There is, in my mind, a Valhalla of sorts where the kings and queens of horror bask in shadowed glory.
There, in a vast and gloomy manor, Stephen King is writing steadily at an ebony desk, Mary Shelley is having tea with Bram Stoker, and H.P. Lovecraft gazes into the star-laden sky with arms outstretched. But of the many venerable and noteworthy authors present, one sits moodily upon a carven chair with a raven perched nearby.
It is Edgar Allan Poe.
I remember reading Poe for the first time when I was 12 and being downright spooked. Now, at 23, he only continues to rise in my estimation.
But there’s a problem.
Horror doesn’t age well. As time goes on and we mature, we are frightened by less and less, both individually and as a collective audience. Portions of Poe’s work that were once chilling I now find undeniably tame.
Something about that bothered me, and from my discomfort came this article. I wanted, perhaps needed, to find the works of Poe which have best survived the passing years. The immortal ones. The ones which still retain their macabre splendor more than 170 years later.
At length, I came to three.
“The Pit and the Pendulum”
There are two distinct ways this story can be enjoyed. The first is to read it, and the second is to have it read to you. I think certain stories are better when they are read out loud than they are contained strictly within the mind. I submit that this is one of them.
“The Pit and the Pendulum,” like all superb horror stories, is supremely psychological. Horror is often connected with madness, and it’s personally one of my favorite varieties. “The Pit and the Pendulum” covers the story of a man who has been taken by the all too infamous Spanish inquisition. Guess he didn’t suspect it.
They put him through several varieties of hideously devised tortures, though I won’t spoil them here. The piece feels very proto-Lovecraft, and the protagonist is immediately relatable. This is what keeps this story fresh after over a century.
The character’s responses are almost certainly what our own would be. He behaves exactly like we could see ourselves behaving were we in his shoes. Sometimes horror movies and books suffer from less than intelligent characters doing things that leave us saying “I wouldn’t do that…I wouldn’t do that…” in our heads. That couldn’t be further from the case in “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
The first time I read this piece, I thought about it for days. The more vivid your imagination is, the more this story will affect you. The first night after reading it will have you looking at the ceiling for a good long while.
If you want a strikingly empathetic kind of horror, then “The Pit and the Pendulum” will absolutely deliver. It’s one that keeps you thinking “what if that had been ME?”
Again, insanity is one of the more flavorful varieties of horror in my own experience. Unlike “The Pit and the Pendulum” though, this is a story that’s definitely best read instead of listened to. Certainly, it was disturbing when it was first written, but I actually think it’s gotten scarier over time.
“Berenice” is the story of a man with a mental condition that might be described today as an extremely powerful and consuming case of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Additionally, he seems to suffer from dissociative amnesia. Indeed, a psychologist would probably have a field day with the protagonist of “Berenice.” The character even tries to diagnose himself at one point towards the beginning of the story.
Mental health is something we take much more seriously today than in 1835 when “Berenice” was written, but the depiction seems shockingly modern to me. The main character is aware of their own condition and yet seems only capable of relating it. They are fundamentally unable to prevent themselves from their deeds, and by the end of the story, they are losing memory of that which they do.
The ending of “Berenice” is admittedly somewhat predictable, but is nonetheless gruesome, grisly, and ghoulish when it finally happens. The surprisingly contemporary mental health angle keeps the story feeling very up-to-date with the present and will definitely make your toes curl by the end.
Also…if you don’t like going to the dentist, then this story is definitely for you.
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
By far the biggest of the stories on this list, I think this is another one that is best when listened to instead of being read. It is a sprawling slow burn story with the perfect mix of sanity questioning unreality.
An unnamed narrator takes us through a harrowing set of encounters in the dazzlingly gothic Usher manor between its last remaining members. It’s a classic haunted house story that really sets the bar for any that has come after. It also possesses a delightful romantic quality, not in the sense of romance, but in the artistic and aesthetic sense.
Poe’s vocabulary is always antiquarian in the best way, and this story shows that quality off to no end. Ultimately, the story possesses a kind of twisted and enchanted feel which will suck you in and paint you into the picture as it were.
This story is also a technical masterpiece and demonstrates the level of skill Poe can bring to bear in a narrative when he wishes to. Everything, and I do mean everything, in this story comes back in the end. Things which seem entirely trivial become meaningful. If you catch on mid-story, it will keep you guessing at every turn and fixating on details you would otherwise ignore.
This story isn’t modern at all and won’t connect you to any of the characters in a specifically powerful way, but it’s definitely worth your time. Why? Because this is classic Edgar Allen Poe. This story is pure unadulterated flavor. It isn’t the scariest of the three stories by any stretch of the imagination, but the enjoyment factor here is just too high to ignore. This is proper literature.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” holds up because it’s just plain good.