Death in Poe’s Short Stories

I’m a disgrace. A year has officially passed since I started this blog and I haven’t dedicated a single post to gorgeous lord of the goths Edgar Allan Poe yet, what is that about? What am I actually doing?

So lets amend that shit right now, and look at Poe’s explorations of death, and the range of ways death has come (or nearly come) to characters in Poe’s short stories.

I have noticed that the moral of a fair percentage of Poe’s work seems to be, Victorian mansions are creepy as fuck and you will definitely get yourself killed in one.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

In this, an unnamed narrator receives a letter from an eccentric childhood acquaintance, Roderick Usher, asking for his company, as his sister, Madeline is dying of a rare illness. They are all living together is this decrepit old mansion and Madeline soon dies.

Because her illness was rare, Roderick wants her quickly buried to avoid her body being the subject of scientific examination. So they place her in the family tomb located in the basement of the house.

Over the next few days, both the narrator and Roderick keep hearing these terrible noises, and the narrator starts thinking that the house has an evil aura to it. Then one night (of course its night and of course there’s a storm) they both finally realise that they’ve accidentally encapsulated Madeline while she was still alive, and Madeline then walks in looking really pissed off, ‘blood on her white robes and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame’.

She attacks and kills Roderick, because she thinks he’d done it on purpose, and the unnamed narrator runs off into the night questioning his decision to respond to that letter.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1842)

Set during the Spanish Inquisition, the narrator has been sentenced to death and is having a big ponder while he’s sitting in this dungeon. He then wakes up, tied to a rack while pendulum, ‘like a razor’, slowly descends.

The Masque of the Red Death (1842)

Look if you’re a royal, and you’re currently avoiding thinking about a plague that’s ravaging your people, maybe don’t have a big mad house party to celebrate how un-plaguey your palace is. Because if you do the red death himself will gatecrash and freak everybody out.

The Tell Tale Heart (1843)

My favourite part of this short story is the reason why the narrator wants to kills the old man in the first place. Its because he doesn’t like the old man’s glass eye – bit of an over reaction there, maybe just put some shades on him instead?

I’m sure you’re all familiar with this story: a man commits a murder with meticulous detail, then dobs on himself because his conscious can still hear the old man’s heart beating under the floor boards.

‘Dissemble no more! I admit the deed – tear up the planks here! – it’s the beating of his hideous heart’

The Premature Burial (1844)

‘The boundaries which divide Life and Death are at best shadowy and vague.’

I love this story because its the biggest anti-climax. The premise is that the narrator has a terrible phobia of being buried alive as he suffers from a condition called catalepsy – which induces day long trances that make it appear as though he is dead.

One day he wakes up confined in a wooden space, he thinks that its finally happened and he shits himself. But it turns out that he’s just fallen asleep in the wooden berth of a boat and its all fine.

The Cask of Amontillado (1846)

This one is quite an intense revenge plan.

What happens is, the narrator is once again shitty with something a friend of his called Fortunato has done, so he puts an end to this madness by luring Fortunato while he’s drunk down to his family’s catacombs in the attic, under the guise that he has a wine that could pass for Amontillado (a type of sherry).

The narrator chains Fortunato in the catacombs and walls up the entrance.

Who’s the Existentialist that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? CAMUS! You’re damn Right!

I haven’t had a lot of sleep over the last two night as I’ve been watching quite a lot of old Twin Peaks episodes. And because I’m sleep deprived while simultaneously trying to follow this beautifully bizarre plot, it got me thinking about Camus’ concept of ‘absurdity’ in comparison.

There’s an automatic presumption around the word ‘absurd’, that it’s a word used to describe that which is odd or strange. But for French-Algerian existentialist, Albert Camus (1913-1960), absurdity is found in the mundane and surrounds all aspects of our existence, ‘the Absurd is not in man…nor in the world, but in their presence together’.

Camus dedicated threes texts to contemplating absurdity; which included a novel (The Outsider), an essay (The Myth of Sisyphus*) and a play (Caligula).

