The Complete Edgar Allan Poe Tales

by Edgar Allan Poe

Rating: ★★★

I rated and (briefly) reviewed each of these stories separately. The average rating was 2.6, which I round up to a 3 for the volume overall -- this was also the modal rating. I found 11 stories to be 'good', but there was also a lot of dross. Poe was in general very good at coming up with imaginative and original conceits for his stories, which deservedly make him a gigantic force of influence in horror, science-fiction, mysteries and literary fiction. However, his execution was often sub-par, with many stories starting extremely strong but then either flopping or just ending abruptly, short of the point where the story should come together. This is not the full account of his limits -- some of his comedy is eye-gougingly awful, for example -- but it seems to be his most important one. Some writers can spin whole novels out of a total non-event, or the tedious personal foibles of some boring ordinary characters. Poe is the exact opposite -- he can generate thrilling and delightful premises unlike hardly any of his contemporaries, but he struggles to sustain. One area where he seemed less prone to this was in the Dupin mystery stories, perhaps because the revelation at the core of each idea is communicated at the end rather than throughout. Given this failing, it is perhaps not surprising that he never produced a full novel, and his one novella bears signs of being abandoned about two-thirds of the way through his original vision.

MS. Found in a Bottle: ★★★ Good atmospherics, with the whirling dark sea and then the strange, unresponsive crew, but the chronology was very choppy, breaking the tension, and the end was fairly predictable.

Berenice: ★★★ Pretty good, if you allow yourself to sink into it, but the double nature of of the twist seemed poorly delivered.

Morella: ★★ Kind of dumb? It's presented like a horror story, but it doesn't seem necessarily scary that your wife would learn reincarnation.

Some Passages in the Life of a Lion: ★★ Comedy! But not very good.

The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall: ★★★★ A decent stab at science-fiction, of a form that Wells would echo. Poe labours somewhat too much over the particulars of his method, but does a credible job of sounding plausible given the limits of science in his time. Of course, his rationalism comes into play at the end, tearing it all down.

The Assignation: ★★ A pretty empty little tale. I think Poe was trying to hook the reader with descriptive detail, but the distance between us meant it didn't work.

Bon-Bon: ★★★ Another comedy. Annoyingly long-winded introduction, but the actual exchange was funny.

King Pest: ★★★ Some imaginative horrors, albeit without much of a plot.

Metzengerstein:★★ Spooky horse story. Way underdeveloped.

The Duc de l'Omelette:★ My French wasn't really strong enough, but even without, it clearly wasn't going anywhere.

Four Beasts in One : ★★ Some more faltering comedy, which you could almost suspect of being now-incomprehensible satire. Antioch sucks, apparently, and the Emperor dressing like a giraffe causes the animals to revolt.

A Tale of Jerusalem: ★ Hah, the Romans gave the Jews a pig rather than a lamb. Maybe this sort of joke had more punch back in 1836? Also, why wouldn't the Jews know who Apollo was?

Mystification: ★★★ A somewhat overwrought parable on the importance of acknowledging when you can't understand something.

Ligeia: ★★★ Man's first wife kills and possesses his second. Well built-up, but lacking punch in its final delivery.

How to Write a Blackwood Article: ★★★★ Maybe it's just my lowered expectations, but holy crap, this is both comedy and actually quite funny. Poe lashes out at literary pomposity. There's a hint of bitterness here which only makes it more amusing.

A Predicament: ★★ I see what Poe was going for here, but the delivery is a bit torturous, and on the whole it doesn't add to the merit of the previous.

Silence: A Fable: ★ A gothic scene, with some dreamlike qualities. Doesn't really do anything.

The Journal of Julius Rodman: ★★ An American frontier exploration adventure story. Fairly interesting, with some realistic touches that sell the 'found manuscript' premise, but appears to have been cut disastrously short, with an anticlimactic ending. The text is laboured with editorial asides that cut out some detail of the journey, but it's not clear why other passages are included, since most of them cover the same sort of stuff.

