To listen to Christopher Aruffo's latest collection of stories by Edgar Allan Poe is to hear a voice rich with purring menace. If a great jungle cat could slowly monologue how you are going to be killed, how the flesh is going to be stripped from your bones, how those bones will then be chewed to bits, shortly before her pounce, that feline voice would be steeped in a similar coiled violence.
It is the voice of every campfire storyteller who asks, "Do you want to hear something really scary?" but it's devoid of the campy wink that says, This is just a story. There's a smile, all right, a smile that says things are about to get quite quite bloody and I wouldn't have it any other way. That makes for a real treat when you're listening to Poe's stories. You need someone with a voice full of dread and suppressed thunder, and on that score Mr. Aruffo delivers and then some. There's a thick as molasses timbre going on here, a gentleness that belies the voice's strengths.
And then there are the stories.
To start with, this is hardly the first of Aruffo's collections I've reviewed. Long ago, he made it quite clear that his intention was to tackle the complete works of Poe and with an output that has put other narrators to shame, I'd be quite surprised if he doesn't pull it off. With thirteen volumes, including many of Poe's most famous stories as well as obscurities that most audiobook companies skip, Aruffo has done a great service if you love the work of Poe. There are, at this point at least twenty nine separate recordings of "The Fall of the House of Usher" on Amazon, but there is only one recording of Poe's "Eureka."
So, I repeat, Aruffo does a great service in seriously digging in to the Poe canon to give us more than just the highlight reel. But he also manages that. At least three big name stories turn up in this collection that have been anthologized elsewhere nearly to death. "Hop-Frog," a bitter tale of revenge, "Berenice," one of Poe's premature burial stories with a couple depraved wrinkles all his own, and one of his greatest stories, "The Tell-Tale Heart." But then there are rare gems like "Man of the Crowd," almost more character study than fiction and "The Assignation," a story of romantic love and sacrifice which almost doesn't feel like a typical Poe, and "Metzengerstein," an unusual piece about family curses and damned horses. One of these rarities, the pseudo-comic "The Sphinx" even allows Aruffo to bring out that most dangerous of guns, the accented narrator.
There are three total discs in this set, much like in many of Aruffo's other collected packages. Typically there are three single disc releases, followed up by one of these package deals that scoop up the three in one decidedly horrifically enjoyable package. Previously we'd seen "Message Found in a Bottle," "Eleonora," "The Premature Burial," and "The Cask of Amontillado" all in one package, as well as "The Black Cat," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Masque of the Red Death" all in one collection. There is almost always a tasteful blend of the obscure and the famous.
The above-mentioned "The Sphinx" is one of the total joys of the collection. Here much like in a previous recording, "Cabs," Aruffo gets to dally in comic accents and his palpable enjoyment rubs off on the listener. In this instance, a visitor from New York, retiring with his country-mouse friend as they hide and take stock of the cholera deaths raging in the city, has an encounter with a monster. Poe is slow in the reveal of this story, but there's something about Aruffo's joyful New Yawk inflections that partly gives the game away early. Oh, that's no spoiler, either. When Poe goes in for his kill, he does it clean and entertainingly, and nothing about Aruffo's crisply satisfying portrayal of a Brooklynite needing a better perspective hands you any answers early.
Another sick treat given to the listener comes with "Berenice," a story any reader of Poe can predict the shapes of long before they're relevant. Here, Poe returns to his familiar stomping grounds of a monomaniacal narrator engaged in a doom-crossed marriage to his cousin and a premature burial, but it is just so the quality of his idee fixe that tosses this story up a bit higher than the usual Gothic fare of the day. Aruffo is in his element here, his narrator erudite, trembling, and unprepared for his own monstrousness. There is a lingering here on the dentrifical concerns, but Aruffo doesn't overplay the hand that Poe clearly does, and the reveal still courses through with dramatic fervor.
The real revelation here is in Aruffo's rendition of "The Tell-Tale Heart." Sure, "Hop-Frog" is a black little bit of pleasure with its many voices and its incredibly ghastly ending, but Aruffo does something so unexpected, so original in his culmination of (arguably) Poe's most famous short story that it goes beyond previous readings. I've had the great pleasure of listening to two preceding versions of the recording as Aruffo sought to get it just right, and with each new recording it closer approached success. This last version, the one available to purchase, finally captures a revelatory element to the structure of Poe's story in a way that to speak more of would be to give away a quickening and exciting conclusion. Something old made new again, and you will find yourself wanting to go back and listen again with a copy of the story in front of you to fully enjoy it the second time around. Poe was a master at thinking about language, its rhythms and its uses, as demonstrated in the essay he wrote about the composition of "The Raven," and here Aruffo has stumbled on to something overlooked by generations of readers. It's quite a treat to get something new, something hidden and unexpected like this.
While the trio pack tends to be your best bet, the individuals are offered for those of you seeking specific stories and not wanting to pay for the other material. Part of me understands that, but for the most part, I see the fantastic bounty of riches in Aruffo's work that there seems little value in letting any of it get away from you.