His gloomy, haunted visage adorns the covers of collected works, publications of whose like he would never see in his lifetime. Edgar Allan Poe died in penury and near-obscurity, and might have been forgotten had his work not been turned into sensationalized, abridged, adaptations posthumously, a fate he might not have wished on his most hated literary rival.
But Poe survived caricature to become known as one of the greatest of American writers in any genre. A pioneer of psychological horror and science fiction, founder of the detective story, poet of loss and mourning, and incisive literary critic whose principles informed his own work so closely that we can use essays like his 1846 “The Philosophy of Composition” as keys to unlock the formal properties of his stories and narrative poems.
In the short TED-Ed video above, scripted by Poe scholar Scott Peeples of the College of Charleston, we are introduced to many of the qualities of form and style that make Poe distinctive, and that made him stand out among a crowd of popular horror writers of the time. There are his principles, elaborated in his essay, which state that one should be able to read a story in one sitting, and that every word in the story must count.
These rules produced what Poe called the “Unity of Effect,” which “goes far beyond fear. Poe’s stories use violence and horror to explore the paradoxes and mysteries of love, grief, and guilt, while resisting simple interpretations or clear moral messages. And while they often hint at supernatural elements, the true darkness they explore is the human mind.”
This observation leads to an analysis of Poe’s unreliable narrators, particularly in stories like The Tell-Tale Heart. But there is another aspect to Poe—one which makes his unreliable voices so compelling. Even when the stories seem incredible, the events bizarre, the narrators maniacal, we believe them wholeheartedly. And this has much to do with the framing conventions Poe uses to draw readers in and implicate them, forcing them to identify with the stories’ tellers.
For example, “Ms. Found in a Bottle,” the very first story in Poe’s posthumous collection, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, opens with an epigraph from French librettist Quinault’s opera Atys, an adaption of one of Ovid’s stories. The lines translate to “He who has but a moment to live has no longer anything to dissemble.”
We are invited into a confidence through the doorway of this device—a classical, and neoclassical, reference to truth-telling, a sober, learned literary stamp of authority. As the nameless narrator introduces himself, he makes sure to place himself in another ancient tradition, Pyrrhonism, a skeptical philosophy concerned with epistemology, or how it is we can know what we know.
The narrator assures us that “no person could be less liable than myself to be led away from the severe precincts of truth by the ignes fatui of superstition.” Though we may doubt this bold assertion, and the person making it, we might also be convinced of our own unshakeable rationality and skepticism. These are the moves, to put it plainly, of stage magicians, mountebanks, and confidence men, and Poe was one of the greatest of them all.
He flatters his readers’ intelligence, draws them close enough to see his hands moving, then picks their comfortable assumptions from their pockets. Poe understood what many of his peers did not: readers love to be conned by a juicy yarn, but it must be really good—it must show us something we did not see before, and that we could, perhaps, only look at it indirectly, through a pleasing act of aesthetic (self) deception.