Monday, April 02, 2007

Ten Great Mysteries by Edgar Allan Poe

Edited and with an introduction by Geoff Cronklin; illustrated by Irv Docktor. First published 1960, TAB Books (USA).

Edgar Allan Poe (1809 - 1849) lived a life of tragedy, resulting in a fixation upon death and dying, the macabre and the morbid. Before he died aged 40 (his last words were "God help my poor soul") he lived through the early deaths of his birth mother, his foster mother and his wife. All three died, still young and beautiful, of tuberculosis.

Poe's female characters in his haunting short stories and poems are invariably young, beautiful and slowly dying from mysterious wasting diseases. The stories collected together in this anthology, however, focus on Poe's awesome talent to create an unbearable sense of horror. They also include some of Poe's finest detective stories, including the acknowledged "first" detective story: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), featuring the genius amateur detective M. Dupin. Fifty years later M. Dupin would serve as a model for Sherlock Holmes.

A stand-out in this collection is The Tell-tale Heart (in which a man frightens his father to death, only to confess when he later begins to hear the constant sound of his father's heart beating). The Pit and the Pendulum, one of Poe's most famous stories, is also a favourite (I remember first reading it in primary school, as part of that "classics" comic book series).

Poe's use of description to create an overwhelming sense of tension is masterful. His mystery and detective stories, written over 150 years ago using language which is obviously dated, still hold an extraordinary sense of power over the reader. His talent was extraordinary... who knows what else he could have achieved if he'd stayed away from the opium and the alcohol, and his doomed wife Sissy (whom he married when she was 13 and he was 26; he had first met Sissy, his cousin, when she was 6 or 7 years old).

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