The Devil in the Belfry: ★ Another terribly unfunny attempt at comedy.

The Man that was Used Up: ★★ Also something of a comic skit, but one that sort of works despite the inherent repetition, and the cyborg idea is almost a decent concept for the joke.

The Fall of the House of Usher: ★★★ The first story so far to have made the jacket billing. It's not bad, a gothic story about a depressed guy who accidentally buries his sister alive, but neither does it really count as good horror.

William Wilson: ★★★ One of the first genuinely interesting stories, a slightly too heavily-foreshadowed view of a sort of split personality disorder from the inside.

The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion: ★★★ A short afterlife dialogue about an interesting sort of apocalypse, building on the idea of a gaseous comet.

Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Hand in a Sling: ★★ A sort of comic skit, presented in a heavy, hopefully mostly-invented dialect, which I think was meant to make it funnier.

The Business Man: ★★★ Tolerably amusing story of a grifter, describing in pompous florid prose his various 'businesses' in a manner lampooning the stuffy uptight Serious Businessman.

The Man of the Crowd: ★★★ Pleasant little people-watching mystery with a satisfying conclusion. The concept is a nice one, it could profitably be filched for a horror novel.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue: ★★★★ A pretty good locked-room mystery, with an amusing solution, and a generally entertaining style. Earns its jacket billing.

A Descent into the Maelstrőm: ★★ Certainly evocative, but I don't really get it as fiction -- its tone doesn't really work for the thrill-scene that is its main message.

The Island of the Fay: ★★ An attempt at a sort of parabular image.

The Colloquy of Monos and Una: ★★ An interesting discussion between lovers after death, marred by a frustratingly common problem with Poe's better work: just as it's getting good, it just ends, seemingly without a purpose.

Never Bet the Devil Your Head: ★★★ I think Poe would make a better essayist than fiction-writer. His response to reviewers seeking morals is amusing, and there are a few good lines snapped off in this snarky story. "Mysteries force a man to think, and so injure his health."

Three Sundays in a Week: ★★★ Basically an overwrought riddle, but wins some points for articulating something physical rather than plain wordplay.

Eleonora: ★ "Sorry, lady, after I fucked my cousin I promised her on her deathbed that I'd never marry."

The Oval Portrait: ★★ Underwrought predecessor to Dorian Grey.

The Masque of the Red Death: ★★ A simple ghost story. What I don't understand is, firstly, how this was meant to affect me, and secondly, why Poe very carefully and elaborately sets out details (e.g., about the multicoloured rooms) which have no bearing on anything that happens.

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt: ★★★★ Pretty good because it's not really fiction, it's Poe trying to solve an actual unsolved murder just through what is reported in the newspapers, and doing a pretty decent job at it. He makes a solid case for careful consideration of each piece of evidence in dismissing some of the speculations and dead ends.

The Pit and the Pendulum: ★★★ Decent torture chamber sequence.

The Telltale Heart: ★★★ A madman's murder sequence. Possibly Poe's most famous story? Not bad, but quick and fairly straightforward.

The Gold-Bug: ★★★★ One of the best so far. A treasure hunt story which actually walks you through the application of frequency analysis to a text.

The Black Cat: ★★★ Poor kitty! Pathos, and some slight revenge on the villain.

Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences: ★★★ The outline of diddler traits was poor, but the diddling tales were excellent. Again, Poe shows himself a good essayist.

A Tale of the Ragged Mountains: ★★★ You'd think the core of this story would be the bizarre, vampiric-looking man, or the doctor hypnotist's strange hold over him, but nope.

The Spectacles: ★★ Extremely contrived. Somewhat amusing, now, to see how tightly certain social proprieties bound young lovers.

The Balloon-Hoax: ★★★ A bold effort at science-fiction, which paid off (see this summary).

Mesmeric Revelation: ★ Poe's attempt at a dialogue on theology and philosophy. Incredibly tedious.

The Premature Burial: ★★★ A decent twist on the contemporary fascination with premature burials.

