American short-story writer, poet, critic and editor Edgar Allen Poe’s (1809-1849) famous poem A Dream Within a Dream (1849) contains the famous line, ‘All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream’. This notion of searching for the unknown and examining humans at their psychological limits encompasses much of what Poe was searching for through his writing, which is known for being mysterious, macabre and often terrifying.
Poe, who has been described as the ‘Father of American Gothic, Detective Fiction and the Short Story’, was masterful at creating an unrivalled atmosphere of horror. Indeed, Poe’s most famous work The Raven (1845) grasps for that which is out of reach, as a distraught lover is visited by a talking Raven which goes on to psychologically torment him.
Poe’s work garnered him success in his lifetime. However, he was also plagued by personal and professional tragedies such as the death of beloved women around him, whose likenesses appear in poems such as Annabel Lee (1849). As a result, Poe’s work is particularly notable for not relying upon monsters or creatures to convey horror elements: instead, his speakers are themselves madmen, stalkers, outcasts and detectives who explore the often terrifying limits of human behaviour.
Here’s a selection of some of Edgar Allan Poe’s most significant works.
Poe composed and published this poem in Poems of Edgar A. Poe while he was still in his early twenties, though he made a few changes to the poem in 1845. Particularly notable for being one of his early works, the poem addresses Helen of Troy, who was said to be the most beautiful woman in the classical world.
It is thought that he wrote the poem for Jane Stanard, the mother of one of Poe’s childhood friends, who was one of the first people to encourage him to write at a time when Poe’s foster father was trying to persuade him against it. The revised version of the poem contains the lines, ‘the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome’, which have been described by Poe biographer Jeffrey Meyers as ‘two of Poe’s finest and most famous lines.’
The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Published in Graham’s Magazine, The Murders in the Rue Morgue is the first of three detective stories that feature super detective C. Auguste Dupin, with the two others being The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842-3) and The Purloined Letter (1844). Dupin solves the brutal murders of two women by using his powers of deduction, an innovative storytelling model which inspired characters such as Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.
The pacy and even humorous tale is therefore celebrated as the first modern detective story, since it introduces the staple detective story conventions of the private investigator, separate to the police, who uses logic to solve crimes.
The Fall of the House of Usher
This short story concerns the narrator, his childhood friend and his friend’s twin. However, the main character is the house itself, which is host to dark family secrets such as incest, and eventually goes on to literally collapse in the final moments of the story.
Every image, action and word is dedicated to creating an atmosphere of dread and impending doom. In the time since, the trope of the decaying, morbid house reflecting the inhabitants’ secrets has been commonly repeated by many horror writers and filmmakers.
The Masque of the Red Death
During a highly contagious epidemic known as ‘the Red Death’ which is ravaging the poor in the countryside, the arrogant, callous Prince Prospero and his friends throw a lavish masquerade ball inside his castle. Engaged in the revelry and oblivious to the danger, the Red Death personified arrives and, naturally, wreaks havoc, death and destruction upon the party-goers by silently moving from room to room.
In addition to highlighting the non-selective nature of disease and illness, The Masque of the Red Death is widely considered to be a criticism of social class, which is captured in its famous closing lines: ‘And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.’
The Pit and the Pendulum
First published in the literary annual The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843, this short story focuses on an unnamed character who is figuratively stuck between a rock and a hard place. The narrator is trapped in a cell during the Inquisition in Europe, centuries earlier. On one side is a pit, while the other side contains a swinging, scythe-like pendulum.
This short story has been described as Poe’s most fully realised attempt at ‘totality’, since he creates an atmosphere of terror that the narrator is fully aware of and subjected to as he is tormented by the prospect of agonising death in his cell.
The Tell-Tale Heart
First published in James Russell Lowell’s The Pioneer, this is one of Poe’s shortest and most quintessential stories, featuring a murdered man’s heart beating through the floorboards, as well as elements of guilt, paranoia and unnamed – largely unreliable – narrators rationalising their actions.
It is perhaps a study of psychosis, rather than a supernatural construct – are we to truly believe that the heart is really there? – since the narrator repeatedly insists that he’s sane. This innovative examination of the sociopath is also repeated in another of his short stories, The Black Cat (1843), which features an unnamed, violent, unreliable narrator who commits terrifying acts.
The Raven (poem)
The most famous of Poe’s works, The Raven is a narrative poem that tells the story of a devastated lover who is paid a visit by a talking raven. Known for its musicality, stylised language and deeply supernatural, eerie atmosphere, the raven itself repeatedly torments the lover with its repetition of the word ‘Nevermore’.
The poem, which makes use of religious, classical, mythological and folk references, made Poe famous in his lifetime. It was also extensively reprinted, illustrated and parodied. Nonetheless, it has been oft-cited as one of the most famous, instantly-quotable poems in the English language.
The Cask of Amontillado
First published in Godey’s Lady’s Book, Poe’s famous story follows Montresor as he lures his acquaintance, Fortunato, into a wine cellar that’s actually a crypt. Horrifyingly, Montresor then walls up the (ironically-named) Fortunato and leaves him to die.
As one of Poe’s most unreliable narrators, we never understand what Fortunato precisely did to deserve such a fate, only understanding that he committed ‘a thousand injuries’ against Montresor. As a result, the true horror of the story lies in the inscrutable character of Montresor: is he a madman, and has he committed murder like this before? And most importantly, if he’s not mad, then what did Fortunato do to earn his wrath?
Annabel Lee (poem)
Annabel Lee is the last complete poem composed by Poe, and was actually published two days after his death via his obituary in the New-York Daily Tribune. Like many of his works, the poem explores the theme of the death of a young, beautiful woman that the narrator loves, even after death.
It has been variously debated who might have inspired the poem; many critics suggest that it was Poe’s wife Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, to whom Poe was devoted, but died of tuberculosis at a young age.
A Dream Within a Dream (poem)
Another oft-quoted poem, Poe’s A Dream Within a Dream dramatises the narrator’s confusion as he watches important things in his own life slip away, to the extent that he realises he cannot even hold onto a single grain of sand.
The narrator, in a floating, dream-like state, ultimately questions whether everything we experience and do is just a dream, which is surmised in the famous lines, ‘Is all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?’