Of these, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) is the more obvious exploration (which ironically makes it the text that is the harder to fully unpack) and through its attempt to understand the deeply complicated ‘relationship between the absurd and suicide’ it suggests that absurdity is our only absolute, and that seeking clarity or rationality in our existence is futile, ‘the absurd becomes god…and that inability to understand becomes the existence that illuminates everything’.

Camus compares existence to the mythical tale of Sisyphus who was condemned by the gods to endlessly roll a stone up a hill only to have it continually roll back down.

Now initially this sounds really grim, but what makes this a surprisingly optimistic essay is Camus’ contention that ‘absence of hope (which is not the same as despair)’ and acceptance of the absurd nature of everything, means life is more fully lived,

‘Men who have given up all hope are endowed with a lucid indifference’

It’s quite beautiful, the idea that life has meaning and is worth living precisely because it has no meaning and full clarity alludes us. There is meaning and depth in ‘the world’s lack of meaning’.

If you are going to try and read all of The Myth of Sisyphus though, be warned it is possibly more hard to follow than Twin Peaks.

[*which dead set I thought was pronounced ‘syphilis’ until I was recently corrected]

Consequences of Being Too Pretty in Fiction

Last week I went and saw the live action version of Beauty and the Beast. Now it’s a musical so there was only so much I was ever going to be able to enjoy it, BUT I did get one very important bit of life advice out of it.

I couldn’t believe that I’d never noticed it before but the story is essentially a Beast utilising his library to give himself a bit of sex appeal. Books are pretty brilliant like that, its just an easy kind of collection to sex up – I would love to see the Beast try the same tactic using a less enticing collection like stamps, or train sets.

In fact I have a confession, studying publishing and owning a shit ton of books has all been one big ruse to appear hotter – I actually hate books and can’t read you fools muh-hahahaha!!!!!

Anyway, on that note, I want to talk about the consequences of vanity, or even just being too pretty, that have come up in classic literature.

Remedios the Beauty (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967)

Up until this point I’ve really wanted to write something on One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I just love that book so much that every idea I’ve had for it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to do it justice.

As One Hundred Years of Solitude belongs to the magic realism genre, a lot of odd shit happens in it and often its hard to keep track because things are constantly happening and majority of the male characters have similar or even the same names.

The narrative is all tied to the history of the Buendía family and the isolated village of Macondo. Remedios the beauty is a minor character who belongs to the second generation of Buendías.

Her beauty has such a strong power over men that it leads to accidental deaths of those who are trying to watch her. She is angelic and lucid to the extreme however; she has no self-awareness and cannot take basic care of herself. Her brief appearance ends when suddenly without warning, she literally transcends up to the sky.

Dorian Gray (A Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)

You all know this story. It’s just such an incredible metaphor – the idea of a physically seeing the moral character of your soul.

This was Oscar Wilde’s only novel, and it centres around pretty boy Dorian Gray. What happens is that when Dorian is an innocent, un-corrupted youth, he sits for portrait  painted by an artist, Basil Hallward, who is obsessed with his beauty.

After months of work Dorian finally sees the completed portrait – and its the first time it dawns on him that he’s really actually attractive. In that moment Dorian is bitter that he will have to grow old, and wishes that the portrait could take his place (the book’s very much like a late-Victorian era style Freaky Friday). 

Dorian then later begins to notice that the portrait changes and becomes uglier the crueller he acts. He is blessed with eternal beauty but this horrible painting sits hidden in the attic revealing his true nature.

Narcissus (Metamorphoses, 8 ADish)

In the story of Echo and Narcissus, the beautiful youth Narcissus sees his own reflection as he’s getting water by a stream, and not realising that its just a reflection he falls madly in love with it – we’ve all been there right guys?

The Oval Portrait (Tales of Mystery & Imagination, 1842)

This is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. What happen is, for weeks an artist is so enthralled with his painting and obsessed with capturing the “rare beauty” of his wife, who is sitting for him, that he doesn’t notice that she has died during the portraits creation.

