My 10 Favourite Edgar Allan Poe stories
Edgar Allan Poe is my favourite author. The prolific short story writer is best remembered for his vivid horror tales, but Poe who was criminally under-appreciated in his day, also delved into many other types of writing, indeed penning many prototypes of the eventual detective genre.
Poe’s writings are still a joy to read, because they contain a wealth of words despite being very brief narratives for the most part. Here I shall list the 10 stories from Poe that I personally liked the best and would recommend as excellent reading material if you’re bored or just generally curious about the origins of the horror and detective genres. Indeed, this list will only focus on Poe’s short stories and I’m not including any of his poems or essays (no matter how much I love The Raven).
On with the list…
10. The Gold-Bug
I’ll start the list with a slightly more unusual Poe piece which most of you may not be aware of but which was actually Poe’s most succesful story during his lifetime. The Gold-Bug is a story of a treasure hunt by a typically anonymous narrator, his once wealthy friend and his black servant, Jupiter. The Gold-Bug is unusual in that it could be classified as an adventure story and, to a lesser extent, a comedy about a group of men out to find a fortune. The story is quite interesting how utterly different it is from Poe’s typical writing which is also delightfully refreshing if you’re a little tired of Poe’s darker material.
Having said that, The Gold-Bug is definitely not Poe’s writing at the peak of its brilliance (so to speak), especially in the area of denouement. The story and mystery are bogged down slightly by the lengthy explanation by the character LeGrand on how he deduced the location of the treasure. While interesting in parts, this section of the story is clearly pandering to the cryptology fans of the day and was probably one of the biggest reasons for the popularity of the story in the first place. The story is also now infamous for its “racist” portrayal of the black servant Jupiter, though in all fairness I think Poe was using Jupiter for harmless comedic relief – plus I found Jupiter to be a really empathetic fellow and one of the personal highlights of the story (accented speech and all).
The Gold-Bug makes the list, maybe by the skin of its teeth, but I still would recommend it to be read by anyone who thinks that Poe only ever writes about murder, traps and curses.
9. The Oval Portrait
This is a very short piece by Poe, but it displays how often a condensed and focused story has a lot more impact than a really drawn out one. The mystery of the eerily life-like portrait has a lot of the vagueness you come to expect from Poe, but the pay-off is all the more worth it for this very reason. In fact, it’s quite difficult to do the story justice in a long description, so just like the story, I’ll keep this entry brief. The only reason, The Oval Portrait isn’t higher is because the story indeed is so brief that there may not be a lot of time to savour its finale.
The Oblong Box has a lot of the elements I really love about Poe’s writing. It has an eerie and foreboding atmosphere, a sudden and unexpected calamity, a near insane person drowning themselves and a shocking end revelation. The Oblong Box was one of the earliest Poe stories I ever read and I still enjoy it because of its finale. The build-up and pay-off ratio is really good on this one which I think is another reason I enjoyed it so much.
The only reason The Oblong Box isn’t higher is because the finale isn’t quite as spectacular as in some of Poe’s other stories. It’s certainly very disturbing and I’m sure people will appreciate the subtlety of this tale, in comparison to some of the others on this list. However, for me, it feels like a slight cheat. It doesn’t devalue the impact of the ending revelation at all, I just feel that there are much better end revelations in Poe’s other stories.
7. The Tell-tale Heart
I honestly think this Poe story is a little over-rated considering its simplicity and the fact that Poe wrote other far better versions of this type of a story. Never the less, I still greatly enjoyed The Tell-tale Heart and I can definitely see why so many people consider it one of Poe’s definitive horror stories. It definitely has that air of insanity and brutality that people come to expect from Poe.
The Tell-tale Heart’s narrator is probably one of the most unstable from Poe’s stories and he’s definitely a success in the air of utterly disturbed thought that he presents for the reader. What Poe also does effectively is show how the narrator’s own insanity turns against him towards the end. Compared to The Black Cat for instance, the pay-off on Tell-tale Heart’s narrator is more immediate and I think this is what makes people enjoy the story so much. And I wont deny that the finale is excellent, much better than the three afore-mentioned stories.
However, The Tell-tale Heart suffers from a lack of build-up which is why I’ve always considered it a little too abrupt. It’s a Poe schlock-piece in a way but one with a lot of mood.
Before Saw, we had Poe. The Pit and the Pendulum seems like such a ridiculously simple concept for a story. In fact, it’s barely a story at all and more like a depiction of eerie scenarios barely held together by some sort of frame narrative. Here though, that scant build-up and savouring of the tension that in my view weakens the Tell-tale Heart actually helps this high-concept horror story stand-out. Where I think this story succeeds is in letting the audience really feel what it’s like to be caught in a death-trap. It perfectly describes the hopelessness of the situation and that’s why I think the story works so well.
