Tuesday, September 25, 2007

book of books - Selected Tales

As part of the Penguin blog the classics challenge the book sent was Selected Tales by Edgar Allan Poe and the deadline to read it and review it was six weeks. This is a slightly longer version of the review I have now submitted, which will hopefully go live soon. It was an enyoable experience and hopefully Penguin will do something similar again the future.

When Edgar Allan Poe sat down to write he must have been an incredible feeling of adventure. He was writing stories that went into that area that straddles the lines between good and evil, life and death and the natural and supernatural. Each time he put pen to paper the journey into a mystical world would start.

In this series of Selected Tales there are stories that shock for their gruesome content, surprise for their innovation and others that create a genre for other authors to follow. Like a mountaineer being the first to climb Everest this is a writer breaking new ground on almost every page.

The reason why he gets away with what could have been difficult for some writers trying to see where their imagination will take them is because of the confidence in the writing. He is able to sketch out not just characters, and some of them are far from normal, but locations that require some detailed description in just a couple of pages. He uses literary devices, like quoting newspaper reports in Murder on the Rue Morgue, which are imaginative but more importantly work. On top of that he shows that it is possible to mix styles to create something that appears to be a traditional narrative but then packs a supernatural punch.

At the heart of a good Poe story is the pace. The reader feels the rising tension, fears the next move and shivers at the conclusion.

Some of the best stories to show that working are the Fall of the House of Usher where the climax is enough to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up as the house and the remaining Usher family both crumble into dust. Then there are a series of stories that start with a murderer lamenting over how he got caught - The Beating Heart and The Black Cat.

Then there are the detective stories with the enigmatic Dupin that remind you of Sherlock Holmes among others as the lonely odd individual uses deductive skills that solve crimes the police have not even got close to wrapping up. Murder in the Rue Morgue is the best of the three stories where Dupin appears because he visits the murder scene and solves the oddest of crimes, where the murderer was an Orangutan. All that is best about Poe is displayed in this single story with a mad ape yielding a cut throat razor turning an ordinary night time Paris into something much more disturbing. It also challenges the reader to push the boundaries of what they think might have happened and engage with a very active imagination.

Bearing in mind most writers are encouraged to write about what they know there is also a confidence here to tackle numerous locations ranging from Africa, Caribbean islands, Paris and America.

Most short story collections reinforce the impression that a writer is concerned with certain key themes, religion and love for example, but what this collection shows is just how wide Poe’s imagination stretched.

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