The Life of ‘The Well of Loneliness’

radclyffeOne thing which is particularly fascinating and beautiful about books is their historical context, and the lives they take on following publication.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, is one of those books where in order to truly appreciate what it has meant to a lot of people, it cannot be studied from a literary perspective alone.

The Well of Loneliness was published in 1928 by Jonathan Cape. It was Hall’s fifth novel, and the product of a long-held ambition to attempt to explain lesbianism to a heterosexual audience.

The sombre narrative which traces protagonists Stephen Gordon’s realisation that she is a lesbian – or ‘invert’, and her struggles living in-between social conventions, was banned in Britain under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act and underwent a trial in America.

At Hall’s death in 1943, the book was selling a thousand copies per year, yet it still remained unpublished in Britain. In 1949, Una Troubridge – Hall’s long term partner, found a publisher prepared to print it, and although the law remained unchanged this time it did not lead to official obstruction.

There were prior novels which touched on lesbian themes, however The Well of Loneliness continues to be considered the first because of the wide-scale controversy it was met with.

Novels published in the same year such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, and Elizabeth Bowden’s comedy The Hotel, all had themes alluding to lesbianism – however these novels were never banned as they ensured that lesbianism was either condemned or satirised.

Michael Baker, Hall’s biographer, believes that it was by making Stephen virtuous that caused moral censure. Additionally, outside of the book’s content, Hall’s known identity as an open ‘invert’ and her masculine appearance, is another vital factor in fully comprehending why The Well was the target of legislative restraint whereas other novel with similar themes and emerging during the same period were not.

The public criticism The Well received was another central factor in its eventual suppression. On August 19th – two weeks after publication, an article written by James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, appeared which classified the novel as a ‘gloating study in the mental and physical corruption of the flesh’ .

Titled ‘A Book that should be Suppressed’ it pleaded to the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, to ‘set the law in motion’ on the grounds that this kind of ‘moral poison kills the soul’. In response, Cape wrote to the Home Secretary, without Hall’s knowledge, and offered to withdraw the novel from sale if he judged it to be obscene. Joynson-Hicks responded with a letter to Cape demanding suppression and to cease sale of the book as it was ‘inherently obscene…supports a deprived practise’ and thus ‘gravely detrimental to public interest’.

Douglas’s condemnation not only sparked Cape’s actions, it led to the first printing rapidly selling out, and with one library in London receiving six hundred enquiries in a single day.  A correspondent to Time and Tide noted that the ‘nauseous details, discussions and suggestion’ which were filling the daily newspapers had a far more harmful affect than the written book itself because it gave ‘certain facts’ attention ‘which ordinarily would never have come to their notice’.

Allegations of obscenity towards The Well led a wider debate on literary censorship. Both America and Britain held a vague, almost absent, legal definition of what classified a text as obscene.

When The Well’s New York publisher Donald Friede was charged in February 1929 with violating Section 1141 of the Penal Code by selling an obscene book, his prime defence was who could determine the dangerous social consequences of one book rather than another?  Hall expressed a similar stance in an interview with the Daily Herald, asserting that it was an ‘insult to the public intelligence’ the belief that ‘literary food must be pre-digested by a government office before consumption’.

Its link to controversy turned it into a bestseller, and it was advertised in America once it had won its obscenity trial as ‘the most controversial book of the century. Suppressed in England and vindicated by an American court’.

The level of publicity it gained also sparked open communication within the public sphere to the existence of homosexuality – what was generally (as a Sunday Chronicle article classified it in an article on The Well) an unspoken ‘secret canker of modern life’. In 1921, for example, attempts to create legislation against lesbianism were denied by Lord Desart on the grounds that it would ‘tell the world there was such an offense’.

The hundreds of letters Hall received which expressed gratitude for ‘having broken the silence’ and personal stories, underscores that the novels existence (as a sympathetic account of lesbianism during this period) alone is symbolically significant. In these letters, Hall writes, individuals expressed a feeling of ‘added humiliation and burden’ which came with the ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding lesbianism.

