This coming Sunday evening, I’ll be at the Clinton Street Theater in Portland, OR, to close out the second annual Poe Show PDX* by reading Poe’s “The Raven.”
It’s a tremendous honor, closing out the show this way, and I’m humbled by it not only because it’s the finale but also because I love Poe so much.
When the organizers asked me to submit a bio ahead of this weekend’s show, I decided that instead of the standard intro (I write books; I’ve been published here, there, and elsewhere; I live with my wife and cats), I should give a little background about my relationship with Poe’s work. What follows is cribbed a bit from that other, briefer exploration:
Back in middle school, when all of my adolescent friends were whispering cultishly in the library stacks over the latest Stephen King novel (I think at the time it was The Eyes of the Dragon and then The Dark Half; I was reading my dad’s copy of Misery, by which he’d been too disturbed to finish), I was reveling in the saturated lexicon and macabre lives of Poe stories. I remember being especially taken with “The Tell-Tale Heart”; that grotesque eye, glistening in the wedge of light cutting from the narrator’s lantern to his sleeping housemate’s face, was a constant fascination for me, and I loved to read the ending with my hand on my own chest, feeling the thud of my heart in beat with the final sentences of the story.
I probably wasn’t the only high school English student who read “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado” twice, but I probably was the only one to hit the library in my downtime and research the Spanish Inquisition and “amontillado” just to understand those stories’ contexts. I loved the richness of Poe’s descriptions, but I loved, too, his reliance on history and culture to flesh out his stories. Call me a research nerd (I do write historical novels, and I am married to a librarian), but filling in the background by learning what Poe had learned to write these stories — that was never a distraction for me. It was an invitation to a larger world, and it grounded Poe’s fantastical narratives in a real history, made the horrors feel more accessible and therefore more terrifying. I loved it.
I also spent a great deal of time in Poe’s biography. I don’t know how many of my fellow students knew much about Poe beyond his salacious death in a ditch. How many of my classmates had read about his troubled youth, his fraught stint in military school, his awkward relationships and his marriage to his cousin? How many had studied his literary theory and his reviews of Hawthorne (another early love of mine)? How many understood that Poe’s drunkenness and drug abuse were likely rumors derived from medical conditions and the newspaper rantings of vindictive rivals? How many were curious about the mysterious visitor to Poe’s grave in Baltimore each year? I suspect that even within my small-town Texas community, I wasn’t Poe’s biggest fan. But I was certainly a devoted student of his work and his life.
In college, my chapter of the English honors society Sigma Tau Delta put Poe on our chapter t-shirts. While writing my masters thesis on Tom Franklin’s first story collection, Poachers, I was thrilled to learn his titular novella had won an Edgar Award. (Later, his novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter would be nominated for an Edgar too.) In marriage, I claimed my wife’s little Edgar Allan Poe coffee mug as my own. Working at Jersey Devil Press, I put a dismembered Poe on the cover of the February 2013 issue, and if someone brought me the right artwork, I’d love to put Poe on the cover again!
In grad school, working on my PhD, one of my proudest moments occurred at an impromptu house party where I drunkenly — but successfully — argued for the merits of “Annabelle Lee” as a serious poem. Later, I discovered Poe’s bizarre but brilliant book-length prose-poem, Eureka, and felt like my whole life of adoration had been justified.
In my adulthood, Poe had begun to feel like some literary fad, a passion everyone of a certain age went through and eventually grew out of. Like JD Salinger, Ayn Rand, Hunter S. Thompson, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski. It took me a long time to realize that you never truly grow out of your literary influences. You just learn what to do with them, how they influenced you, what was youthful or amateurish fascination and what was deeper, more profound, lasting.
Poe lasted for me. You can find his influence on my work in the grotesques and the horror elements of my novel, Hagridden. You can see my continuing love of and practice in the short story form — my ongoing pursuit of Poe’s “Unity of Effect” — in my short-fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin. And many people have often pointed to my general fascination with language and rhythm in my prose.
So I owe a debt to master of the macabre, and I am looking forward to celebrating his life and work this coming weekend. If you’re in the Portland area, I hope you’ll head to the Clinton Street Theater and join us! And if not, then live vicariously by breaking out your own volume of Poe, lighting a few candles and pouring a cognac, and settling in for a story or poem.