Monday, March 26, 2012

Reading and re-reading Poe

     I've been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe since my pre-teens. I may have heard Nelson Olmstead's audio versions before I read them, or perhaps saw one of Roger Corman's film versions starring Vincent Price, but I did read them at a fairly young age. Periodically, I've re-read them with a different, more mature perspective. And despite my college English professor's contempt for them, I consider such stories as "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" as among the finest short stories ever crafted.
     So when I purchased "Steampunk Poe," a collection of Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems as illustrated by Zdenko Basic et al with steampunk-influenced illustrations, it wasn't because I hadn't read the stories before. In fact, I own several other collections of Poe's complete tales and poems. 
     That may seem excessive, but each book offers something a little different: illustrations, annotations, variant texts.  Here are my favorites:

      Poe: Poetry and Tales 
     (Library of America, 1984)
     This is the admirable must-have Library of America one-volume of Poe's complete fiction and poetry, including incomplete works (the one page of "The Lighthouse" that has been discovered, for example), plus a few odd items such as "Eureka" -- a prose poem that's usually lumped in with his essays (LoA has a separate Essays and Reviews volume), when it's not ignored entirely, but which Poe said he wished to be judged only as a POEM -- a sort of cosmology that explains the background of some of Poe's tales, including "MS. Found in a Bottle."

     The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe
     (Running Press, 1983)
     Most collections of Poe, including the Library of America's above,  segregate his stories, poems and essays into separate groupings, assuming that each form has its fanciers and that this will make it easier to find the pieces that interest them. They also use the versions of the stories that Poe revised for book publication, which means some are missing whole passages (to the better, many critics contend) or more evocative titles ("A Predicament" was originally titled "The Scythe of Time"). They also contain passages in French or other languages, untranslated, as was the practice of the day, but which send some modern readers scrambling for French-English dictionaries or online translators. Finally, they list only the title of the poems, neglecting the fact that several have similar or identical titles ("To Helen"). "The Unabridged Poe" fixed all these "problems" by putting all the works, regardless of prose or poem, in chronological order (or as near as can be determined) -- so, for instance,  you can see that his last finished works were two of his finest poems, "Annabel Lee" and "The Bells" -- with foreign phrases translated in brackets, with the original titles and/or passages restored and with the first line of each poem included on the table of contents. The original versions aren't always improvements ("The Masque of the Red Death" was "The Mask of the Red Death"), but for nonscholars, it's a nice one-volume resource. I believe this is out-of-print (although Book Beat in Oak Park may still have a copy). It was reprinted in 1997, but an Amazon review suggests it was a shoddy reproduction. Worth checking for in used bookstores.

    Tales of Mystery and Imagination,
     illustrated by Harry Clarke
     (1919; various editions since)
     Harry Clarke was the finest illustrator of Poe's work I've yet encountered. His work is often used for direct-to-remainder versions of Poe's books (the inexpensive hardcover "sale" books at chain bookstores), and there's even a book -- Nightmares in Decay: The Edgar Allan Poe Illustrations of Harry Clarke (Creation, 2010) -- devoted solely to his Poe illustrations (although another Amazon review suggests it was also a shoddy reproduction job). You can also find them online, including at Most are black and white, ornate and intricate in the Aubrey Beardsley vein, and genuinely creepy.

     The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe,
     edited by Stephen Peithman
     (Doubleday, 1981)
     This wasn't the first annotated version of Edgar Allan Poe I read (there was a series of annotated classics that I believe my parents bought at the grocery store in the 1970s, 99 cents a volume, that also included two Jules Verne novels and a collection of Sherlock Holmes mysteries). I'm surprised that there haven't been more such. This volume has all the tales (with the notable exception of the short novel "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym"), with an introductory essay on each, listing sources, stories influenced by Poe, films based upon them, and criticism of them. Then each story has not only the foreign phrases translated and attributed (sometimes Poe got these wrong, through carelessness or on purpose), plus background and explanations of curious objects, practices and people that may not be absolutely necessary to enjoying the tales, but are interesting nevertheless. This is also out of print, though, again, secondhand copies may be all over the place. Definitely worth a search.


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