Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Complete Tales and Poems
Part Two

Tales to Make You Check Under the Bed, by E.A. Poe, Read by Samuel Griffin, Dercum Press Inc., 1990

This is the kind of silly packaging that must decidedly be aimed at children. Talk about a bunch of disappointed children. No “The Black Cat,” no “The Cask of Amontillado,” no “Morella.” Instead, there are no less than three titles included which don’t even remotely approach terrifying and are in fact little known examples of Poe’s humor writing. I guess “Tales to Make You Bust a Gut, by Edgar Allan Poe” didn’t quite hit the right note.

It strikes me somehow as rather bizarre, the kind of marketing I guess people feel necessary, but all these humorous stories that don’t even approach frightening, such as the previous three, are booked under the suggestion that they’d scare you so much that later that night you’d look under your bed to make certain of the absence of boogie men.

“The Sphinx” counts as little more than a sketch of horror. A man thinks he sees a monster approaching outside the cafĂ© window, only he’s so very little terrified by it that he can provide a minute description of its physical details down to the tiniest jot. The O. Henry end of it all turns out that he’s seeing through a flaw in the window, and the monster in question is no more than an insect magnified several hundred times.

“Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Hand in a Sling” is delivered by the reader Samuel Griffin in an Irish brogue that reminded me mostly of Orson Welles’ uneven enunciation in his turn as Michael O'Hara in The Lady from Shanghai. It also, like the preceding “The Sphinx” more of a humorous sketch, this involving Sir Patrick, our Irish narrator as he and a little Frenchman court the same woman and end up squeezing each other’s hands behind the couch, both men thinking the other hand they hold is the woman’s. Upon her removal from the couch, Sir Patrick crushes the man’s hand in his, thus our explanation. The story, like all good bits of fun, seems to have very little reason to exist save to tickle us.

“The Businessman” is likewise a good bit of fun, quite likely my favorite of all of Poe’s humorous sketches. Unlike a great many others, there is no necessity for falling back on humorous misuse of foreign words and names as in “The Devil in the Belfry,” no broad caricature or outdated references as in “Lionizing.” Instead, we have a man who attributes all his luck in life to this event: “A good-hearted old Irish nurse (whom I shall not forget in my will) took me up one day by the heels, when I was making more noise than was necessary, and swinging me round two or three times, d---d my eyes for ‘a skreeking little spalpeen,’ and knocked my head into a cocked hat against the bedpost.” This, he happily informs us, made his fortune as he then set about a life of crime. Later he talks about making his fortune in such ventures as “the assault and batter business” and the like. Another routine is to set up as a boot black and train his dog to muddy mens’ boots in the street. Unfortunately, he and his partner aren’t together long: “I was not avaricious, but my dog was. I allowed him a third of the profit, but he was advised to insist upon half. This I couldn't stand — so we quarreled and parted.”

Samuel Griffin reads with an apparent relish these amusing tales, though he’s a little too enamored of his accented attempts at characterization. Better he reined it in a hair and let the reader sketch in the rest.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Other Stories, by E.A. Poe, Read by David Case, 2005

The three stories that make up Poe’s Dupin tales are probably the best example of his non-horror writing. Certainly there are horrific elements in the crimes of murder in two of the stories, yet there is a cool detachment in the narratives, a remove to the higher plane of reason. Arthur Conan Doyle would take this and inject a considerable element of the dramatic and the romantic, the latter the very kind of thing Poe managed to so extract from his own writing in these cases, and would find the jackpot. Take Holmes and Watson from Doyle and he would have been relegated to just another Victorian era scribbler of fantasies.

It is nice to hear, in the title story, my own feelings precisely about chess:

…the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly
and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by the
elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different
and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is
mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.

The game itself doesn’t lend itself to being smart and many smart people are poor chess players (haha, you say, he says that because he is barely a middling chess player). It is merely a mathematical kind of game where one is required to note various combinations but not to actually play with great creativity. Too many people have a worshipful attitude towards the intellects of people just because they’re particularly good at one specific game.

