Sunday, August 30, 2009

Summer Audiobook Sensation

The Edgar Allan Poe Collection 6-8 and The Edgar Allan Poe Collection 9: The Pioneers, By Edgar Allan Poe, Read by Christopher Aruffo, Acoustic Learning Inc., 2009

Some time back when I did my month of Poe for one year's October, I managed to somehow stumble into a dedicated audiobook reader who told me he was devoted to making audio versions of all of Poe's work. I was hopeful he'd really do it, but a little doubtful. There's just so much to do and unless there's a publishing company bankrolling you, it seemed a Herculean task for one man with a microphone.

Well, that one man with a microphone, Christopher Aruffo, is back with armloads of new Poe recordings and they're topnotch stuff, demonstrating a growth in his narrative abilities and sensitivities. I recently finished listening to volumes 6 through 9 of his latest recordings and I'm telling you: if you enjoy Poe and you enjoy audiobooks, consider this a little slice of heaven on earth.

Aruffo has made it easy for you to purchase single discs of his versions if you're after a very specific favorite Poe and I review them in this fashion, though it is possible for you to purchase a three pack that bundles volumes six through eight. The ninth volume turns out to feature such long recordings that it is itself a multidisc edition.

The Edgar Allan Poe Collection 6

The sixth disc in this series features some a couple classic Poe pieces as well as an obscurity or two not usually recorded. Both "The Oblong Box" and "MS Found in a Bottle" are from Poe's sea story phase though the two couldn't be more dissimilar. The former is a kind of mystery (for which Poe is given the credit as inventor in his Dupin tales) in which an attentive ship passenger stakes out another passenger to determine what makes up the contents of a strange box the observed party keeps with him. The narration keeps our interest piqued in the curious doings in the stateroom in question, then gratifies it in a moment of excitement and revelation at story's end.

The second tale, "MS. Found in a Bottle" is the story which launched Poe's career, a first-hand account of a ship blown off course by the terrible Simoon (part typhoon, part hurricane and part sandstorm). When the ship capsizes, our narrator ends up aboard another passing ship which is headed toward the South Pole. Poe creepily adds to this black galleon the fact that each of the crew members are blind and do not take account of the narrator, the sole survivor of the previous ship.

In many ways, "MS. Found in a Bottle" presaged a number of other writer's Pole stories while also sharing with it elements of the nameless shapeless dreaded horrors populating many a tale by H.P. Lovecraft. Like many Poe tales, usually featuring a singular narrator, a solitary type who more reports the action than participates it, there aren't many opportunities for dialogue. Aruffo makes the most of the drama of the story, his powerful voice filling my headphones with his rich tones as the ship is beset by currents and lost. While it is a piece of absurdity to imagine that one might write a diary entry as you were in the middle of being sucked down a whirlpool, Poe's story is effective nonetheless, his early sureness of touch when it came to handling dread evident even here.

These two more well-known pieces are joined by "The Oval Portrait" and the last story Poe wrote, the unfinished "The Light-House," also in the form of journal or diary. Readers of Oscar Wilde's "Portrait of Dorian Gray" will recognize the main supernatural device of the fourth story rounding out this disc, "The Oval Portrait," that of the ability of art to so mimic reality that it absorbs the actual life or soul of the real world. Poe's narrator at least makes it abundantly clear why pedants are so rarely invited to parties.

The highlight of these lesser recorder stories, though, has to be "The Light-House." Here Aruffo camps it up for our entertainment, delivering the narrative in the fussy, elitist voice of a man not knowing what he's in for, but certain in his dreams. As the story was unfinished, it's almost never, if ever, committed to recording, and we have our reader here to thank for giving us not only a rarity, but one delivered with such panache. As the recording ended so abruptly, I was certain I was missing some tracks, but no. A check at the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore's fantastic and thorough website confirmed what I dreaded. Just as I was settling into a fun tale, it ended. Alas!

The Edgar Allan Poe Collection 7

The seventh volume features only two stories, and with such a short title list, you'd guess they'd have to be good ones, and Aruffo does not disappoint. Here, he chooses to focus on two tales of premature burial, the obviously eponymous one and the all-time classic "The Cask of Amontillado."

