Edgar Allen Poe Complete Tales and Poems

41H1jnVQ2XL._AA160_ book by Edgar Allen Poe

annotation by Kirsten Imani Kasai

Poe’s rather disappointing life began and ended in abandonment and sorrow. Loss of love and security, lack of safety, poverty, artistic pursuits of an unattainable peak … his tragedies set the template for the modern writer, for don’t we all milk our tragedies for critical and hopefully, financial gain? Poe’s writing speaks to the isolation, yearning loneliness and madness that resides in each of us to varying degrees. We sense that we are different, that no one else can possibly understand the depth of our pain, yet Poe successfully exploits our human weaknesses, and exposes humanity as ruled by precarious emotions, driven by instinctual urges (territorialism, lust, envy, revenge, fear). We linger among childhood’s intense fears, when phantoms loomed large and imagined creatures lurk in every shadow.

I read “The Raven” to my 8-year-old son last Halloween. I was surprised that he endured the reading and made appreciative little noises while listening; then we discussed it afterward. How can such a nebulous tale, with no evident plot, no other horror that the persistence of a stray bird in the house, can cause such terror? Poe’s first person narrators are unstable, mad, nervous, obsessive, anxious and prone to illness of body, mind and spirit. They are miserable, melancholic plotters, coldly unmoved by others’ suffering or guilt yet driven insane by their own dark desires. Poe writes of love detached from passion and obsession in the abstract. Characters commit gruesome attacks upon others (“Benenice,” “Tell-tale Heart,” “Cask of Amontadillo”) or are themselves the victim of torture or fatal errors (“The Pit and Pendulum,” “The Premature Burial)”. In every case, death claims its prize.

Poe has been credited with initiating the genres of science-fiction and the detective or mystery novel. His powerful prose ranges from complex, embedded with French and Latin, to short declarative sentences that crank up the emotional volume:

“I foamed – I raved – I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder – louder – louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! – no, no! They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! – they were making a mockery of my horror!-… I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!”—“The Tell-Tale Heart”

Poe filters raw emotion through eloquence to distill our greatest failings and expose our childish follies.

“… here was the idiotic thought that destroyed me! Des idees! – ah therefore it was that I coveted them so madly! I felt that their possession could alone ever restore me to peace, in giving me back to reason.” –“Berenice”

Alcohol, opium and writing were Poe’s only emotional outlets. His life and work were tented by grief and loss, beginning with the death of his mother Eliza. Longing and ghoulish isolation thread his stories and poems. Death is his constant companion in life and work; desperately, he writes ghosts into existence (Ligeia) and dances among tombstones, conjuring spirits back from the netherworld, attempting to defy, again and again, the laws of life.

It is this drive which shades and informs my own writing, for like Poe, fiction serves as my therapist and confessor. Someone dies badly in nearly every story I write. Hearts break like cheap glass baubles and the horrific swarms and swims between my lines. My pretty little words are flimsy rafts bobbing on a deep dark, melancholic sea. My “happy endings” are ghoulish. I don’t trade in rainbows and sunshine. “But this is life,” I say when countering objections from those seeking hope and happiness.

Thankfully, Poe and his enduring literary legacy assure me that there will always be a market for our sort of gloom and doom. A century and a half later, his stories still resonate with readers. For Poe expresses what is most essential and inescapable, peaks of joy, deep pools of regret and the desperation with which we cling to the known world—whether fearing or welcoming our inevitable end.

“Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.”—”Berenice”


You Are One of Them

9781594205286_p0_v1_s114x166book by Elliott Holt

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

Finding solutions to the problems in your work in progress isn’t always a matter of sitting down and figuring them out. Sometimes you have to place a question in your mind and ride around with it for a little while. It will solve itself at an unexpected moment–on a walk, a drive, while cleaning house or sometimes, when you are reading a book.

My most recent solution came to me when I was reading Elliott Holt’s YOU ARE ONE OF THEM. The solution itself isn’t really that important to anyone but myself, but why I came to it is the manner in which Holt, over the course of twenty years of fictional time in her book, creates a complex relationship between two people, weaves in an obsession and holds it together with a tether of mystery. This is a very solidly constructed book, and I’m guessing the structure came after character for Holt. This does not feel like an executed outline, more like a story that grew organically and layered itself with delicate strings and webs—I’m also guessing a lot of the writing was cut in order to bring the relationship and the story into sharper relief.

The book is a good reminder that characters don’t always come to us fully grown. We often start with a sketch of them and then start asking questions.

After a moment in Russia in present day, our heroine Sarah starts out the book with her history—A sister who died at a young age and changed everything—turning her mother into an anxiety-ridden mess, separating her parents by a country. As an adolescent, Sarah is plain, and, because of her fearful mother, her life is very small. She is set up, ready to be swept off her feet, and so she is when her ebullient, pretty, outgoing neighbor Jennifer Jones moves in. Holt sketches their childhood friendship in intimate detail and it doesn’t take long for the reader to get a handle on the flavor of that friendship, and how desperately Sarah needs it. The writing is absorbing, and, as we are told of Jennifer’s death from the first pages, we are kept interested, waiting to see what led to what.

But what’s so lovely about this novel is that nothing is guessable.

Holt instead immerses us in Sarah’s obsession with her friend, which only grows when a rift comes between the girls, involving a letter sent to Andropov. We are taken back to the present and Sarah’s search for Jennifer, whom she has been told, may not be dead. While this mystery keeps the pages turning, the story is more a reflection of that painful self-defining time of life, our early twenties. Sarah’s search does not lead us down the alley of a clichéd thriller or to a nail-biting ending, but to a much more satisfying place arrived at through character.

Holt’s prose is anchored in the reality of surroundings. It’s a good lesson in details, from the green, insect-laden humid suburbs of DC to the cold, cigarette smoke-choked, alcoholic winter in Russia. We are always with our main character, in her body, her discomforts, her nagging obsessions, even her eye-rolling over her neurotic mother. There is a truly present three-dimensional person for us to get a hold on.

As I start a new project, having spent over a year doing revisions of two others, I seem to have forgotten that those characters I know didn’t come from nowhere. They were built in layers. Only through asking them questions, putting them in situations to see how they’ll act, throwing them into conversations did they come to life. Aside from creating a really good read, Holt reminded me which questions were the right ones to be asking. And to trust that it is not an elevator pitch that gets a novel written; it is in the writing of the novel that you eventually arrive, much richer, at the pitch.