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...the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels in the high Heaven of pure knowledge have no name. Thus ended all.
The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion
COMMENTARYThe many Edgar Allan Poes
First put the title aside. No one really knows what "tales of the grotesque and arabesque" means. Poe himself indicated he intended more than the usual meanings of bizarre and fanciful writing; his theories on the purpose of stories such as his were complex.
Also put aside for now any idea of these being early horror stories. Some of them may or may not represent that genre. But reading them with that modern concept in mind would probably lead to your disappointment. For the stories collected in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, like his other—often more famous—individual stories are more variable in theme and style than you might expect.
Actually "bizarre and fanciful" might sum them up but only if taken in the broadest senses, which may not be helpful. After all, is there any fiction that is not fanciful at some level?
Some of his best-known stories in this collection are primarily fantastic adventures—perhaps even satires on adventure tales. His first story to win him some limited acclaim, "MS. Found in a Bottle", appears a straightforward tale of adventure on the high seas until it evolves the fantastical element is introduced of the shipwrecked sailor being picked up by what seems to be a ghost ship. "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" concerns a flight to the moon by balloon, told with a decidedly light touch.
On the truly bizarre side are the somewhat silly stories that probably derived their original power from being satires on people and issues we no longer concern ourselves with today. "The Devil in the Belfry" is pretty well summed up in its title—concerning a devil that wreaks havoc in a quiet little town by getting into the church belfry and ringing the bells in evil fashion. "The Man That Was Used Up" describes a general whose wounded body parts had extensively been replaced by prostheses. "The Scythe of Time" (also called "A Predicament") is a humorous telling of the slow decapitation of a woman by the minute hand of a clock in a steeple—yes, humorous, with much back-and-forth between her and severed bits of her head.
The collection's concluding story, "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion", is really an early science fiction story, a dialogue between two people in the afterlife about how Earth was destroyed by a passing comet.
Probably closer to your expectations though are the seriously dark stories of murder, mania and revenge.
Most famous is "The Fall of the House of Usher", which is a wonderfully atmospheric bit of fiction that exemplifies Poe's ideas of what a short story should do. From the arrival of the narrator at the dark, isolated mansion of his friend Roderick Usher, every step of the narrative drives toward the single point of the story. The development of plot points like the purported recent death of Usher's sister and her burial in the house, the accumulation of ominous details such as the imminent storm and strange sounds heard in the house, and the growing unease of the protagonists who take refuge in reading a novel that actually heightens their nameless dread—they all come together to create one moment of unearthly terror. And a satisfyingly destructive climax.
Now, to be sure, readers today, being conditioned to expect far more shocking twists, may not feel the same terror as readers of two centuries past. But you can still appreciate what Poe achieves here. This is the author no longer parodying the horror stories of his day as in some of the silly and fantastic stories we've discussed, but rather showing how it could be done. This is the serious artist showing how words and details carefully selected can move readers to consider the world differently, even if for only a few seconds.
Other stories in this macabre vein are "Morella", "Loss of Breath", "Metzengerstein" and "Berenice", though none reach the heights of "The Fall of the House of Usher". For that you have to go to Poe's later collected stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Premature Burial" and "The Cask of Amontillado". (Though to be honest, you're unlikely to pick up a collection of Poe's stories limited to those in the original volume of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Most compilations these days include his best stories overall.)
There's one story in this first collection, however, that I think should be better known. "William Wilson" is like nothing else Poe has written, perhaps because it is the most personal and self-critical for him. The story uncharacteristically gets off to an ambling beginning, taking several pages to set the scene of the narrator as a young boy at school. There he discovers another lad of the same name, age and appearance as himself. Is it really another person? Or is it a schizophrenic creation. Or perhaps his own soul materialized? This twin shadows him throughout his wicked life, showing up to act as his conscience, until the narrator is driven by exasperation to a drastic action.
The story can be read as a fantastic tale with a Twilight Zone twist. But it's unsettling, especially since the understated (for a change) writing style offers few clues as to what is "really" happening in this story. William Wilson just seems to accept the existence of this doppelganger without question, as an annoyance but nothing particularly weird. What is Poe saying about his conflicted self—or about any of us and our inner dualities?
Of course, this is not a new idea. But it is quite introspective for Poe and may be some kind of key to understanding his other work.
I and myself shall ponder this a while.