In later decades, the style of writing was considered by some readers to be quite antiquated. However The Well’s historical context and Hall’s bravery, means a respect exists for this book beyond a literary perspective.

(It is worth reading by the way, I really liked it. All books age a little)

Islands in the Stream

Have you ever had to do one of those god awful team building exercises where hypothetically, you’re stranded on a desert island with twelve objects and you need to rank them in order of usefulness?

At the risk of not sounding like a team player – if a boat I was on actually went down, there’s no way known I’d have my head together enough to think to save something useful like rope or army rations. I’d probably end up panicking, and choose to save a bunch of shot-glasses from the cruise gift shop.

Anyway, within classic and contemporary literature there are numerous depictions of island living, and what comes with being detached too long from the outside world.

And yes I know seemingly it all sounds brilliant – being on a lovely beach with your cornrows and some flirty lady-manatees, but it can actually get grim after a while. Just ask, Alexander Selkirk (the person who Robinson Crusoe was based) who spent four years stranded on an uninhibited island because he got into an argument with the ships captain. Yeah there’s a lesson for us all there – only call the captain a dickhead after you’re safely at your destination.

Here are some fictional islands I know about. Also I’m very sorry I haven’t read Gulliver’s Travels so sadly I’m unable to confirm whether Gulliver’s tinder profile name was ‘biggest on the island (;’

The Beach (Alex Garland, 1996)

1996 doesn’t sound like it was that long ago until the main female character has a dolphin tattoo.

The island in this book is a protected national marine park in Thailand, west of Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan, which tourists are forbidden to visit. Specifically, its about a secret beach on this island that backpacker, Richard, and French tourists, Etienne and Francoise, go out searching for after being told about it by a man they knew only as ‘Daffy Duck’.

Spoilers – when they find the beach there’s a small group who live amongst nature and it all gets a little whingey and bitchy.

And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, 1939)

This is a short read so its worth reading (…or just watching a BBC adaption). What happens is ten strangers with seemingly nothing in common are all invited to a small island off the coast of Devon and one by one they are systematically murdered as a type of justice for crimes they were never punished for.

One crucial flaw I noticed in the murderers otherwise perfect crime is that he killed the butler first. YOU FOOL! Who’s going to cook now you maniac? Save him til last!

Island (Aldous Huxley, 1962)

Journalist, Will Farnaby, wakes up on the mysterious island of Pala after a yacht accident. Pala is a utopia where individual enlightenment is the principle concern of society, and where they feel sorry for the mess of the outside world.

The Palanese people are free from materialism, and appreciating each moment is such a root part of their society that the birds have all been trained to repeatedly say ‘Attention’ and ‘Here and Now’ as a reminder to be present.

The Island of Doctor Moreau (H.G Wells, 1896)

Following a ship-wreck, Edward Prendick becomes stranded on the island of disgraced former surgeon Doctor Moreau.

Doctor Moreau has populated the island with humanized animals he has created through vivisection, and needless to say it wouldn’t be great for your confidence if you weren’t the most the attractive person on this island.

Oh Sigmund you lovable perv.

This is a very obscure reference, but there’s an episode of Red Dwarf (a BBC sci-fi comedy from the early 90s) where they all get trapped in a physical representation of one of the character’s psyche – kind of like a way darker version of Inside-Out. It’s an interesting concept, and it makes me wonder what my own brain-world would look like as an actual place, and just how strange/fucked my Id, Ego and Super -Ego would be as tiny little people with their own personalities.

Plus I wonder whether they get into adorable, tiny little fist fights while I’m in the middle of making a decision sometimes (like if I’m about to send a risky text, is my Super-Ego screaming ‘think of your dignity!!!’ while trying to overpower my Id who’s throwing chairs?)

According to Freud our psyche consists of three parts:

  • The Id (or unconscious) is concerned with desire
  • The Ego is about negotiation with the real world and is driven with instinct to protect itself
  • The Super-Ego is the self-critical component of the Ego.

