Happy birthday, Mr Poe

It’s the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, a favourite author of mine since I was about ten and thumbing through a collection of his work. One of the real ale pubs I regularly drink in has a poem extolling ale written by Poe, enscribed up on the wall, which always makes me smile. I wonder if the Poe Toaster made their customary, secretive appearance today? For half a century someone has left cognac and roses on Poe’s grave, a rather lovely little tradition, I think; they have become known as the Poe Toaster. I will raise a glass if single malt in his honour myself later on (any excuse).

Last summer the Edinburgh Film Festival had a retrospective of Roger Corman and the great Vincent Price’s Edgar Allan Poe films from the 60s in their wonderfully lurid colour and with Vincent’s velvet voice. In fact I usually tell people who don’t get Poe to read his short fiction and to do so slowly, imagining in their head the voice of Vincent Price narrating it to them. If they still don’t get it then they are beyond help.

Poe has influenced and inspired many later writers, not just in the phantasmagorical, horror and fantasy realms but in establishing one of the great literary successes of the last century and a bit, the detective tale, setting out many of the rules and procedures of a proper, modern detective for fiction; without it probably no Sherlock Holmes, no Maigret, no Rebus…

He’s been directly referenced by generations of authors and other artists, including some of the finest, such as the immortal Ray Bradbury, who explored one of his favourite, lifelong themes – the battle against ignorance and censorship – in the short story Usher II, where there is a world where all fantastical tales, from outright horror to children’s fairy tales, are banned, only the logical and rational is allowed. One rich eccentric builds a replica of the House of Usher and staffs it with robotic versions of Poe characters, inviting the great and good from this new rational society to a party.

They are all shocked by his lawbreaking but take it as a delightful piece of bad taste for one night. What they don’t know is the robot characters are murdering them all, one by one, in the style of Poe deaths – a robot ape stuffs a screaming victim up the chimney and the rest of the guests applaud assuming it all artifice. The final victim only realises the trap they have come into as he is walled up, buried alive, at the end. His host explains that if he had read the books instead of burning them, he would have known what was happening and saved himself. Ignorance and embracing censorship has killed them all. He exits and the walls of Usher II rip asunder and fall into the mere…

Anyway, for Poe’s birthday, enjoy The Raven, here interpreted in a fine manner by Omnia:

Happy birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

Happy birthday to a writer who has been one of my favourite authors since I was a boy – happy 200th birthday, Edgar Allan Poe, born January 19th 1809 and died October 7th 1849. Or perhaps he didn’t die but was simply bricked up alive in a catacomb… Dead for a century and half and still influencing other writers, comics artists, movie makers, not to mention setting out the basic template for the modern detective several decades before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Holmes.

In fact it seems to be quite a year for anniversaries on the literary calendar – there’s Poe, of course, its 200 years since Charles Darwin was born too, 150 years since On the Origin of Species was published and 150 years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born. Conan Doyle’s delightful adventure yarn of explorers and dinosaurs, The Lost World, is the central plank of this year’s One Book, One Edinburgh campaign in February (Doyle being a local lad – in fact he would have studied not far from where I work), following on from the last two years where Cam Kennedy and Alan Grant created graphic novel adaptations of Stevenson. There will be events, free books, school events and other happenings.

This time it will also extend to Glasgow and ties in with the Darwin 200 events across the UK, including a graphic nove biography of Darwin by Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne, all of which I hope helps gets younger readers excited and reading and maybe the Lost World will give them an interest in dinosaurs then natural history (so they know to tell ‘intelligent design’ eejits to feck off when they encounter those brain-damaged idiots). It certainly did for me a kid, leading me to look for factual books on dinosaurs, then geology, evolution, which tied in with interests in astronomy and space exploration, being able to apply that learning to other bodies and… Well, that’s kind of the point, once you start a chain of reading like that it sparks off more and more ideas and questions, leading to more reading and a continually growing link of reading and learning that goes with you through life. All from a good adventure yarn and some dinosaurs.