Edgar Allan Poe is a writer whose life and personality have attracted almost as much attention as his writing, which is a pity considering that there are few, whether in the field of supernatural or mainstream fiction, who can be called his equal. A New Englander, like his great admirer H P Lovecraft, Poe was born in in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809 and was the son of itinerant actors. Orphaned as a child by the death of his mother and mysterious disappearance of his father, Poe was taken into the home of a Richmond merchant, John Allan, from whom he later took his middle name. Despite this, Poe’s relationship with his ‘foster-father’ (he was never legally adopted) was never good and was strained especially when he was forced to withdraw from the University of Virginia because Allan refused to finance him. Although in 1830 Poe attended the Military Academy at West Point at Allan’s behest, in an act of defiance he neglected his duties there intentionally, which led to his dishonourable discharge in 1831. Thus began an itinerant, tormented life which nevertheless resulted in the publication of some of the most visionary, powerful and searing poetry and prose ever committed to print.
Poe first turned to journalism, living from 1831 to 1835 with a relative, Mrs Clemm, in Baltimore, whose 13-year-old daughter, his cousin Virginia, he married in 1836. Then Poe’s fiction was published, beginning with his first collection of prose in 1839, which contained one of his most famous works in the form of The Fall of the House of Usher. In this Gothic romance, a fine example of Poe’s twisted genius, the narrator visits the crumbling mansion of his childhood companion, only to find that both his friend and his twin sister have undergone a frightening physical and mental decline, which is reflected in the house that they both live in. Poe’s reputation as a poet was then established with the publication in 1845 of The Raven and other Poems. Despite his literary success, it seems that Poe was a disturbed and conflicted man, often driven to the brink of madness like so many of his characters. He has consequently been pictured variously as a sadomasochist, dipsomaniac, drug addict and manic depressive. The death of his wife in 1847 did not help – writing of the effect of this trauma shortly afterwards Poe said: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity”. His own end came not long afterwards, in 1849, and was characteristically dramatic; he died in Baltimore, five days after having been found semi-conscious and delirious, from alcohol, heart failure, epilepsy or a combination of all three.
Despite Poe’s tragic end, his posthumous reputation and influence have been immense, as is demonstrated by the list of his admirers, which reads like a Who’s Who of the greats of literature. Writers including Baudelaire, Swinburne, Wilde, Rossetti, Yeats and Freud have all been fascinated by the macabre and pathological elements in his work, ranging from hints of necrophilia in the poem Annabel Lee to the indulgent sadism of The Pit and the Pendulum. Robert Louis Stevenson was a great admirer of Poe’s detective Dupin, who appeared in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson once said that Poe was “The most original genius that America has produced”. The The Tell-Tale Heart (click to read!) is one of Poe’s most terrifying stories and was revised for publication when it was first released in 1843 on an unsuspecting public. The story displays Poe’s startling ability to build suspense with almost nightmarish intensity and demonstrates well why he has entered the popular consciousness as few other writers have ever done.