Our unconscious mind is sculpted by past experiences and repressed impulses. It is highly influential on our behaviour, beliefs, feelings and such, yet it is inaccessible to the conscious mind. However, these thoughts can be revealed through methods such as interpreting dreams, or ‘parapraxis’ (aka Freudian slips).

Interpretation of dreams is significant in psychoanalysis because when we are sleeping our conscious resistance is down (fuck knows what that dream I had the other night where my friend was dating a talking beach-ball with no face means). Specifically, in relation to reading, Freud believed that books and paper were female symbols, and that reading had the ‘unconscious significance of taking knowledge from the mother’s body’.

Our neuroses are the product of unconscious and conscious dishonesty, and then there’s the Oedipus complex side of psychoanalysis, which theorises that as children we go through developmental stages which include fancying the parent of the opposite sex (I love the idea of Freud pitching this theory and being like ‘we’ve all been there right guys? It’s not just me?’).

Basically according to Freud what our brain-world would look like a deep, possibly terrifying jungle with talking trees hurling your mamma jokes constantly (*side note: I do believe that Freud’s your mamma comebacks would have been second to none).

But if you do want to have a good stare into the unconscious (or as I’ve dubbed mine the heart of darkness), maybe don’t discuss your deepest fears and feelings with Freud himself. His theory of transference suggested that strong feeling, particularly sexual ones, which were focused towards others, frequently become redirected towards the doctor during the process of analysis (oh Freud, you gorgeous thing, thinking you’re so darn irresistible).

From a literature perspective, one particularly fascinating thing about Freudian theory is when literature references are utilised to explain concepts. For instance, the story of Tancred and Clorinda (from an epic poem, Jerusalem Delivered) is used to describe ‘traumatic neurosis’. Tancred accidentally stabs Clorinda and does not hear her voice until the second wounding, which Freud used as an example of how a survivor will replay traumatic experiences and be especially haunted by that which was unknowable to them during the incident.

Psychoanalysis was also used by Marie Bonaparte (a friend of Freud’s) to analyse Edgar Allan Poe’s psyche through his stories (apparently if you marry your cousin, you get a rep as being a bit weird).

Monsieur Mabeuf

There is no judgement at all if you’re not familiar with this character. Although Les Miserables is a beautiful book, its excruciatingly long. Seriously, if there’s ever a robbery at my house, my copy of Les Miserables will be my weapon of choice! [If I threw it hard at somebody’s face it’s heavy enough that it could do damage, and it would have that element of surprise]

Anyway, although there’s a lot of grim happenings in this novel (huge understatement) there’s a character who only appears briefly that made me lose it the most.

Monsieur Mabeuf is a gentle old man who falls into destitution, and is a character who any book-crazed person can relate to. He is described as never leaving the house ‘without a book under his arm and he often came home with two’, and a bouquiniste or one who is devoted to old books.

When sales of his own published work, A Flora of the Environs of Cauteretz, cease, he is eventually forced to pawn his own collection of books one by one.

Mabeuf never had children, and his books are what he cherished the most. So to hear in detail Mabeuf’s struggle each night to decide which book to pawn for money to buy dinner is heartbreaking, and made me want to give Mabeuf (and my own book shelf) a hug.

Finally, when his housekeeper needs medicine after falling ill, he is forced to sell his copy of a rare book called The Diogenes Laertius – a book which the thought of made him smile – and after this ‘a sombre veil’ came over the ‘old man’s candid face and it never lifted again’.

I can hugely relate to this sentimental worth Mabeuf’s books hold. I mean yes, most of my books have suffered – they are torn and damaged, and if my backup plan for money was to pawn my books I’d be screwed, I’d be better off making a fort out of them – but I love them dearly.

Each reminds me what I was doing when I was reading them and of small moments of my life. They’re precious to me and Mabeuf’s buried away sub-plot makes me appreciate what a gift it is to be surrounded by a library you’ve made for yourself.