Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Voice of Terror

The Edgar Allan Poe Audiobook Collection #10: Deus et Machina, by Edgar Allan Poe, Read by Christopher Aruffo, Acoustic Learning Inc., 2009

I'm of two minds on audiobook readers doing character voices. Actually, I'm really only of one mind. If you can do it and do it well, then go ahead and do it. But you really have to be good at it; good in that way that other people praise you, not just good in your head. If you can't do it, don't bother even trying, not even a little bit. It will just come off ridiculous, especially if you attempt an accent.

Having reviewed other Poe audiobooks by Christopher Aruffo, I knew to expect stirring renditions and wonderful vocal characterizations, but even knowing all that I was unprepared for two specific recordings in his latest offering which I shall get to in a little bit.

Tasking himself with the Sisyphean labor of recording all Poe's extent works, Aruffo finds himself in little alleys and byways of the writer's more obscure corners, and sometimes there are truly astonishing gems to be found there. This recent collection, a play on the common phrase deus ex machina informs us that the collection is both about gods and machines. In "The Colloquy of Monos and Una," "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion," and "The Power of Words," Poe uses the Socratic debate formula to speculate on god, reincarnation, and the end of the world. With such conversational pieces, Aruffo is well up to the task of differentiating the voices of the two characters, never leaving you at a loss for what is being said. Readers familiar with Poe's philosophical magnum opus, "Eureka" will find some of the same themes touched on here. Aruffo tackled that piece some time ago and here recreates the quite difficult task of taking Poe's often baroquely phrased vaporous philosophical musings and making them engagingly listenable.

And as the title of this collection alludes to, it was not only the numinous and otherworldly that captured Poe's attention, but the miniscule and the quotidian as well. Thus, Aruffo brings in a few of Poe's essays including "Try a Mineralized Pavement" which reads as a well-informed letter to the editor about a new kind of road surface; "Street Paving" in which the author discusses the latest variations in technologies to succesfully pave city streets; and the delightfully punchy "A Chapter on Science and Art," a series of short blurbs from the recent scientific news and announcements. This last piece, in Aruffo's tones of brio takes on a "News on the March" kind of newsreel quality. There's something about this kind of news item of the past that just kills me:

A gentleman of Liverpool announces that he has invented a new engine, immensely superior in every respect to the old steam engine. The power is created by air and steam. It will consume only one-half the quantity of fuel of the old one; and the rapidity by which a vessel propelled by it will sail, will enable it to cross the Atlantic in six days. Owing to a particular way in which the power acts upon the vessel, twenty miles per hour can be realized by the old steam-engine, and instead of straining and weakening the ship, will brace and strengthen it. By this method the steam power is more than doubled. Doubtful.

That last "Doubtful" is delivered with an almost sneering shortness and you can hear Aruffo channeling a skeptical writer's put down in the finality of his tones. It's the quick touch of the knife that Poe could bring to his criticism that makes it well worth the reading.

"Von Kempelen and his Discovery" is mixed in among these essays, a touch I'm sure Poe would have appreciated, as it is one of his classic put-up-jobs. With all seriousness and straightfacedness, Poe's "essay" tells of the uncovering of a man who has managed to at last discover the secret of transmuting base metals into gold. It is only in the story's final conclusions that the absurdity becomes obvious, and perhaps back in the 1800s such a conclusion might still not have been seen as ridiculous as it appears to us today.

A nice little piece, Poe sort of cutting to the chase of blogging all those years ago, comes in "Anastatic Printing" in which the author celebrates a kind of primitive photocopying that would have printed up duplicates of handwritten documents. Poe champions this new technology declaring "authors will perceive the immense advantage of giving their own manuscripts directly to the public without the expensive interference of the type-setter, and the often ruinous intervention of the publisher" while predicting that "the humblest will speak as often and as freely as the most exalted, and will be sure of receiving just that amount of attention which the intrinsic merit of their speeches may deserve." That's fairly a perceptive account of how things should work more or less blogospherically, and in the theoretical this is still possible and does actually happen. And it only took over a hundred years from Poe's prediction until it came true.

The brief "Cabs" is a wonderful treatise on the newest fad sweeping the nation, that of the horse drawn taxi. This is one of the collection's shortest triumphs, though. Aruffo delivers this in a wonderful old-fashioned New York cabby accent and he pulls the trick off brilliantly. It was so well-done that a listener less familiar with Aruffo's work might hazard a guess that a friend sat in to read this piece. Once again, Aruffo's vocalizations shine with his talent.

Which brings us to where I've saved the best for last, Aruffo's treatment of two Poe tales on hypnotism, the latest medical marvel of the day. "Mesmeric Revelation" treads upon the earlier dialogues with some of its format and the general bent of the story. Aruffo pulls off a subtle accent for the sickly, elderly Mr. Vankirk, the hypnotic subject, put under just as he nears death. Then Poe allows his narrator to question the older man in this state right upon the cusp of the afterlift. Vankirk expounds -- at length -- upon the nature of god from a scientific viewpoint. It too is of a piece with Poe's "Eureka," being regarding the Platonic ideals of perfect forms and a deistic take on the deity.

That's all fine and good, but where you really get your money's worth in this collection comes in the sheer chills of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Like "Mesmeric Revelation," this story is about a man on the point of death being hypnotized. Unlike that earlier story, Poe takes the macabre route with this tale, the hypnotic state maintaining M. Valdemar's consciousness in his flesh as it decomposes around him. The story itself is a grotesque with "yellowish ichor" leaking from Valdemar's eyes at one point and his body crumbling in on itself in a mass of putrescence. When Aruffo gets to the dead man's voice though, that's when things really get unsettling.

I'm not prone to being creeped out all that much, but the curdling, gurgling rumble of Valdemar's voice after death is just about the finest chill I've ever gotten from a book. Part whisper, part moan, part growl, Valdemar's voice here is the epitome of terrifyingly good. It is horrible, absolutely and perfectly and wonderfully horrible, the kind of thing of which nightmares are made. Listen to it in the dark some time and see if you don't agree.

And you can't ask for better than that from a collection of Poe audio-works, now can you?

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