Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Edgar Allan Poe
Why it’s daunting: Edgar Allan Poe is the original American writer of weird fiction and supernatural tales. While he wasn’t the first to write about ghouls and creatures of the night in a sweeping, romantic context, he broke down the walls of traditional romantic horror fiction, as well as gothic fiction, to tell strange stories of a secret world beyond the carefully cultivated surface of early-19th-century America. That secret world was filled with constant reminders of the specter of death, be it macabre murderers who couldn’t let go of the memory of their crimes or literal ghosts. Poe’s fiction is hallucinatory and deeply personal, filled with his obsessions with lost loves and an almost holy reverence for the dead. Poe’s lifelong problems with substance abuse perhaps added to his ability to imagine strange scenarios beyond what other writers of romantic horror were turning out at the time. Poe is also generally credited as the inventor of detective fiction, with stories such as “Murders In The Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” (and some elements of “The Gold-Bug”) introducing to the world of fiction the idea of a brilliant detective who traps criminals in their lies. Poe was also a highly influential poet, and his poems often traded on the same spooky, macabre atmosphere of his tales.
Poe’s work may seem daunting simply because there’s so much of it. Stacked together, his poems and tales will run more than 800 pages in most editions, and the work is variable in terms of quality. That’s not even mentioning his two novels, neither of which is widely read (and with good reason), or his many essays and articles, or his single play. Furthermore, Poe is one of the few writers of horror fiction who’s managed the leap from genre writer to respected author. Now firmly positioned in the American literary canon, he’s been particularly influential to the short-story format, where his odd visions staked out new territory for where the young form could go.
And, finally, there’s the fact that most of Poe’s greatest stories have so thoroughly permeated the culture that it’s unlikely a reader could approach them without any preconceptions. While not everyone will read Poe’s stories, the basic ideas behind them and the premises contained in them have seeped into the world of literature at large. Horror and mystery writers since Poe have taken the basic ideas of many of his tales and updated them to suit more modern sensibilities.
Possible gateway: “The Cask Of Amontillado”
Why: Originally published in 1846, “The Cask Of Amontillado” is one of Poe’s best tales, and one that those who know Poe only from movies and high-school English classes might not have encountered before. It’s a murder story, and like many of Poe’s best stories, it’s told from the point of view of the murderer, whose madness becomes slowly apparent, creeping around the edges of the story to accompany the dread that suffuses any Poe tale. The story contains elements of Poe’s mysteries and detective fiction—readers are invited to wonder just what the titular cask, is and what it has to do with an innocent man’s murder—and a thick sample of his pitch-black humor. Of Poe’s greatest stories, this is the funniest, however sick and twisted. Without spoiling the ending, the murderer’s method of dispatching his prey is simultaneously horrifying and bleakly amusing, and Poe makes high comedy out of a man slowly losing whatever grip he had on sanity and morality. Reading Poe can sometimes feel like trying to translate another, highly personal language, but this tale is one of his most direct, and still provides a quick window into Poe’s personal obsessions and love of florid prose.
Next steps: Chances are, if you’ve heard of a Poe story before, it’s worth reading, and if you haven’t, it’s not. There are other gems buried within Poe’s lesser-known tales (like the strangely psychedelic “A Tale Of The Ragged Mountains,” one of Poe’s few experiments in what would evolve into science fiction), but for Poe newcomers, the best way to start out may be to go down a list of his stories and mark the ones that at least sound familiar. Chances are good that reading the better-known stories will serve as an invitation to dig deeper into his work.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is the next best step, as it takes the basic framework of “Amontillado”—narrating murderer, strange death, twisted humor, hints of madness—and adds traces of the supernatural elements that helped make Poe famous. Granted, the beating of the tell-tale heart in the story is clearly the result of the narrator’s madness, but there’s also the sense that there might be something more at work here, that the world of Poe is one where the doors between worlds aren’t permanently closed. From there, some combination of the revolutionary detective fiction of “Rue Morgue,” the utter strangeness of “The Black Cat” and “A Descent Into The Maelstrom,” the sheer terror of “The Pit And The Pendulum,” and the mystery-adventure mash-up of the treasure-hunting tale “The Gold-Bug” will provide a good introduction to Poe’s many moods.
Poe’s poetry requires less effort to read in its entirety. (It can be read comfortably, with time for reflection, in an afternoon, ideally a late autumn one.) “The Raven,” his most famous poem, is a good starting point: Fame hasn’t diminished its impact, and its atmosphere of dread is still palpable after all these years. From there, “Annabel Lee” and “Lenore,” two starkly contrasting tales of long-lost love, will allow readers time to luxuriate in the slow-building gothic tension of Poe’s finest poetry.
Poe inspired many, many writers, but none so thoroughly as Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo, who took his name from Poe. (Say it several times fast.) Rampo, a pen name for writer Hirai Taro, wrote the greatest Poe story that Poe didn’t write, “The Human Chair,” and those who’ve worked their way through everything the original has written will likely enjoy this 20th-century treat, which almost seems like a Poe tale that was uncovered long after his death.
Where not to start: Poe’s novels, as mentioned, are mostly for the truly hardcore Poe fans, but what may be his most famous story, “The Fall Of The House of Usher,” is far from the place to start. “Usher” is a fantastic tale, but it’s better to work your way toward its weird grandeur via Poe’s more succinct stories.