Frequently anthologized, "The Premature Burial" allows Aruffo to demonstrate one of his especially wonderful strengths as a reader. Where the opening material dithers for quite some time with a number of anecdotes and treads near dry essay (and, surprisingly, you can approach dry after a number of nearly identical "buried alive" stories), Aruffo's pacing and emphasis keeps the material lively until we reach the narrator's sheer terror in the later pages.

A cataleptic with a long-running fear of premature burial narrates a few incidents of such happenings (apparently not too uncommon somewhere in the area of 150 years ago) and in a manner that presaged Freud's investigations into the unconsciousness, brings about his own almost coma-like condition through fear of such burials. Here Aruffo delivers a nicely chilling vocalization of the demon haunting our narrator's trances, as well as grippingly dramatizes the mounting panic of the narrator as the story closes.

The more famous of the two tales, "The Cask of Amontillado," the familiar revenge story narrated by Montresor, tells how he goes about plotting then carrying out his revenge against the ironically named Fortunato for a grave insult. We're never given the specifics about the insult, only that it was sufficient for Montresor to plot Fortunato's murder and premature internment.

Aruffo brings to this reading his wonderful gift for dialects and different voices to the back and forth conversation between Fortunato and Montresor, delivering the victim in a gruff, accented characterization you'd be hard-pressed not to believe is another person. The reader also ups the ante on the recording by adding just enough sound effect manipulation to give us a catacomb-y echo as villain and victim climb lower beneath the earth. This adds a nice touch, some chilling atmospherics, while avoiding the overkill of overproduction some recorded books have gone in for, turning a reading into a staged performance.

I remarked to a friend of mine who had delivered an amateur recording of this same story that I thought in his version the coughing fit of Fortunato was overdone, but it's a delight to hear Aruffo take the very same tack. At one stage while he and Montresor are down in the catacombs, a coughing fit overtakes the intended victim. The scene includes, in the printed version, a moment of black humor that most readers overlook:

He turned towards me, and looked into my eyes with two filmy orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication.

"Nitre?" he asked, at length.

"Nitre," I replied. "How long have you had that cough?"

"Ugh! ugh! ugh! --ugh! ugh! ugh! --ugh! ugh! ugh! --ugh! ugh! ugh! --ugh! ugh! ugh!"

My poor friend found it impossible to reply for many minutes.

"It is nothing," he said, at last.

Both my friend and Aruffo read it arightly and provide this dark little story with the twinkling of humor often overlooked in many of Poe's works. The long, drawn out coughing spell followed up by the clearly ironic dismissal.

It is always a pleasure when someone of great skill tackles something you are intimately familiar and brings a little something new and exciting to the work, and Aruffo succeeds beautifully in this case.

The Edgar Allan Poe Collection 8

The eighth volume finds Aruffo concentrating on two popular Poe stories of doomed romances, Poe following his self-prescribed path to ultimate aesthetic beauty: the death of a lovely young woman. In the first of these, "Ligeia," we meet the notion of "the double" that Poe used so effectively in William Wilson. A young couple marry, our unnamed narrator and his ethereal bride who proves too fragile for this world, and thereupon after the wife begins schooling the husband in the divine and the occult. This education is cut short abruptly by the death of the title character, but it an obvious and telling signifier of what's to come.

Some time after his widowhood begins, our narrator moves away and finds himself married to another woman, his second marriage as passionless as his first one was crammed full of it. But tragedy once more strikes, because this is an Edgar Allan Poe story after all. The narrator's second wife, "the fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine," falls sick and dies. On a night's vigil, he finds she rises and as her bandages fall away, she is revealed to be none other than Ligeia.

This itself is rather similar to the stories "Morella" and "Eleonora." In all three we are treated to doomed romances that you know are never going to be successful. Poe manages to fill the second romance or the sequel to the wife's death with dread and foreboding, only in one instance giving us the hint of a happy ending.

That happy ending makes up the second story on this disc, "Eleonora," though Poe himself later criticized this wish fulfillment style neat closure. A much shorter piece than the first, "Eleonora" feels decidedly the lesser work. That aspect is quite likely what lies behind the number of revisions Poe put the piece through over the course of his life.

