“Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe…”

For Proust, it was madeleine cake: for me, it was some scary pictures.

In A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust had famously unleashed his past by tasting some of madeleine cake dipped in tea. (And no, I’m not sure why anyone would want to dip madeleine cake into tea, but there you go.) It’s not so much that this taste had merely brought back memories: rather, it had brought back entire experiences; it had brought back feelings and sensations that he had felt in the past, and which, far from having receded with the years, had stubbornly remained, locked in obscure compartments of his mind, hidden even from his waking consciousness, until he had found, quite inadvertently, that elusive key that unlocked the doors to these secret chambers. Whereupon his mind had become flooded with something that is more than mere memory – something that didn’t just remind him of the past, but which, in a sense, re-created that past.

The bit of my past recently re-created dates from the late 1960s, I think: I must have been about 9 or so at the time. No older than 10, certainly, since we were still living in Kirkcaldy. I had checked out a book of selected stories by Edgar Allan Poe from the Kirkcaldy children’s library. (I wonder, incidentally, if children’s libraries would still stock such a book? Possibly not – I’m not sure.) I had not heard of Poe, but I was both horrified and fascinated by the illustrations, which, even in the safety of the children’s library, sent the most wonderful shivers down my spine. My parents, who wouldn’t even let me stay up on Friday nights to watch Hammer horror films (and I still bear the emotional scars of that!), wouldn’t, I knew, approve of my checking out such an unwholesome book: the point of my going to the library at all was, after all, for me to improve my English, and not to gratify my perverse taste for the lurid and the grotesque. But I decided to risk it. I had to try this out.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “Fall of the House of Usher”

I tried to read these stories back home, but the prose defeated me. I had only started learning English some four years earlier, and I wasn’t quite ready for Poe’s convoluted syntax. But those pictures! They terrified me, and invaded my nightmares. I sometimes used to wake up quite literally in a cold sweat. But, such is the imp of the perverse that resides within us, I wouldn’t have missed that experience for anything.

What pictures they were! There was one of a man bathed in a ghastly green light, holding a lamp at arm’s length, and looking into a coffin occupied by a young dead woman. In another, a bearded man faces the viewer, obviously in some pain, with, near his head, some grisly rats, again bathed in that lurid green light, while above him was swinging a pendulum with a huge, fearsome blade attached to it. And so on.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “The Pit and the Pendulum”

Those images invaded my mind, and stayed there. And everything in my everyday life would direct my consciousness back to those images. Our primary school teacher explaining to us once what the word “masque” meant – I have forgotten now why that word had come up – would lead me immediately to picture in my mind those hideous bloated figures illustrating “The Masque of the Red Death”. Driving once past Usher Hall in Edinburgh, I remember, my mind immediately fixed itself upon that image of a green-lit Roderick Usher looking into the coffin. And so on.

But of course, for better or worse, one grows up, and with the passing years, one’s imagination becomes far less impressionable. And so with me. Until, one day, quite by chance, I stumbled upon those images again online. I discovered, to my surprise, that the artist had been none other than Russell Hoban: I knew him as a writer, of course, and hadn’t even realised that he was also an artist, and, further, that it was his paintings that had made so great an impression on me. And this chance discovery of these pictures proved to be my madeleine cake. It wasn’t just that I remembered that book: I hadn’t, after all, forgotten it in the first place. But I found myself, suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, experiencing something, at least, of what I had experienced back then. I felt once again – though as a man now in his sixties rather than as a child – that pleasurable shiver running down my spine. And it seemed to  me that, even after more than half a century, those sensations I had experienced then had never actually gone away: perhaps nothing ever goes away.  They remain locked in those secret chambers of the mind, sometimes breaking out in our dreams, but, at other times, awaiting that key that will set them free once again.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “The Masque of the Red Death”

In the intervening years, I haven’t, I admit, given much attention to Poe. I became (and remain) an aficionado of ghost stories, and of horror stories in general, but Poe had not featured among the writers I tend to return to. The last time I tried his stories, there seemed to me an excessive striving for effect, with the hysteria pitched at so high a level right from the beginning that when the screw begins to turn, there isn’t really anywhere further to go. But it would be unfair of me to give Poe a kicking (and yes, I had to write this sentence to justify the title of this post): it was his stories, after all, that inspired the pictures that had enriched my childhood. Yes, enriched: I don’t think that’s too strong a word in this context.