At any rate, in keeping with much of the notions of isolation, even in the Dupin stories, we find “Our seclusion was perfect. We admitted no visitors. Indeed the locality of our retirement had been carefully kept a secret from my own former associates; and it had been many years since Dupin had ceased to know or be known in Paris. We existed within ourselves alone.”

Of course, however, there is quite a bit of drama in the Dupin stories even if much of it is related to the narrator by Dupin who has been putting the power of ratiocination to some heavy lifting. There are two violent murders in one story, one in another, and the other involves face to face stand offs between rivals and includes gunfire in the streets and the possible exposure of the Queen to infamy for her love affairs. Nary a premature burial or galvanic battery in sight.

Were you, like me, to listen to and read a great number of Poe stories all in one go, you would shortly develop an aversion to words such as “preternatural” and “outre.” Were you to listen to David Case’s rather unpleasant attempt at a French accent, it would likewise irritate. “The Murders in the Rue Morgu”e has the decency to only allow him one accent for the bulk of the story. “The Purloined Letter” unfortunately allows him to demonstrate Dupin as well as Prefect G. In this collection, he only has two stories with which to pummel with his terrible French inflections.

“The Mystery of Marie Roget,” the least anthologized of the three Dupin stories was unavailable almost until the time of going to press when I discovered the story online as a free download at, a site that does, in fact, provide free audiobooks, only their free downloads come at the abominable bitrate of 8kbs, which is lower than even online AM radio broadcasts. At each successive stage up the kilobyte per second rate there is an additional cost, topping out at seven dollars for (the still poor) 48kbs. This is a shame, because the reader Stan Pretty has a rather pleasant dry English accent, he never overacts his French accent, leaving it a mere sliver, and delivers the tale in an agreeable laconic style, slower than most readers. Of course this is entirely what Poe needs.

There is a good reason why this story doesn’t end up much in anthologies and that’s because of the three it is the least filled with action or with the sort of locked-door cleverness in “Rue Morgue” or the witty one-upmanship of “Purloined Letter.” It reads more like an essay than the others, a piece of near nonfiction provided by Mr. Poe. There is a bit of analysis by Dupin as he and his chronicler sit in the study and gab, but little action. Poe does drop this corrective statement for any of today who deludes themselves into thinking there was once a golden age of newspapers: “We should bear in mind that, in general, it is the object of our newspapers rather to create a sensation- to make a point- than to further the cause of truth. The latter end is only pursued when it seems coincident with the former.”

The tale remains strong, however, and had Poe stuck to Dupin and “The Gold Bug” and other such detective tales his reputation almost assuredly would be higher ranked than it is. Who wouldn’t give up poetic clunkers like Al-Araaf for more like this? Truly, detective stories aren’t given much credit as a whole, though they rank higher than horror stories which only slightly climb to a greater regard than romance novels.

Tales of Terror, by E.A. Poe, Read by Jack Foreman, Recorded Books, 1981

“Hop Frog,” a tale of revenge is often sorted with Poe’s satires for reasons that are too strange to grasp. It is a quick, short, and dirty little bit of vengeance delivered by a dwarf against a vicious king and his advisors. I recall in junior high school we had a Poe impersonator come and speak to the assembled school and he did a little skit of this story and it’s always remained a bit of a favorite since then. Reader Foreman has a pleasant voice, reads well enough that I’m curious as to why I’ve never come across him previous to this.