The Oblong Box: ★★★ A fairly obvious mystery, but vaguely entertaining nonetheless.

The Angel of the Odd: ★★★ One of Poe's most delightfully weird ones.

Thou Art the Man: ★★★ A great portrait of a deceptive murder, ruined a bit by the somewhat over-engineered ending.

The Purloined Letter: ★★★ Another Dupin. I didn't like this one as much as the others, the solution felt wrong somehow.

The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.: ★★★★ Poe's satire on the art of editing poetry journals. Gloriously cynical.

The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade: ★★★★ Poe adds a Thousand-and-Second Tale to the canon, in which he relates fabulous wonders no less incredible for being real. Reminds you that Poe was very much a man of the future, for all his romanticism.

Some Words with a Mummy: ★★★ An excellent conceit -- of course modern men, on resurrecting a mummy, would fall straight away to arguing with it about which has the most advanced civilisation (never mind which of them has mastered cryogenics). Poe highlights a few of the surprising technological achievements of the ancient world, which I would generally applaud except he also showers the mummy with anachronisms.

The Power of Words: ★★ Another spirit dialogue. This one is a rearguard defence of the Creator, with Poe following Newton's line of argument. Wouldn't be bad in itself but Poe doesn't give it a great airing, and the ending is a tad non sequitur.

The Imp of the Perverse: ★★ A thinly-disguised essay on perversity, by which term Poe combines contrariness with procrastination and guilt. Lacking in depth for an essay, lacking in movement for a story.

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar: ★★ Brilliant concept, but basically wasted here. No investigation details, no question-and-answer, no terrifying result.

The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether: ★★★ Pretty good lunatic asylum story, but Poe lets go of the horror too easily.

The Sphinx: ★★★ Amusing, but I saw where Poe was going on the first pass.

The Cask of Amontillado: ★★★★ A nice revenge-murder.

The Domain of Arnheim: ★ Man gets rich, builds a park. Yeah, that's it.

Mellonta Tauta: ★★★★ Great satirical science-fiction. Now looks under-ambitious for a millennium.

Hop-Frog: ★★★★ More great revenge!

X-ing a Paragrab: ★★ An attempt at playing with form, but it just... isn't clever?

Von Kempelen and His Discovery: ★★★ Interesting form of revelation-through-anticipation, and some commentary on the gold rush.

Landor's Cottage: ★ I do not do well with extended passages of description without purpose.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket: ★★★ Poe's longest work, not really a novel but plausibly a novella. It, like his stories, is a mixed bag. There is first of all developed a compellingly-developed story of shipboard tribulations, mutiny and storms and starvation, which is very good indeed and worth reading both for this element and also for the narrator's conspicuous silence on a matter of the most chilling aspect (The fate of Tiger, the narrator's faithful Newfoundland dog, who is described up until a certain point in the story and then never mentioned again. Most straightforwardly, Tiger may have been washed overboard during the period when the four survivors had to lash themselves to the deck -- his remaining aboard after this would be miracle enough. But there are three points in the construction of the story which darkly hint that Tiger in fact survived and was killed and eaten by the survivors in their desperation after the storm, something somehow much more terrible than the cannibalism to which they later resort. To wit: the event is foreshadowed by the narrator's near-fatal encounter with Tiger in the foul atmosphere belowdecks, when he and Tiger nearly kill each other; at one point the narrator recollects confusedly thinking that Parker is actually Tiger -- Parker being the man later eaten by the survivors; finally, the four survivors, in their first long stretch without water, survive longer than should be biologically possible, despite Poe generally paying close attention to this issue.). The second part of the book, after the narrator and his one surviving companion are rescued, becomes much more of a fantastical voyage, with some seemingly lazy asides in which Poe describes at tedious length various details of naval exploration and particulars of oddities from these quarters. His more inventive spin on the nature of the South Pole is forgivable, but the project seems to best Poe, and he lets the ending approach without any very sensible resolution -- though the final image at least is quite arresting.