective stories as well as the shocking impact of a story of a brutal murder. He succeeded because his stories were not just byproducts of his fertile imagination. These stories came from a difficult life filled with hatred, abandonment and tragic death. His life story added more intrigue to his work and it may explain why the new generation of readers has rediscovered the power of Poe to entertain and terrify at the same time.