The first Gothic novel was ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole, Earl of Oxford (1717-1797). Its castle was a dismal place, but not near as much time is spent developing the atmosphere in that story as in ‘Usher’. (The Fall of the House of Usher). The reader is led, there, straight into the action with the crushing death of a young prince. There was the underlying shame of incest, of supernatural events, and hauntings by unknown and perhaps unknowable fears and horrors. Other influences on Poe may have been Clara Reeve (1729-1807) who wrote ‘The Old English Baron’ and Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818) who wrote about things supernatural in his ‘The Monk’ and in the Gothic tradition in ‘Mistrust’ with its mysteries, witchcraft, murder and the horror of human deeds. There was Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’, of course, and his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, though Poe did not like Hawthorne’s, ‘The White Old Maid’.
Did Poe influence Wolfgan Hildesheimer’s story ‘A World Ends’? This story describes a gala party at San Amerigo (an artificial island – can the word America be missed here?). It is a place of much splendor and opulence. The end of something has come but no one seems to have a clue about it. It is as if they are on the deck of the Titanic but no one notices that they are about to sink. The story is told in a tone of dreaminess and acceptance. There is a certain cynical notion presented here that things have always been this way, and they always remain so. The first person narrator finds himself among the cultural elite, but the rats have quite literally begun to abandon the place. The floor vibrates as the very foundation of the island is breaking apart. The music continues to play and all stay behind save the narrator who, like the rats and the servants, flees for his life. There was the crashing roar as of a building collapsing. Upon looking back from sea, it was if the place had never been.
To ‘usher’ is to lead someone to their seat. An usher is a person who is the doorkeeper; the one who introduces a personage. In this case, to usher in a new way of being, and to usher out the old.
Poe is the first one to usher in the detective story as well. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ begins with a narrative discussion of those who delight in analyzing (as with Poe himself): “that moral activity which disentangles”. “He (the analyst) is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, hieroglyphics…” The author is setting the scene here in a different way – setting the mind to pondering what it means to analyze a situation. He then discusses various games – chess, draughts, and whist – weighing the necessity of each in the use of calculating powers. He goes on to say, “The analytical power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis.”
His narrative then brings the reader to Paris in the summer of 18— and as a matter of shear coincidence the narrator and a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin happen to meet while searching for the same rare book. Dupin had, he noticed, a peculiar analytic ability. He seemed, in those times when he pondered a problem, to become a different person, as though he were a “Bi-Part Soul”. Dupin managed to amaze him with his powers of deductive reasoning. His powers of observation were extreme.
Later, as they were looking through the latest edition of the ‘Gazette de Tribunaux’ the story of “Extraordinary Murders” caught their eye. At about 3 A.M., according to the report, there was an uproar on the fourth floor of a house in the Rue Morgue which was occupied by Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye. Neighbors and gendarmes found the door locked and upon forcing it open found the apartment in wild disarray, a blood-stained razor, several thick tresses of gray human hair pulled out by the roots, with the corpse of the daughter up the fireplace chimney, head downward. The old lady was found later in the rear yard of the building, also dead. Her throat had been cut.
The next day’s paper added some details, statements had been taken from various people but these seemed to bring the authorities no closer to solving the case. In spite of that, a clerk named Adolphe Le Bon had been arrested and imprisoned in the matter. Dupin remembered that La Bon had once done him a good turn and wanted to look into the case a little further. In the end, of course, it is C. Auguste Dupin’s powers of deductive reasoning that cause him to solve this extraordinary case using only the most common and obvious of clues. He resolved at the beginning that these women were not murdered by spirits, thus rejecting the possibility of spectral evidence that had been used in the trial of witches a century earlier. By ruling out the various possibilities, what is left must be truth, no matter how unlikely it may seem.
This ratiocination, that is, the cold, objective logic used to solve a mystery, was later used in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. It is difficult to miss, again, the very American contrast and conflict between the use of brains, represented by the man of reason; and brawn, represented here in the very real animal itself.
‘The Gold Bug’ too, is an extraordinary story. Extraordinary in that a code is embedded in the text. A parchment is found on the beach, apparently something from the pirate Captain Kid. A treasure hunt is afoot, but what distinguishes this story from other ordinary adventure stories based upon the seeking of a lost treasure, is the cryptogram written in invisible ink on the parchment. An ink that only reveals its secrets when held near the fireplace. A code, of course, begs a solution. And what is used to solve this particular code is a substitution cipher using letter frequencies. This cipher presumes that some letters occur more often than others. The letter ‘E’, for example, occurs in writing more often than any other. This is one of the few stories ever to involve a cryptogram in the story itself.
In a way Poe was already ‘ushering’ in with his work, the coming of modern literature - (Can ‘ushering’ be used more than once?) – laying out the satisfying but fragmentary modern short story. The collapse of the old way was not to be eclipsed yet for another sixty years. Then it would come tumbling to pieces in the hands of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and others. With Poe the old order is already being shaken. A new order is yet to take its place.
I have lived under the specter of madness all my life and suspect many people have. The malady seems to infiltrate every home in one form or another. It is this sense of madness in modern life that Poe predicts so well. When I sat down to write 'The Angelic Mysteries' (it was begun many years ago), I wanted to convey this madness not only in the story itself, but in the way the story is presented. Some early readers have commented on the large number of very short chapters. Yes, that is right. Madness leads to a kind of fracture in a life's story. So, this story also attempts to break up attempts at a 'rational' reading. Please bear with it. I think the effect is worth it in the end.
This post has been adapted from a chapter of 'American Masters' due out March 2012. It is copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson