Authors and After Words

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious.” – C. G. Jung

Edgar Allen Poe was born on January 19, 1809, making this the year of his 200th birthday. Every year since 1949, on the 19th of January, an anonymous visitor has come to Poe’s grave at Westminster Church in Baltimore, toasted the author with cognac and departed leaving three roses at the site. In 2007, this practice was claimed by a former historian of the church, but that claim has been disputed so we will continue to honor the toaster’s anonymity.

There are Poe memorial sites in The Bronx, New York, Richmond, Virginia and in a dorm room he is supposed to have used at the University of Virginia which is kept up by staff and student members of “The Raven Society.” His earliest surviving home in Baltimore is now preserved as a museum and is the home of the Edgar Allen Poe Society. A home in Philadelphia where Poe lived from 1843 – 1844 is now being preserved by the National Park Service as a national historic site. There is a building on the Upper West Side of New York City that displays a plaque that claims that this is the place where Poe wrote “The Raven” and there is another plaque in Boston which may be incorrectly placed but which nevertheless claims to honor the spot where he was born. Finally, there is a bar in Baltimore now called “The Horse You Came In On” which claims to be the last bar where he drank (Like other great American writers, he had a drinking problem all his life.) and as further lore would have it, shelters a ghost named “Edgar.”

To the best of my knowledge there has not been much of a literary fuss made over this anniversary. That is unfortunate because all of the work we survey these days in the forms of Gothic, horror, and mystery fiction (and film) hark back to Poe’s pioneering authorship for it was Poe who actually drew the first popular and modern maps of these dark forms.

His work, however, was not without precedence. It was not long before the classical and Apollonian brightness of the 18th century Enlightenment was countered by the rich but unruly reaction called Romanticism, and a part of that reaction was to delve into the shadowy realms of folklore and dream fantasy. Two of the first and most important items to emerge from those early forays into the underside of the imagination were Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in 1818 and a short story by a friend, John William Polidori, called “The Vampyre” (1819). These and other early explorations into the realms of the Shadow during the mid to late 1700s and early 1800s provided glimpses of the dark side to mostly upper class folk who had the time to read and could afford the books to do so. It was not until the 19th century, with the appearance of large and substantially literate middle and working readers that a truly popular book culture was possible through newspaper serialization, magazines and cheap paperback volumes. This was the situation at the time of Poe’s maturity.

During his short lifetime, Poe served his American audience as a sometimes caustic literary critic. His fiction, built on the Gothic forms and themes of the earlier writers, became far more successful in Europe than it was in America, thanks to the French translations of Charles Baudelaire. Alas, this success was not translated into financial gains, as there was no real copyright protection at the time. It was only after his early death that his pioneering work in detective fiction, horror, and science fiction became well enough known in his own country to spur the growth of these forms by younger American writers. As a result, his popularity continued to rise. In the 20th Century, his work was often adapted for radio, film and television and it continues to haunt popular fiction and film. Book stores today overflow with new Gothic, horror, and detective fiction for both young readers and adults with awards bearing Poe’s name given for new works of crime fiction. A list of horror fiction writers published in Wikipedia is six pages long with a list of 11 sub-genres and a note to see also Science fiction and fantasy authors. What does this all mean?

In one of his most succinct stories, “The Cask of Amantillado,” Poe shows us precisely what this hidden world is about. Remember, this is a story about revenge. The teller has determined to murder his enemy (ironically named Fortunato) by luring him down into a cavern on the pretext of tasting a rare sherry. Since this happens during Carnival, Fortunato, dressed in the costume of the Fool, is already drunk. He drinks more on the way down. Once there, the narrator claps him in irons and proceeds to wall up the alcove, leaving his victim chained to the wall to await his death. The account, spoken some 50 years later, reveals a perfect crime – Fortunato has never been found, his disappearance remains an unsolved mystery to all but the teller of the tale and his confident, the reader. The very structure of the tale reflects journey into Shadow and, in the end that is where we are left.

In a remarkable essay at the beginning of the book that has provided the title of this piece, Robert Bly describes the process through which we develop the personal Shadow. We begin, he says, as “360̊ personalities” of light and energy but gradually discover that there are qualities that are not acceptable such as un-reined anger, jealousy and sexuality. As we grow older, we drag this huge “bag” of bad with us. It has become our dark under-life, our Shadow. In this process, Shame becomes the handmaiden of Culture, for every culture has taboos that exist to control individual behavior and benefit the group. But the energy of the individual cannot be created or destroyed; it is transformed and one of the ways to transform it is through art. On a cultural level, that transformation occurs in Gothic, horror, sci-fi, fantasy and mystery forms. Detective fiction is especially useful in bringing the Shadow into the Light and setting the world aright once again. “Cask,” however, is a tale of Shadow unredeemed, darkness triumphant.

I began this column with a quotation from Carl Jung. I will end with a reference I have cited before, namely Siegfried Krakauer’s idea that films (and by extension popular fiction) reveal the underlying themes actually at work in any modern culture. So far I have deliberately resisted equating the Shadow unconditionally with Evil. The shift from Shadow to Evil is not inevitable. Still, the voice in “The Cask of Amantillado” has been characterized as that of a mad man. Poisoned by its own darkness, his Shadow has certainly deteriorated into Evil – a process that Poe reveals frequently in his fiction. Poe’s followers echo that process again and again and make a good living doing so. Pogo said it best: “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” What remains to be seen is where we go from here.

*Luckily, titles are not copyrighted so that I can use this one with impunity. This title comes from a useful anthology: Meeting the Shadow; the hidden power of the dark side of human nature, edited by Jeremiah Abrams and Connie Zweig, published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee Books, an imprint of the Putnam Publishing Group, New York, NY, 1991.