Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps the father of the horror genre, died mysteriously on this day in 1849 at the age of forty. He was a writer of various works, including over sixty short stories in addition to poems, a novel, a textbook, a book of scientific theory, and hundreds of essays and book reviews, in addition to being an activist for higher pay for writers. It’s no wonder that Poe’s legend had carried on so strongly 171 years after his death. I remember reading “Cask of Amontillado” for the first time when I was fourteen and being so shocked at the end that I had nightmares for a full week afterwards. Not to mention that Poe completely changed the style of short stories through his work, saying that the climax should occur at the end of a story, instead of sandwiched between rising and falling action (you’re welcome for the free English lesson on the structure of a plot).
While his personal life didn’t exactly line up with the gruesome, heart-pounding stories he wrote, his life was not a dull one either. Poe’s parents were travelling actors, but both died when Poe was about three years old. After that, he was taken in for years by John Allan, a wealthy tobacco merchant in Virginia. This prompted Poe to attend the University of Virginia, but attending the university left Poe so poor that he burnt his own furniture to keep warm. After Poe’s relationship with Allan blew up in a sense, Poe briefly attended West Point, which he was thrown out of, before going to live with family in Baltimore.
Poe lived in various cities throughout his life, worked as a literary critic in addition to his more-widely-known position as a magazine writer, was engaged three times (twice to the same woman), married his young cousin, briefly owned his own magazine, and was one of the few writers of his time to also achieve great success among his European audience (especially the French).
Where his life does converge with his work, though, is in his death. Poe’s final engagement was actually to the same woman he was engaged to the first time, Elmira Royster Shelton. Both Poe and Shelton were widowed, so they had reconnected and were supposed to be married when Poe returned to Richmond. However, Poe would never make it back there.
On his way to Philadelphia for business, he went missing and was found five days later semi-conscious, laying in a gutter. On October 7, 1849, Poe died before ever gaining enough consciousness to explain what had happened to him. There are various theories as to what caused Poe’s death, but we will never actually know.
In honor of the 171st anniversary of Poe’s death and just in time to kick off the Halloween season, here are five of his lesser-known short stories that should be added to your TBR Quick Reads. Before jumping into the list, though, it’s important to note that you should definitely add “The Raven,” “The Black Cat,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” to your TBR if you haven’t read them either. Each story can be read in one night, so feel free to go on a Poe-Binge-Read to get yourself into the Spooky Halloween Spirit.
“Berenice” is a great story to start the list off with, because it is the perfect example of Poe’s dark romantic style and many relate it to what is possibly his most-famous poem, “Annabel Lee.” Without giving away too much, it is your typical “lonely man in a creepy house” story, with Berenice, the love interest, as a source of relief for the man, Egaeus. Berenice’s health is deteriorating, though, so time is running out as her beauty begins to fade. Readers watch first-hand how Egaeus’ grasp on reality slips away as he grapples with what has befallen his love. For one last hint about “Berenice,” I highly recommend you take a bite out of this story.
While “Berenice” is an example of dark romance, “Eleonora” is a story of true romance. That’s right, Poe did not only write horror stories. Many scholars believe it to be a story inspired by his own life, as Poe depicts the protagonist as a man who falls in love with and marries his cousin. Much of the story depicts the young couple living happily, developing what would become love between them, and then shifted to describe their relationship. Again mirroring Poe’s life, Eleonora’s beautiful life is cut short. Don’t let that fool you, though, because the aftermath portrayed in dealing with the death of a loved one is as enthralling of a read as the description of the love itself.
3. “The Spectacles”
In addition to romance, Poe also was an excellent curator of a few comedy stories. “The Spectacles” is my personal favorite, possibly just for the fact that I wear glasses myself. It is about a man who absolutely refuses to wear glasses, despite the fact he really needs them. The narrator is a tad vain, describing his appearance highly at the start of the story. He does not want to wear the glasses, because he believes that would make him appear old. A twist on the typical “love at first sight” story, Poe depicts a man falling in love with a woman as soon as he sees her, but he can’t really see her well since his vision is so weak.
4. “The Man of the Crowd”
“The Man of the Crowd” is a simultaneous telling of the double and an inability to comprehend the phenomenon of the double. You’d have to read it to understand fully what I mean, but it depicts the narrator sitting in a London café as he begins to observe and analyze the people around him. An old man catches his eye and has him completely enamored, because the narrator simply cannot figure him out. The narrator ends up following the old man around for hours. He follows him until dawn breaks the next morning, at which point the narrator is so exhausted that he gives up on trying to understand the old man. To find out his final thought, though, you’ll have to read the story yourself.
5. “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
Finally, we finish with the most-horrifying item on our list, “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” The narrator has been fascinated with mesmerism for years and wants to perform an experiment to see how it effects people on the verge of death. Therefore, he reaches out to M. Ernest Valdemar to perform the experiment on him. The story is told from the point of view of the narrator and feels exactly like an examination report completed by a doctor, as all of the first names are replaced with only their initials. As the story continues, it becomes a question of death, life, and the morals behind it all.