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January 22, 2009

Poe's 200th anniversary: S.J. Chambers

S.J. ChambersFlorida writer S.J. Chambers, whose work has appeared in Fantasy, Up Against the Wall and The Hiss Quarterly, sees many links between Poe and modern culture. She considers herself an independent Poe scholar, and her plans for the bicentennial include a trip to Baltimore. She writes of Poe's lasting influence (here are all guest posts and more on Poe):

I was introduced to Poe by The Simpsons’ first Treehouse of Terror, which I watched a few days after a close family friend died. First aired in 1990, the episode has Lisa, with a little help from James Earl Jones, read “The Raven” to a blasé Bart and an eavesdropping Homer. Bart is unimpressed, of course, whereas Homer goes to beds in chills, and even thinks he sees Poe’s raven outside his window. So did I. The ideas of memory and haunting that the Bart-beaked raven showed spellbound me. I remember lying in bed having jejune thoughts about being haunted by Mrs. Larrimore, of a parentless future, of devils spying on me from the headboard, and goblins under the bed. It was all suffering from an overactive imagination, but all of those night terrors came from Poe’s power of suggestion--the source of his lasting appeal.

He is the first pioneer of the imagination. He never left the U.S., never completed university, and never held down a job for more than a year--yet, he wrote about medieval Europe as if he had been there, he could calculate with frightening accuracy the delicate geometry of the Inquisition’s pendulum, and he used all of the scientific theories of his day to try to unravel death. Everything that came from his pen was filtered or completely invented by his imagination. As a result, his work has an odd and indescribable tone. The only thing I can compare it to is the difference between painting from life or from memory. If you paint from life, you have the hard precision of an Ingres or Pouissan; if you rely on memory, you have the smears and oscillations of a Monet or a Munch. The reality looks a bit warped, a bit strange. The smears and oscillations leave gaps within the images’ meaning, gaps for the viewer’s mind to fill in. Poe’s work is full with these ambient gaps, which artists, writers, directors, even Fox television animators have been trying to spackle with their own inventions.

Poe’s appeal also stems from his diverse and dimensional mutability--a Poe for all seasons. There is the melancholy poet, the critic of early American letters, the pioneer of science fiction, the father of the detective story, the puppeteer of horror, and the denizen of fancy. His net spread wide, Poe is probably the most referenced writer in popular culture (after Shakespeare, of course).

Roughly 25 novels have been published about Poe, most recently Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow and Louis Bayard’s Pale Blue Eyes. As far as allusions or influence goes, Poe can be found in the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Henry James, Victor Hugo, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ray Bradbury, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman (to name a few). His work pops up in the music of heavy metal like Iron Maiden and Rob Zombie, and mellow rock like The Yardbirds and Jeff Buckley.

Poe’s work has been illustrated by Manet, Whistler, Clarke, Redon, Moreau, Gauguin and Magritte, as well as in comics like Roman Dirge’s Lenore: The World’s Cutest Dead Girl, James O’Barr’s The Crow, Richard Corben’s Haunt of Horror, and the Nevermore anthology.

Adaptations of Poe’s work began as soon as cinema was invented with the 1908 silent film: Sherlock Holmes and the Great Murder Mystery, which combines Doyle’s famous detective with Poe’s ratiocination tale “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Since then, about 200 movies and television shows have been adapted from Poe’s work, most famously the Roger Corman/Vincent Price flicks. Traces of Poe’s shadow can also be found in Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton, and Christopher Nolan, whose The Prestige perfectly utilizes Poe’s compositional theories of mood and “ultimate effect.”

In addition to The Simpsons, Poe has made a personal appearance in cartoons like Beetlejuice, Cartoon Network’s The Venture Brothers, and in a Rocky and Bullwinkle segment of Sherman and Mr. Peabody.

The list could go on and on. In every book, film, comic, painting, or cartoon where Poe and his work appear, he becomes a token of the creator’s imagination. I believe that all of the artists who are influenced by Poe share a common yearning to address the unaddressable. Poe merely provides the blueprint.

But what does all this mean to those who are unfamiliar with Poe; who, like Bart Simpson, think “anything” is scarier than the ambient “nothingness” of Poe’s nineteenth century cadences? It means they are being left out without even knowing it. Poe could be the very foundation of a beloved story, film, song, or comic. You yourself could be missing out on some important allusions, but more importantly you could be missing out on your imagination’s potential. If anything can be said about Poe, it is that he understood the importance of dreams—not in a somnambulant, Freudian sense, but in a waking sense. Poe’s life was a hard one, and many believe the way that he coped with death, poverty, and isolation was by relying on his thoughts for escape. He can show you where lie the trapdoors, just as he has been showing readers, scholars, and artists for 200 years.

Posted by Dave Rosenthal at 6:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Edgar Allan Poe
        

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Great article

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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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Edgar Allan Poe is 200!
All you need to know about the macabre master including Poe-themed events, photos, video and a trivia quiz.

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