Edgar Allan Poe helped invented the modern horror story. So we talked to Paul Jones, an English professor at Ohio University about Poe’s enduring appeal.
Watching, Waiting by Audio Blocks
*Additional Music in Show Intro:
The Kids Old Record Player Horror by Audio Blocks
Joanne Freeman: I want to finish today’s show with a segment that aired on our American Horror Story episode back 2016 in it, Brian, Ed and former cohost Peter Onuf discuss Edgar Allen Poe, America’s original horror writer. Here they are in all their campy, gory, glory.
Ed: Now Peter, Brian. There’s just no way we can do a show on horror without talking about Edgar Allen Poe. I mean, he helped invent the modern horror story.
Paul Jones: Yeah. I wouldn’t pit anybody against him, Ed.
Ed: Because the pendulum swings back the other way?
Paul Jones: Exactly.
Ed: Oh, those are terrible. Fortunately, we’re not the only ones creeped out by Poe’s stories. His work seems to have universal appeal. And he was born in 1809 and died of mysterious circumstances in 1849. And during his short lifetime he had legions of fans in both United States and in Europe. And in the 20th century his tales were translated into dozens of languages and inspired dozens of movies.
Paul Jones: I mean there really hasn’t been a time period since these works were published where people weren’t reading them and intrigued by them.
Peter: This is Paul Jones, professor of English at Ohio university. He says one explanation for Poe’s enduring appeal is that his most popular horror tales like the Raven, the Telltale Heart and the Fall of the House of Usher are not set in a specific time or place. Narrators and characters often go unnamed.
Ed: But Jones says that much of Poe’s work spoke to some very specific 19th century American anxieties. Though Poe was born in Boston, he was orphaned as a toddler and grew up in Richmond, Virginia. There he became intimately familiar with one of the great fears of white southerners, slave revolts.
Paul Jones: Poe was raised by the Allen family. They were wealthy merchants. That meant he had slaves in the household, likely he was raised by a mammy figure. Likely he played with slave children as a child.
Ed: Does Poe ever express his feelings about slavery?
Paul Jones: He’s very good about avoiding any expression of opinion on topical issues in his public writing. There are definitely things he was writing for the Southern Literary Messenger book reviews for instance where he very clearly seems to be embracing his region and his times view of slavery as necessary, justified, mutually beneficial to both master and slave. But he’s in Virginia in the 1830s. The significant event in the 1830s is Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which happens in 1831.
Ed: South Hampton County, Virginia, sort of a middle of nowhere place that a man named Nat Turner rises up from within this slave community and persuades dozens of his fellow and slave people to lead a rebellion that would bring the end of slavery in some unspecified way. And along the way they will kill their own masters and mistresses and the children of those masters in mistresses beginning with Turner’s own. It became famous throughout the whole country and it would have been resonating in Richmond certainly four years later when Edgar Allen Poe sets up shop there for the Southern Literary Messenger.
Paul Jones: Yes. As Poe starts his career writing horror, he’s in a culture where that is not forgotten. And that possibility that slaves could rise up and kill their masters is I think a real anxiety for that moment in time.
Ed: But he doesn’t address it directly. So your, your argument is that he addresses it quite richly, but obliquely and this is where some of the horror and his stories come from. Can you make that connection for us?
Paul Jones: I guess the thing I would say about it is that in some ways it was kind of reality contesting the public rhetoric about slavery. And so much, especially in the South, the writing about slavery was romanticized. You have all of these depictions of kind of happy plantation life and loving servants and master relationships. And I think Poe would have just seen it as this is proof that our literature, the stories we tell ourselves, don’t actually fit what’s actually happening. And I think he’s so interested then in I’m kind of taking that tension between those two rhetorics and exploiting it.
Peter: So I’m intrigued. Tell me what’s the most famous story that feeds into the American tradition of horror that you think is a kind of sublimated wrestling with these anxieties of slavery?
Paul Jones: The moment in his works where I see kind of most clearly, trying to evoke the specter of Nat Turner or the, the murderous slave is the one novel he wrote called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. And his hero finds himself on his ship and a mutiny occurs. And that mutiny is led by a black cook who we see slaughter 22 crew members with an axe. And definitely that vision of a black figure leading a murder spree would have evoked Nat Turner for the the American reader and certainly the Virginia reader.
