In the course of researching my book on the life and work of Thomas Chalmers, I’ve had the opportunity to take a short diversion into the literary arcanae of Edgar Allan Poe--in large part because apparently Poe was reading a Chalmers book at the time of his death and many believe that the theology of Chalmers greatly influenced Poe’s tales.
The life of Poe was as haunting, as mysterious, and as provocative as his stories and verse. The master of the psychological thriller, the inventor of the procedural mystery, and the progenator of subtle horror was a man who lived a conflicted life and left a controversial legacy.
Much of the accepted lore surrounding this remarkable literary personality--that he was a drunkard or a drug addict, that he was a tormented and despondent soul, that he was a failure and a pauper, and that he died in dissipation and dispair--is probably entirely false. Contemporary historians have probably debunked each of those lingering myths. But only probably. He wrote mysteries. But his life contained even greater mysteries. Perhaps the only thing we can say with certainty is that Poe was an intriguing man, who led an intriguing life and wrote intriguing work.
Knowing this, even just this much, does help us unpack the density of his writing. He was undoubtedly, a master of the grotesque. But because of his moral tone--albeit ambiguous and heterodox--he was able to accomplish eerie effects and haunting tone without ever resorting to gross manipulations of violence, gore, or profanity. His prose was invariably dense with allusions to both classical and Biblical symbolism. Indeed, part of the key to understanding the power of Poe to evoke a sense of strong premonitions and intruding powers of woe is learning to notice and identify those allusions.
While the Fall of the House Usher, the Pit and the Pendulum, the Gold Bug, and Murder at the Rue Morgue all afford excellent examples of this redolent style, perhaps the best story to begin unpacking Poe's dense literary mastery is Masque of the Red Death. The story is a vivid retelling of the fall of Lucifer from Isaiah 14. Prospero, a prince of a mythical Italian kingdom, has imperial ambitions--evidenced in his amazing pleasure palace. His pretensions are not entirely out of place, after all, he is wise, courageous, and gracious. When a plague afflicts the land, Prospero--whose parallels with Shakespeare's hero of The Tempest are clearly intentional--invites the best and the brightest to a kind of eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-may-die masquerade. The seven ballrooms, each decorated differently to remind us of every aspect of life and culture, comprise a substitute community--like a quarantined Tower of Babel. Ultimately, the tolling of the great ebony clock dominating the palace prophesies the end of the revelry. And of course, in the end the angels all fall.
Almost every detail is significant. Almost no words are wasted. Pay attention to the details and Poe's brilliance offers up layer after layer of meaning. Though an enigma himself, his writing still delights.