Nevertheless, Aruffo is wonderful in the delivery of his characters. It's a shame that Poe should tend so regularly toward monomaniacal loner narrators who tend to monologue. With such a facility for differing voices, some of Aruffo's talents are wasted with Poe. Still, as a reader he does manage to inflect long, ornate passages with the right amount of breathing room, giving us thinking, breathing characters instead of essayists who happen to discuss dead brides. He is appreciative of the differences in male to female characters and doesn't simper his way through the small amounts of text Ligeia is given to speak in her story, nor does he simply pitch his voice a little higher, but offers up something far subtler and ultimately more feminine than either easy way out.

As a collection, volumes six through eight offer a nice round helping of Edgar Allan Poe stories from the obscure to the overly well-known, and Aruffo's reading is so pleasurable, so well-done as to put them up there among the legendary ones of Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price.

The Edgar Allan Poe Collection 9

If you're seeking hard to find obscurities, stories that almost never make it into recordings of Poe's work, then this is the one for you. A gem of a collection wherein reader Christopher Aruffo tackles pieces you simply can't find anywhere else. It's simply a treasure trove of riches in which we are treated to several of Poe's more hoax like stories. Included are "The Balloon Hoax" as well as "Hans Pfaal" and "The Journal of Julius Rodman," Poe's unfinished serial novel that was so convincing it fooled a member of Congress.

Aruffo also adds to his repertoire of Poe's essays from which he provided a wonderful selection in his Edgar Allan Poe Collection Volume 4 and Volume 5. Filling out the bill with these hoax tales and adventure stories are a few of Poe's more travel related essays including "Harper's Ferry," "Morning on the Wissahiccon" and "The Capitol at Washington." We also are given "Some Account of Stonehenge," which might be considered travel related, though it almost seems Poe's attempt at an encyclopedic account of the place.

Aruffo dispatches these with his customary style, turning what might read dryly on the page into fascinating accounts. The essays demonstrate Poe's less lurid side, though he's just as prone to his ornate, baroque style of composition. Aruffo delivers Poe as he is, bombastic, hyperbolic, critical and judgmental and all of it is a treat to listen to, in no small part because Aruffo's made such an in-depth study of the material. He understands Poe better than any other reader I've listened to, finding subtleties and nuances in the work most narrators miss.

While "Hans Pfaal" keeps a place in my heart just for the sheer audacity of its absurdity (the description of both the visitor who arrives by balloon to deliver the message that makes up the story and the account of the balloon's construction are simply laughable), the crown jewel in this case is what would have been Poe's second novel had he not come to contract disputes with his publisher (an all too common occurrence with the author).

I'm speaking of course of "The Journal of Julius Rodman," a detailed meta-fiction wherein an editor delivers excerpts from a supposedly fleshed out account of a trip over the Rockies preceding that of Lewis and Clark's. While there are entertaining passages throughout, filled with adventure and comic moments, some of the best of these passages of great enjoyment are given to us by the editor who seems at times rather impatient with Rodman's account, interrupting at any given moment to hurry us along in the action.

The style in which Poe writes, the depths he went to to add a veneer of verisimilitude to his work contributed to the fact that Robert Greenhow, one time translator for the State Department, included passages from the work in a document commissioned by the United States Senate.

As the two voices compete for narrative space, Aruffo deftly shifts back and forth, giving both men's accounts and creating wholly credible individual personalities for the rough and tumble gentleman of Julius Rodman, as well as a persnickety editor not too dissimilar in attitude at time from the unnamed diarist of "The Light-House." At times the piece seemed like it was not only Rodman against the elements and the various native tribes, but also Rodman against his later editor.

Alas, again, for this piece likewise ends abruptly, unfinished by Poe after being fired as editor of the magazine in which it had been appearing serially. The loss to literature -- as well as how its loss allows the morbid, brooding Poe to so dominate without challenge -- is, of course, incalculable.

What's remarkable, though, over the breadth of Poe's work, amply demonstrated with this collection, is the visionary aspect of Poe the writer. We are treated to absurdist works, science fiction, fantasy, horror, metafiction, detective fiction -- half of which are invented with Poe's experimentation. While to this day Poe's style of lurid melodrama for which is he best known still keeps him out of consideration at many a college literature course, his contributions can hardly be looked over.

Kudos to Christopher Aruffo for doing his part to bring to light some of these more rare gems of Edgar Allan Poe. It is through each small chip in the edifice of the legend of Poe that the walled in genius of Poe more and more escapes. Recordings of this quality and of this depth and of this thoroughness only hasten that day.

1 comment:

.the tomato. said...

Ugh! ugh!