Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Edgar Allan Poe Audio Collection, Read by Basil Rathbone & Vincent Price, Caedmon Collection/Harper Audio, 2000

Perhaps the greatest evidence for either the non-existence of God or (in Mark Twain’s words) that if he exists he’s surely a malign thug would be the date of Vincent Price’s death. Only six days until the last Halloween of this frightmeister’s life and the plug is pulled. What kind of self-respecting deity would pull such a low-down dirty trick as that? For many people, the death of this or that celebrity was like losing a father or a good friend. Mr. Rogers. Jimmy Stewart. Spalding Gray. Johnny Cash. For me, losing Vincent Price was like losing a beloved mordantly morbid uncle.

By contrast, Basil Rathbone always struck me as a bit of a certain type of English stereotype: the stuffy, upper crust, pedantic, effete snob. Maybe this came about from watching too many Sherlock Holmes movies or maybe that was just the luck of typecasting.

These two contrasting actors of a very definite time and type of film are pinched together on Caedmon Collection/Harper Audio’s The Edgar Allan Poe Audio Collection, a hodgepodge of the same old same old Poe material. Does it have “The Tell-Tale Heart” you ask. Why, certainly. “The Raven”? Oh my, yes. In fact, if you can think of a Poe tale or poem that is not one of the three Dupin stories then most likely it’ll be here. The collection appears to be a grouping of readings done over a period of time that were eventually cobbled together for a nice, tidy package. The differing audio qualities on Rathbone’s readings demonstrate this admirably. Sometimes his reading has the intimacy of a man sitting in the same room with you, while other times he sounds as if he’s reading in an echo chamber, his voice ringing off in the distance at key dramatic points. The two have worked together before in various Poe related projects such as 1962’s film, Tales of Terror, though their work on this collection doesn’t appear to have been done with any joint release in mind.

The bulk of the material is read by Rathbone, though if I had my druthers the ratio (three discs out of five are Rathbone’s) would be reversed. Better yet if the collection were simply five discs of Price reading the work. My earlier characterization of Rathbone as an effete snob doesn’t necessarily display itself so much in this work, but a worse quality emerges. A simpering Poe reader I can deal with, but not one who overacts with such sheer lungpower and stamina as to make Lawrence Olivier look tame and restrained. At points while listening on headphones, I had to hurriedly turn down the volume while Rathbone declaimed that it was “the beating of his hideous heart!” or some such. Unsurprisingly, Rathbone debuted in silent film and spent a great deal of time on stage around the same time as Sir Larry. Actors of this sort tend to spend a great deal of their time and energy declaiming for the back rows making sure everyone gets their money’s worth.

While Rathbone’s voice is familiarly soothing, it is his very theatricality that makes his reading of the work so limp. There is a wall of technique that distances him from the pieces, the type of coldly by the book approach to work that method actors later came to smash down. He works well as a character like Sherlock Holmes — someone stiff and mostly rational — but when you have to portray a mad drunkard who axes his wife in the head and hides her body in the basement walls, well, you really want someone with a little more fever in him. And for reasons that I can only ascribe to some of these recordings taking place pre-1961, Rathbone reads the story, “The Pit and the Pendulum” which almost everyone assuredly associates with Price’s turn in the Corman film of the story.

My last slam against Rathbone is admittedly a small point, but one I think worth mentioning. In every instance, he starts out his reading by simply launching into the story or poem without providing the title at the beginning. Price is guilty of this in two instances, then amends the habit. I’ve come across this in other older recordings of poems and stories and such. Was this the fashion once upon a time or simply a curio adopted by most without noticing (such as today’s film and TV habit of having people on the phone never say “goodbye” ever ever ever)? Whatever the case, unless you have a great familiarity with Poe, you usually have to wait until something is mentioned in the story, the House of Usher, say, to pin down what it is you’re listening to.

Vincent Price’s readings on this set are indeed priceless. That old, familiar voice, the semi-smooth creak like a haunted house door makes you want more of the same. He effortlessly runs circles around Rathbone, taking Poe’s rather actionless “The Imp of the Perverse” and “Ligeia,” more meditations than stories for most of their length, and injecting a good strained sense of mental anguish. His recordings are free of the echo chamber that tints Rathbone’s which was a disheartening distraction. Unfortunately, as I’ve observed above, there’s far too little of Price in a five disc set. His two discs are each longer than any of Rathbone’s but iit’s still far too little.

Price is given one of the four stories usually characterized as the first “mystery stories” ever written, “The Gold Bug.” The other three, the Dupin tales, are more of what we’ve come to expect of a mystery, involving a crime, a detective who sees what others do not, and a surprising conclusion. “The Gold Bug” doesn’t really have much of a mystery at its heart so I consider the classification unfair. A guy finds a pirate treasure and explains how he did it. So what?

As Poe’s stories often don’t have many characters — indeed most of them only include a narrator who mentions other people, shades with no lines of dialogue — there are few instances where either reader demonstrates a subtle characterization quality. Price’s performance in “The Gold Bug” of the slave, Jupiter, is a ridiculous period piece made up of Poe’s white writer Negro talk (“Dey aint no tin in him, Massa Will, I keep a tellin' on you…de bug is a goole-bug, solid, ebery bit of him, inside and all, sep him wing--meber feel half so hebby a bug in my life.”) and Price doesn’t add anything to that except an old Yalie’s game try. Rathbone takes M. Valdemar’s death voice and turns it into a whispery croak I had to back up five times to understand (and then I still went to the print story itself to make sure).

What ultimately would have strengthened the collection as a whole is an inclusion of more of the Dupin stories and less of the old hat. Not that the Dupin stories are hidden treasures in Poe, but meditative stories work far less successfully in audio format than more narrative driven tales. When you think of books on tape, you usually conjure a novel in your mind, not Kant. The same holds true with Poe. Stories in which little happens until the Poe twist at the end, like “Berenice” float in an audio ether with little to tether the reader to the words. A meditative passage has more heft when you read it on the page. It is easier to scan back up, to read again, to savor. Audiobooks require a bit more meat than a book itself.

And from a merely technical standpoint, another flaw in the compilation is in its tracking. Each piece is one single track long. With stories weighing in at twenty-three and forty-six minutes, this is unwieldy for the listener who breaks up the story for one reason or another. It is almost an industry standard now to have each track run no longer than five minutes generally. This makes finding your place considerably easier. The most absurd breaking of this rule ironically enough I found in the Douglas Adams’ collection The Salmon of Doubt. Ironic — for a true technophile like Adams would have found the seventy-four minute single-tracked discs exasperatingly inconvenient.

However, even though I realize I’ve been a bit harsh on this collection, it is a fine addition for the Price alone. These two discs would make a nice listening for a wet and dreary fall night coming in on Halloween each year. You could settle back in a darkened room with the light from a full moon coming in through the window and listen as the master of terror settles himself down one more time to scare you from beyond the grave.

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