I have been listening to an audiobook of Edgar Allan Poe short stories over the last week or so - on the train, wandering round the supermarket and so on. I had thought I had read all of Poe's stories at least once over my life, but if I have ever read The Angel of the Odd I had totally forgotten it (and that seems unlikely). What a strange story that is - even by Poe's standards. And it reminded me of what an impact Poe made on me when I first read his stories.
I have several compendiums of Poe stories. I don't know when I bought my first, but I think this one - the one illustrated with the amusing title of The Portable Poe was the first (my most recent is a Bloomsbury edition with a foreword by Neil Gaiman). It says inside that this old edition was published in 1977 and 1979. I could have bought it around either date.
I had already read some of his stories in books I had borrowed from libraries. I was particularly keen to read the stories Roger Corman had adapted for movies - The Masque of the Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher and so on, and, of course, found them to be very different.
I occasionally meet children at events who have read Poe and I am always impressed. The language can often be very florid and difficult. Poe can be almost wilfully convoluted - although he can also be surprisingly - shockingly - 'modern' in the way he leaps into the action without warning or explanation. And in amongst the rich decoration are some truly horrific scenes. The scene in The Black Cat for instance when the narrator spitefully removes one of his cat's eyes with a pen knife is horrible, as are the final moments of Berenice when the narrators obsession with his beautiful cousin's teeth reaches its grisly conclusion.
I think Poe is at his best when he is writing about obsession. He often begins his stories - first person narratives in the main - by mentioning madness or compulsion. Whether it is observed, as in The Fall of the House of Usher, or experienced by the narrator, as in The Tell-tale Heart, mental instability is a constant theme in his stories. When you read Poe, it feels as though you are being allowed glimpse into a genuinely disturbed mind. But maybe all creativity is irrational. It can certain feel that way sometimes.
In Eleanora, Poe makes a seductive link between madness and creativity:
Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence - whether much that is glorious - whether all that is profound - does not spring from disease of thought - from moods of mind exalted at the expense of general intellect. Those who dream by day are cognisant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.