Edgar Allan Poe would have turned 200 this past Monday, and the occasion has inspired a torrent of commentaries on the horror writer’s legacy. Many offer pretty run-of-the-mill observations: Poe was a weird guy . . . he wrote some macabre stuff . . . gee, we still read him today. Nick Mamatas’ Smart Set essay on Poe presents one alternative, breaking out of the typically plodding retrospective mode to venture some compelling thoughts on why Poe still matters, or could matter, if we let him.
The insights are a bit buried in the uneven piece; Mamatas has a lot to say and sometimes gets mired down in tangents and sarcasm. But he’s interesting when exploring the way that Poe’s best work faces evil unsparingly, without judgment.
“[Poe] was not interested in resolving the social trespasses his work depicted with pat morally correct endings or appeals to cosmic justice,” Mamatas writes. Instead, as H.P. Lovecraft asserts in his 1920s survey piece "Supernatural Horror in Literature," Poe was the first to perceive "the essential impersonality of the real artist. . . [that] the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove—good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing….”
Much of what we consider horror today can’t resist the impulse to moralize:
The bloodiest slasher flicks often betray a Puritanical ideology, with only the virginal characters allowed to survive. Gangsta rappers love their mamas and write songs about them. Noir writers made sure their sleuths had a code of ethical conduct, even if it only consisted of a single line they would not cross but that the baddies they hunted would. Stephen King's novels summon up dark miracles that threaten families, towns, and occasionally civilization itself, but these evils are put down more often than not thanks to the power of friendship.
Too often, says Mamatas, we overlay scary stories with an ethics that simply isn’t there. And in so doing, we protect ourselves from two unpleasant thoughts: one, evil doesn’t always have a moral; and two, we don’t always find it as baffling or reprehensible as we believe we should. Ultimately, Mamatas wishes we’d dispense with what we know about Poe’s life and work and allow ourselves to really read him—to see what happens when we take a look at evil without shielding or exempting ourselves from it.