Books, Thoughts

Lit Rant: Poelandia

As I mentioned in my last post, my temperament at the moment is leaning more toward AFI’s “Silver and Cold” than Burl Ives’ “Silver and Gold.”  With that said & because a murder of crows greeted me when I stepped outside this morning, the timing seems right for my list of favorite Poe-inspired texts.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my friends & I are desperately awaiting John Cusack’s turn as Poe himself in The Raven.  We were discussing the trailer & I mentioned that I was curious to see if they did anything new with the Poe fiction subgenre.  My friend B said, “There is such a thing?”

There is a quiet shadowy little section of writing that worships the mysterious author & strives to keep his spirit alive & well in a patchwork world of supernatural occurrences & methodical reasoning.  My small shelf on GoodReads will tell you I call it Poelandia & while there could be a few more books I don’t know about, the ones I have read hold a special little place in my heart.

Arthur Rackham's Ligeia

First, there are those books in the Poe subgenre that I classify as “Interpretations.”  Mainly, this group includes the illustrators who have taken on Poe’s works.  Arthur Rackham’s drawings for Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque perfectly fit the macabre and the ethereal extremes of Poe’s tales.  But, I doubt many artists could top Dore’s classic images partnered with the poem “The Raven.”  Dore, the proto-Goth.

Dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. . .

As iconic as these images are, I recently fell in love with Gris Grimly’s illustrated collections of Poe’s works. If you go looking for them, the odds are that you’ll find the books in the kids or YA section of your book store. But, the only kids that are probably reading them are those who look like extras for the Gnashlycrumb Tinies.

However, artists aren’t the only ones who can have fun giving their own versions of Poe’s work.  Daniel Stashower’s The Beautiful Cigar-Girl is an interpretation in another sense.  His book is a non-fiction work that attempts to shed new light on the real case that inspired Poe’s tale “The Murder of Marie Roget.”  Stashower not only tries to solve the mystery of the original crime, but he gives readers an idea of what Poe was trying to accomplish with his serialized story as well the stakes pinned on the success or failure of Poe’s work.  The most interesting & equally frustrating part of the research comes from how little one can tell what either Poe or the original cigar-girl’s murderer truly intended.

After “Interpretations,” I think that the next recognizable group would be “Tributes.”  These are stories that are written as in the style of Poe or have Poe as a larger-than-life character.  First among these, for me, is Ray Bradbury’s “The Exiles.”  (GoodReads will tell you I have a whole other shelf named that.)  “The Exiles” is pure fantastical morbid fun.  Science & rationality have completely dominated Earth, rendering all literature, folklore, religion & cultural tradition irrelevant.  You could call it a witch hunt of irrationality, but since there’s no such thing as witches (in the world of the story) that wouldn’t make any sense.  Long before Jasper Fforde even picked up a pen, Bradbury imagined the authors & characters of these anathema books coming to life to defend the works that sustain them.  Their fearless leader?  One guess.  I will say completely seriously that the story fills me with girlish glee.  But, not to let one story hog the “Tribute” label all for themselves, I’d like to also mention Jorge Luis Borges’ “Death and the Compass.”  You know Borges isn’t being coy when he drops Auguste Dupin’s name in the first paragraph.  If you haven’t read Borges before, I would start with this short story since it perfectly combines Borges’ own twisty logical obsessions with Poe’s familiar territory.

Finally, we come to the greater part of Poelandia, the novels that take the seeds of the “Tribute” category & build bigger worlds.  Typically, these novels are mysteries or thrillers that either contain elements of Poe’s actual work as inspiration or serve as a fictional explanation for the demons that haunted the man in real life.  Poe fiction became my hobby in the last years of high school after I picked up Harold Schehcter’s Nevermore for the first time.  Schehcter, who writes true crime books about serial killers, seemed like a natural fit.  He could construct an intricate mystery, add lots of grisly details about the crime scene & could write decently in Poe’s “voice.”  His supporting characters could seem a little one note, but all-in-all, not a bad series to read.

On Night's Shore by Randall Silvis

Then, a rare recommendation from a customer while I was working at Borders became a real gem: On Night’s Shore by Randall Silvis.  If I simply typed “I love this book” you wouldn’t get all the goofy elongated vowels that imply my fervent devotion.  So let me just steal a page from Woody Allen & say I lurve this book.  This book places Poe in New York in the Five Points neighborhood, doing his job as a newspaperman when he stumbles across the crime scene of a supposed suicide.  Silvis’ characterization of Poe strikes me as particularly sensitive.  This version of Poe can be quiet, highly attentive, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in a way that makes you wince in empathy instead of writing him off as cruel or arrogant.

Finally, I’ll mention Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye, which was the last good book of Poe fiction I’ve read.  (Emphasis on the word “good.”)  I can’t remember at the moment how I came across this novel, but Bayard’s story ensnared me so completely I nearly read the book in one night.  Once again, the story is set in New York, except this time during Poe’s enrollment at West Point.  Blue Eye has it all: death, a beautiful doomed girl, incest, death, the occult, logic puzzles, love, betrayal, death.  Bayard’s story is like the written equivalent of an opera; I swear I heard ominous organ music the entire time I read.  OMG: Oh.  My.  Goth.

With that wordy admiration in mind, I’m really really hoping that The Raven movie will be good.  Don’t get me wrong, I could write a whole other post on the Corman adaptations of  Poe’s works & how style, substance, money & Vincent Price gave the world some crazy films.  But it would be nice to see another medium recreate Poe’s world as thoroughly & interestingly as print has already done.  I’ll see you on the other side of the dark.

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2 thoughts on “Lit Rant: Poelandia”

  1. Mmm. I have high hopes–and high standards–for the movie as well. Seems like you never know which ones this day will pleasantly surprise and which will disappoint.

    I may have to check out some of the titles you mentioned. I’m a reader of Poe, but I haven’t seen many of the illustrations or read those tributes. They could be good for me…

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