Ed: Okay. Paul, that seems pretty overt. Are there better known stories or Poe place upon this fear of slave revolt but maybe a little bit less directly?
Paul Jones: So, yeah, I would say most famously it would be the story of the Murders in the Rue Morgue. A story that many people see as the first detective story. And the detective in that story is trying to solve the brutal murder of a woman and her daughter who have been found in a locked room. And I guess at this point we should say this is a spoiler. If you’re planning on reading the story and have not, the murder are turns out to be an orangutan. An orangutan who has escaped from its master, and taken a razor to these two women.
Paul Jones: And the scene where he escapes from the master because the master eventually tells the detective what has happened. He has gotten out of the room, he’s locked in and he begins…
Ed: Let me pause here, why’s an orangutan locked in a room in Paris?
Paul Jones: This is a good question. So the owner is a sailor who has gotten the orangutans from where ever orangutans are. So the one thing to say is that in the 19th century, especially in the antebellum period, there is a whole body of race science that basically says the African race is one step away from primates.
Ed: Thomas Jefferson says it in his notes on the state of Virginia.
Paul Jones: Yes. So this orangutans is, I think importantly discussed repeatedly as the property of this white owner, a possession. When his master tries to get him back into the closet he’s kept in, he raises the whip at him and the ape jumps out a window and then is repeatedly called a fugitive. Almost saying this is a runaway slave who is armed and then heads to this house where these women live and then, enacts his violence on them.
Ed: So you think that a lot of the horror than in this story in another’s is not merely on the surface, but is a pressure that’s sort of building within Americans who are worried about this kind of possibility of horror that they’ve built into the heart of their society? Yes. And it’s in their own homes. Or for many of these readers, the source of terror is actually, it’s how they’re living and if it’s not in their homes, it’s in their neighborhoods, on their streets of their cities. So do you think that the readers of Poe were aware of what he was doing?
Paul Jones: I’m not even sure he’s aware of partially. I think that’s the real question about Poe’s writing. What makes him such a talented writer of horror? Does he know what he’s doing or is he just kind of really intuitive about what scares him, what scares his neighbors, what scares the people he knows? And the story of the telltale heart, it can be read about this anxiety. In that story you have a narrator plotting the murder of an old man and it’s never very clear the relationship between these two figures. It’s either maybe a lodger or a servant of the old man and having then the then telltale heart narrator basically say, “This man has no idea what I’m thinking about him, what I’m plotting.” And he says, “I was never kinder to the old man than during the week I was going to murder him.”
Paul Jones: How has that not scary? And we do actually have southerners writing things like that in diaries in the antebellum style, Mary Chestnut’s diary, I think most famously, even though it’s 10 or so years after Poe’s death, I mean she’s basically saying that the slaves could kill us anytime they wanted. The slave that you told yourself…
Ed: Loved you.
Paul Jones: loved you. Yes. This whole rhetoric, this familial affection. That may only be such a story that you tell yourself that doesn’t actually match reality. So it seems that Poe’s genius in some ways is two sort of trans late, that deep anxiety of a particular time and place into something that people can feel more universally. But you say that’s kind of the secret of his longevity and also of his pan-American and trans-American appeal.
Ed: Yeah, you do wonder how I work that I think really is aimed at its time, has, has managed to constantly be thrilling, enjoyable, scary to readers and in very different places. One thing that we would have to say is that while we today aren’t afraid that our human property is going to rise up against us, people are always afraid of very similar things like other people. And I think that’s the one thing just to note is that there’s hardly any supernatural things really in Poe’s work. I mean, it’s almost always about real people and what they’re capable of doing.
Joanne Freeman: That was Ed with Paul Jones. He’s a professor at Ohio university and the author of Unwelcome Voices: Subversive Fiction In The Antebellum South.
Joanne Freeman: That’s going to do it for us today. Thanks for joining me as we delve into the Backstory archive, there are hundreds of other shows available at our website backstoryradio.org. You can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. Send us an email to Backstory@virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter @Backstoryradio.
Joanne Freeman: Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger. Backstory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment For The Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Johns Hopkins University, and the Arthur Vining Davis foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities and the environment.
Speaker 8: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale university. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins university. Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia humanities.