Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Ten Great Mysteries

Edgar Allan Poe Ten Great Mysteries (1845)
I suppose Ten Stories of Which a Certain Portion Might Be Deemed Adequately Mysterious would have seemed cumbersome, and I think it was The Black Cat which tipped it for me, representing the point at which I noticed I was once again straining to find the value in something old, undeniably worthy, hugely influential and generally hailed as a copper-bottomed classic when truthfully I'm bored absolutely shitless.

I'm prepared to acknowledge that Poe was a major talent and an important figure in the history of literature providing anyone supporting that position with any degree of fervour is prepared to acknowledge the possibility that his alleged strengths are very poorly represented in this collection. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, and The Pit and the Pendulum are all readable, as I suppose is The Black Cat on a purely technical level. At his best, Poe works up a thoroughly convincing atmosphere and there's an undeniable poetry to his words - as you might reasonably expect. The two stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin are of particular interest in providing obvious inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, but also in being more than simple detective tales, but tales about the mechanics of perception and understanding as explored by means of a pipe-smoking detective seeking clues. Elsewhere Poe cooks up powerfully claustrophobic first person narratives which I would imagine almost certainly inspired H.P. Lovecraft, and also - quite unexpectedly - A.E. van Vogt.

Beyond this, we have short stories which doubtless worked better for the less-jaded readers of the time than they do for me in 2016. The main problem is that nothing much happens in any of these, and most seem to amount to single extended scenarios intended to induce a sense of unease; and also that a few of them felt like I was reading a long, long letter from a fucking solicitor. My attention could just not be kept upon the page, no matter what. You might suppose it serves me right for all those hours spent playing Super Mario Kart, but I've read shitloads from the 1840s or thereabouts, and shitloads from the 1840s or thereabouts which hasn't bored me to tears quite like this bunch. Even Fitz-James O'Brien wrote a better yarn if you can ignore the routine anti-Semitism.

Some of the stories were okay, if hardly serving to justify Poe's stellar reputation; others were simply dull, just as all those other stories by Robert Louis Stevenson were dull; and then there's The Black Cat which effects a reaction with descriptions of its protagonist torturing and then killing his pet cat. I'm sure no real cats were harmed but I really dislike this sort of lazy revulsion-response button pushing associated with certain strands of horror fiction and certain realms of the internet. Whilst shock is as valid a tool as any in the creation of art, it requires skilled application rather than just shoving it in our faces whilst making a lurid, gurgling noise. The Black Cat is simply vile and ham-fisted, the just deserts conclusion justifying the means with all the conviction of your average busted kiddy fiddler protesting that those photographs were purely for research purposes. I guess Poe was hoping to get a reaction, and he succeeded in so much as my reaction is that he can fuck off, and that I've cancelled any plans I had to read any more of his yawnsome shite ever again. I'm glad his name has been posthumously associated with pisspots.


  1. Ha! I'm finally getting around to reading some Lovecraft, (he's not an author I've ever had much interest in but Alan Moore's writing his Lovecraftian epic, Providence at the moment so I want some context for when I read that) and feel pretty much exactly the same way about that. I reckon that authors like Poe, Lovecraft and Tolkien only really ever hit the spot best when you discover them at the age of 16...

  2. Yeah I remember reading Lovecraft as a teenager and thinking it was the scariest thing ever. Really unsettling. But I tried reading a couple of his short stories last year and my only reaction of note was "what's with all the adjectives?"
    Not read much Poe but what I have encountered has struck me as similarly florid and hysterical. All the words get in the way of any sort of emotional response, in my experience.
    I think my current contender for scariest book ever is "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski.

  3. Lovecraft wrote some decent stuff but he's very uneven, and usually best read after a few less satisfying Lovecraft imitators for sake of contrast (Derleth for example). I still rate a couple of his hit singles quite highly - 'At the Mountains of Madness', 'The Dunwich Horror' and so on, but there was an awful lot of crap. 'In the Walls of Eryx' - his only proper science-fiction tale - is genuinely great, I would say. On the other hand 'Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath' is so fucking terrible it's actually worth a look just for chuckles - reads like a nine-year old trying to do Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (which frankly wasn't that amazing in the first place).

  4. Yeah, there's definitely a lot to admire about Lovecraft. I've just finished The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. It's better than I expected in many ways, well calibrated, creepy, good at evoking unimaginable things and the dark gods are scarily awesome. But the writing itself just didn't do it for me. Maybe it was the demands of the pulp fiction format. I'm reminded of the similarly iconoclastic pulp crime writer Jim Thompson who was once described as 'a writer who was good at everything except the paperwork'