Stories of the Macabre, by E.A. Poe, Read by Ralph Cosham, Commuters Library, 2002

Commuters Library’s entry into the field returns Poe to his Halloween lighting. “Berenice” is a rarely done story of the macabre from the audiobook angle. I know not biographically whether or not this story predates the death of Poe’s wife, his cousin Virginia, though it is a doomed story of married cousins, one of actually quite a few. Not that this was as rare as it is now; in fact, it was rather the thing, quite common in centuries past, and so Poe’s marriage to Virginia was not the scandal it would be today. A tale of monomania, our narrator becomes obsessed with his cousin Berenice’s teeth. There is nothing in particular about those teeth; they are not vampiric; they are not that much different from anyone else’s. Yet for our narrator becomes rather mad on them.

Into the typical Poe story we think of involving premature burial, this one adds the idea of madness inspired dental surgery on a corpse that is not a corpse, on a buried woman dug up, her teeth extracted, and the wails as she awakes. More than any other story this one goes in on the madness theme and leaves a resounding chill with its closing lines.

“The Man Who Was Used Up” is listed as a macabre tale, though it is clearly one of Poe’s comic tales, telegraphed easily through the names like Brevet Brigadier General John A. B. C. Smith, the actor Climax, and the fashionable ladies Cognoscenti. His interest piqued by this Smith, our narrator seeks to find out what his story is all about. At every turn whereupon our narrator tries to find out more information about Smith, the object of his enquiries among all these society swells, he is given a fragmentary conversation in which the parties say “this is a wonderful age for invention” and “Dreadful business that of the Bugaboos, wasn’t it? — dreadful creatures, those Indians!” and quite a desperado — prodigies of valor,” though never imparting any new information than he’s gained from the last time he’s heard those formulations. This is all very amusing for a while.

What becomes clear by the story’s end is that in these various campaigns just about all of Brevet Brigadier General John A. B. C. Smith has been hacked out of him by the Indians. What remains is a man made up of false limbs, false teeth, glass eyes, a wig, even an artificial palate. How this absurd piece of business came to be included in the realm of the “macabre” one can only guess that there are those who still don’t grasp that Poe had a sense of humor and who see this comical dissection as a terror.

Poor Ralph Cosham who reads so excellently with just the faintest of British accent that calls to mind what one imagines a nineteenth century New England accents were like. I say poor because this excellent reading is relegated to Commuters Library, the Odd Lots of audiobook corporations whose quality of product is often quite noticeably bad as far as materials go. The double CD I listened to had to be tried on a variety of CD players before I found one capable of reading it. My computer at home registered the discs as blanks, as did my work computer and my wife’s. One of my car CD players likewise refused before I found one that actually could play, and even that one gave up the ghost before the end of the second unspotted disc. I can only imagine what the effect this irregularity of business might have on less dedicated listeners; one can only believe the company responsible will fold shortly.

The Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, by E.A. Poe, Read by Various, Dove Audio, 1995

The Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, Vol. 2, by E.A. Poe, Read by Various, Dove Audio, 1996

Poor Poe. Such a scabrous critic of others’ writing, such an unflinching reviewer of poetry and poets, and he honestly thought he’d best be remembered and best be considered as a poet who wrote stories and other things. The poetry of Poe is minor at best. Once you get past the four or five pieces picked over ad infinitum by the anthologies, what you’re left with is a collection of near juvenilia that too often is the millstone around the neck of Poe’s reputation.

Widely considered Poe’s greatest poem, “The Raven” is the first out of the gate here, a marketing strategy I’d have not opted for, though Michael York is a good choice to deliver the quality stuff here. They wisely follow this up with the poem “Lenore,” another of Poe’s well known pieces, and she who makes such a presence in the preceding poem. After these first best pieces, such as “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee,” it is all downhill from there.

If there is a revelation among all the readers, it is not a regular voice, but instead dancer/actor, once-upon-a-time-celebrity, Gregory Hines who reads the words as though they were words and not POOOOOOEEETRRRRYYYY. I have to say, reading his name before hearing his reading, I groaned a little. An amateur, I thought. What a pleasing overthrow of expectation. His interpretation of “Annabel Lee” was one of the most understandable and moving of the pieces.