Russell Hoban’s illustration to “Murders in the Rue Morgue”

I think I should revisit these stories now, if only as a greeting of sorts to my younger self. I am, after all, no longer held back by the difficulty of the prose. These are stories I had desperately wanted to read when I was 9, but couldn’t; and now that I can, I think I owe it to the boy I used to be to give them another spin, and tell my critical faculties to shut the hell up. Whether I like it or not, these stories are already part of me.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carl McLuhan on April 18, 2022 at 1:42 pm

    Dear Himadri: Such an interesting pist on Edgar Allan Poe, who was a formidable influence on my own youth as well. Maybe it was his to me unusual prose style and vocabulary, both of which I struggled with, that made these tales so magical and entrancing. I don’t know. But certain tales such as “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, and surprisingly “Berenice” were branded in my consciousness in my earliest years as a new reader. I, too, have let these pieces of the macabre fall behind in my literary development, but they are still there, awaiting a revisit perhaps in the latter years of my life.

    Reply

    • Thank you Carl, and my apologies for the inordinate delay in replying. Sadly, as I said, the prose defeated me in my childhood: I knew no English at all till I was nearly six. It’s those illustrations that made a mark on me. But I’m reading the stories now – for the first time since my teenage years – and enjoying them far more than I thought I woukd.

      Reply

  2. Russell Hoban, no kidding.

    I read, and wrote about, a huge amount of Poe back in the early days of the blog, the stories and criticism and Eureka and much else, and it was quite rewarding, perhaps even more in bulk than in pieces.

    I strongly recommend Daniel Hoffmann’s brilliant Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe as a supplement.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I had not heard of it, and will look it up. I’ve been reading these stories at bedtime since writing the anove post, and – I’m not ashamed to admit it – I had greatly underestimated Poe in my previous readings. I find myself enjoying now the borderland between sanity and insanity that he presents.

      Reply

  3. I read a lot of Poe when I was a kid, maybe 14 or 15, but by then I was already familiar with much of his work via my older brothers and the old Hammer films with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre (well worth watching). A few years ago I re-read all the detective stories and a bunch of classic tales and even The Narrative of Arthur Gorden Pym and a bunch of the poems. There is something, as Lionel Trilling said, about the books we read at a certain age, that even if we no longer respect them as literature, they remain with us, deeply part of us somehow, and that’s how Poe is to me. He’s sort of always there, always having been there in the back of my mind. I will never outgrow my fondness for Poe, nor do I want to.

    “…an excessive striving for effect, with the hysteria pitched at so high a level right from the beginning that when the screw begins to turn, there isn’t really anywhere further to go” is true of a good deal of Poe, but sometimes that stretched sense of hysteria is pitch perfect for the material and there’s nothing better. You could skip the poetry, though. Some of his literary criticism is worth reading, too, if only for the snark.

    Reply

    • Hello Scott, and once again, many apologies for the late response. Family issues have been weighing heavily on me of late, and I haven’t really felt up to much beyond a few smartarse quips on Twitter. But today I forced myself to sit down and to write a new post, so I guess things are improving.

      In response to your comment, may I be an awful pedant? It’s just that I’m a huge afivionado of Hammer films and of Vincent Price films, and fans, as you know, are terribly irritating people. So, heer’s my bit of irritating pedantry: Vincent Price has never apoeared in a Hammer film! The films he apoeared in based on the Poe stories were made under the auspices of AIP (American International Pictures), and werevproduced and directed by Roger Corman (who admitted to being influenced by Hammer). There was one of those films for which Vincent Price was unavailable – “The Premature Burial” – so Ray Milland was drafted in to take his place. Vincent Price did come over to UK, and made a number of films here, but none for Hammer.

      There – that’s my bit of pedantry finished: I can stop being irritating now!

      Re-reading the stories, I think I greatly underestimated them back in my teenage years: I think I wanted them to be something they never set out to be, and that’s always bad for the critical faculties. My ideal back then was the M. R. James type of story, which were marked by their restraint, by the menace of that glimpsed merely in the corner of the eye. And while I still love M. R. James, I think I can perrceive that Poe’s artistry was very different in nature. At any rate, I’m glad I’m reading them again.

      Reply

      • I appreciate the pedantry! I was lazily lumping all the horror films I watched as a boy together under Hammer. I see via Wikipedia that Corman made eight “Poe” films in total. I should rewatch them and see how they’ve aged. Like cheese, one imagines.

        When I first read Poe, I had no expectations or ideals re fiction. I just wanted it to be cool and not boring. Plus ca change.

        Good luck with your family issues.

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