Once again, the story is really brief and short on memorable characters. There’s barely even a cohesive narrative and this is the only reason it dodges getting in the Top-5. Everyone from the narrator, to the villainous Inquisitors to the French soldiers are described in the vaguest possible ways and this robs the story some of its impact. But then again, I’d argue that the story ends before it has a chance to become dull.
5. The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
I only recently read this story but it immediately impressed me. It’s a truly eerie medical tale with a hint of supernatural and possibly the most disgusting finale that Poe committed to paper. I would not be the least bit surprised if H.P. Lovecraft would have drawn some inspiration from this story. In essence, a mesmerist tries to use his abilities to prolong the life of a dying man with some gruesome end results.
The story was apparently intended as something of a hoax, though especially from a modern perspective the medical side of the story doesn’t hold much water. However, that’s not even what makes the story so good, but rather that it’s presented so matter-of-factly. Poe’s stories are known for their excellent finales and this one shot right to the top end for me when I read it.
Another slightly unusual and darkly comical story from Poe. Indeed, Hop-Frog was his very final short story. Set in a non-specific royal court, the story is about a poor, abused hunch-backed dwarf called Hop-Frog who gets his revenge on his abusers. The setting is elaborate and a little crazy, but Hop-Frog is a really sympathetic figure despite everything. It’s Poe standing up for the little guy, literally.
There was some real life incidents that inspired Poe to write Hop-Frog as well as The Cask of Amontillado, another well-known Poe story. Unlike Amontillado, I don’t think Hop-Frog is bogged down by this history and its slightly comedic elements are what make it stand out in Poe’s writings. It seems to be a rather under-appreciated work from Poe and I recommend it for anyone who likes unlikely protagonists.
Poe has written a lot of stories about tragic female figures, but I think Benerice is by far the most outstanding amongst them. It’s also probably the story that sadly focuses the least on the tragic heroine, but I would argue that dramatically it beats the socks off Ligeia or even The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s about a borderline incestuous engagement broken off by a sudden illness (no surprise from Poe), a man suffering from black outs of intense focused action and an obsession with pearly white teeth.
Benerice is like a pathetic spirit that haunts the narrator and there’s just something fundamentally unsettling about the general vibe of the story. The finale is brilliant and really terrifying in its implication which is why it left such a strong impression on me. This is definitely the finest of Poe’s horror-tragedies.
2. The Murders in the Rue Morgue
So, how could I ignore Poe’s fictitious detective C. Auguste Dupin? I couldn’t, of course, the prototype of every great detective fiction figure from Sherlock Holmes to Nancy Drew. In all seriousness though, Dupin himself is not as interesting of a figure as Mrs. Marple or Hercule Poirot – in fact he’s quite dry and pompous, but his debut story about a brutal double murder in Paris is definitely his highlight due to the interesting narrative and the surprising conclusion.
What makes Murders in the Rue Morgue so effective is that the reader is presented with all the prudent evidence from the get-go and given a chance to draw their own conclusion before Dupin finally reveals the answer. In my view, this is easily the best of Poe’s detective stories because the reader really gets to be a part of the thinking process, whereas I think Poe’s other forays into detective fiction suffer from a slightly patronising style (even The Gold-Bug is guilty of this).
Dupin also appears in The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter, both of which sadly pale to the fun and mystery of Rue Morgue. I would dare say that Marie Roget (despite being based on real events) is positively boring to read and although a bit more interesting and clever, The Purloined Letter too suffers from a patronising finale.
The Black Cat is one of those stories I’d heard of but never sat down to read until I bought a Poe collection for myself. After I finished, I was rather surprised at how excellent the story was. And the more of Poe’s stories I delved into, I never quite regained the same sort of feeling of being impressed by the story as I did reading the Black Cat. I liked this story so much that I even released my own reading of it on YouTube. It is easily and by far, Poe’s best horror story.
The story deals with a man who has a love of animals but equally a terrible temper which becomes agitated whenever he is drunk. The story begins with the hanging of his cat and resulting series of unfortunate events that drag him further into madness, as he believes that the spirit of his dead cat is haunting and exacting vengeance on him. Especially in comparison to The Cask of Amondillado, I think the finale is a lot more powerful. Also, as mentioned, the gradual build-up to the senseless violence, bizarre destruction and the narrator’s own undoing are much more subtle and better handled than in The Tell-Tale Heart.
The Black Cat is also interesting because it works on two levels with seemingly paranormal agents, yet probable enough that the reader is left with a distrust of whether they are really there at all. And this is why the story works so great, the subtlety and the explicitness of the horror are in perfect balance.