Another 80s fixture, the actor David Warner also acquits himself nicely, rendering “Lenore,” “To Helen,” and “For Annie.” Get a quote from “Annie” where the “dead dead dead” is so repeated from line to line. Reader Roger Rees one can easily imagine dressed in a frilled dressing gown whilst gripping some kind of foolscap or a piece of cloth as he chews up the poetry with a heaving breast. One is reminded of Eric Idle as Shelley delivering his poetry on an ant.

Likewise, Christopher Cazenove pants and sighs and moans out his lines in a most distracting manner. It goes without saying that Rees and Cazenove get the lion’s share of the reading, as the number of those who believe this kind of huffing and puffing is poetry greatly outnumbers those who know otherwise. This is more a shame in the tape’s concluding poem, the lengthy piece, “Tamerlane” which falls to Rees, though here, in a melodramatic bit of verse written in his earliest youth, this kind of fist clenching emoting isn’t entirely out of place.

Because of Poe’s belief in poetry’s brevity, the tape moves along quickly and we are run from one verse to another. The producers clearly didn’t have faith in the material, for at various points throughout a melancholy piano or violin or cello cuts in with some mournful themes.

The largest problem facing the poetry cassettes is that the wad is essentially shot with the first volume, the second containing only perhaps “Alone” and “The Bells” as verses immediately recognized and recognizable.

Volume Two of same reunites the same cast, but adds Joel Grey to the mix, relegating poor Gregory to one single verse, probably an outtake from when they made tape one. The addition is no positive one, just the opposite, rather, a fact made quite clear from the second poem, “Alone” which Grey accompanies the last lines with a pause and a sniffle as though holding back tears before letting loose with a stifled sob.

The Annotated Edgar Allan Poe, by E.A. Poe & Harry Clarke, Crown Publishing Group, 1987

Not the kind of thing the casual reader would wish to really invest much time in (though it is helpful for snarky critics who wish to date a story or find some small hook for a quip), The Annotated Tales does at least provide what most popular editions do not: translations of the lengthier passages of French text that tend to occur with such frequency in nineteenth century novels and stories. That French was considered part of the decent education “good breeding” foisted upon young people in those days, it is no longer much in use and anyone reading older texts is almost owed by publishers this very small favor. If the book has any great defect it is the lack of Arthur Gordon Pym’s narrative, though I can easily see how a novel length effort might be too much for an already cumbersome volume.

If there is a good single volume of Poe’s fiction and poetry, it is the aforementioned Complete Tales and Poems Edgar Allan Poe. While the book would be better served by clear delineations of the materials (it includes without clarity several essays, though the title doesn’t indicate it), it is thorough, solidly put together with clear fonts and an easy-on-the-eyes layout, and of all the single volume texts out there it is the most portable. The cover is attractive without the garishness of some volumes and it refuses the cheap marketing of putting a raven or other such folderol on the jacket.

All in all Poe is nowhere near as good as he saw himself, yet nowhere as awful as his detractors. Even those who write well of him feel the need to throw in some bad language as if to say, “this is trash, decent trash, but, well, you know, trash all the same.” E.L Doctorow falls victim to this in a mostly sympathetic essay on Poe in his latest collection of essays, Creationists, whereupon he judges Poe a “hack,” though of course a talented one. Poe is overwrought, maudlin, sentimental, verbose, maddening, repetitive, and given to rhapsodies over a beauty at times only he noticed. He was an American romantic, in the same school as Byron, but with a bent decidedly more morbid.

He has been unfairly reduced, as many writers are, to a caricature of his most famous characters, and this is a shame and a crime. One can only imagine how much worse his reputation would be in America these days were it not for Baudelaire and many other sympathetic French critics of the time. He was probably the first American genius of letters, even if, like so many geniuses, he squandered much of his talent and tilted at too many windmills. Fractured, damaged, but keen of intellect and curiosity, Edgar Allan Poe is much better than you habitually think.

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