Poe’s Horror Trumps His Mystery

By Jeffrey B. Burton

I ordered a collection of horror stories by Edgar Allan Poe through Scholastic Books in fifth grade. Scholastic promised the tales of terror would scare the bejesus out of me. Unfortunately, I was too young for Poe at the time; however, later in junior high, I used the collection for a book report. Years later, in high school lit class, the professor had us read The Murders in the Rue Morgue and, spoiler alert—it hadn’t been murder at all—rather an escaped orangutan swung into the apartment and smashed the victims apart. Whenever an animal is involved in something horrible, like a shark taking a chunk out of a surfer or a grizzly attacking a camper, I don’t chalk it up to murder.

A more accurate title would be The Rampaging in the Rue Morgue.

After reading Rue Morgue, the professor informed us that Edgar Allan Poe had been christened as the Father of the Detective Story. Something about this rubbed me wrong. I’d lobby for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie or a myriad of other notable mystery authors from bygone years over Poe because Poe’s twisted soul lies firmly in the horror genre . . . just like his tales of terror I’d ordered all those years ago.

Let’s take a quick quiz—can any of you rattle off any other Edgar Allan Poe detective stories?

Anything pop instantly to mind?

Anything at all?

Okay, here’s a huge hint—The Purloined Letter (blackmail’s afoot as a love letter has been stolen), but beyond Purloined we need to consult my old lit professor. However, since he’s no longer around, let’s check with our friend Google. Yup, rounding out Poe’s trio of detective stories is The Mystery of Marie Roget. In this tale, Poe’s super sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin, looks into the circumstances surrounding Marie Roget’s disappearance and the subsequent discovery of her body floating in the Seine. After Dupin’s review, he speculates at possible explanations. However, Marie Roget has no closure. We never know whether Detective Dupin’s conjecture is legitimate or not.

Okay, now raise your hand if you can rattle off any of Poe’s non-detective stories. Hey, hey—slow down, already—I can only type so fast. Most of Poe’s tip-of-the-tongue tales are horror in nature. Classics that spring immediately to mind include: The Pit and the Pendulum (Poe invents torture porn), The Tell-Tale Heart (madness via a crescendo-building heartbeat), The Black Cat (madness via a feline apparition), The Fall of the House of Usher (madness via a haunted manor), The Masque of the Red Death (uninvited guest wreaks havoc on a masquerade ball—a timely tale in the age of Covid).

Even Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry is grounded in horror, certainly not mystery. Though working in a different medium, Poe covers familiar themes in The Raven—the narrator’s madness is hastened along per the arrival of an unearthly, chatting fowl.

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—

Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,

Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—

On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—

Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!

By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—

Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,

It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Another of Poe’s classic poems, Annabel Lee, is a bittersweet love sonnet of chilling proportions. The poem’s narrator condemns the “winged seraphs of heaven” for the loss of his soulmate.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,

Went envying her and me—

Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,

In this kingdom by the sea)

That the wind came out of the cloud by night,

Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

Sure enough we discover that the narrator’s madness is hastened along by the loss of a “love that was more than love.”

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side

Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,

In her sepulchre there by the sea—

In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Hmm . . . pretty horrific stuff, wouldn’t you say?

Yes, mystery writers can worship Poe as the father of detective fiction—they can toast him at their annual Edgar Awards and trust that Poe’s undeniable genius was their genesis—but horror writers see it differently.

They believe Edgar Allan Poe is the father of psychological horror . . . they swear he’s one of theirs. And they’d question that without Poe’s dark poetry and tales of the macabre, would he be remembered for his C. Auguste Dupin mysteries?

Sure, they’ll spot mystery writers their Agathas and Conan Doyles and all the rest; however, when it comes to Edgar Allan Poe . . .

Well—what was it the raven said?