The Neglected Satire and Comedy in the Work of Edgar Allan Poe

Editor's Note:

After working as a boilermaker in the steel mills in Ohio, Kevin P. Keating became a professor of English and began teaching at Baldwin Wallace University, Cleveland State University, and Lorain County Community College. His second novel, The Captive Condition, was released by Pantheon Books in July of 2015. For Signature’s Under the Influence series, in which authors reflect on their literary influences, Kevin muses on the underrated humor of Edgar Allan Poe.

In the opening passage of The Captive Condition, I describe in deliberately baroque prose a flinty-eyed, chain-smoking Jesuit headmaster by the name of James Rhodes Montague (a sly sendup of British antiquarian and ghost story writer M.R. James) as he leans across his desk and addresses his insolent pupil Edmund Campion, a budding apostate determined to attend college in the godless town of Normandy Falls. “Like Jonathan Harker to Dracula’s castle,” says Father Montague. He qualifies this cryptic remark by adding, “Gothic tales feed on the pleasing elements of horror and romance, but I assure you, Mr. Campion, that there is nothing pleasing about Normandy Falls or its tragic history.” Father Montague’s heavy-handed warning serves as a kind of thesis in miniature, and the rest of the narrative, told from Edmund’s point-of-view, becomes an extended analysis of the horror genre in general and Gothic literature in particular.

Gothic tales, while they can be frightening during a first reading, often reveal themselves to be quite funny on subsequent readings, mainly because they are so self-consciously parodic of the literary conventions they purport to emulate, all of them perfectly silly—the crumbling ruins of a castle in some faraway land, the restless ghosts rumored to roam the abandoned graveyards of a haunted valley, the opium-eating mad scientist and his phantasmagorical potions concocted in bleak laboratories, the malevolent medieval curse unleashed on an innocent maiden or an unsuspecting and presumably sex-starved young man.

M.R. James is said to have redefined the ghost story by removing many of these Gothic clichés and setting his tales in realistic, contemporary settings, perhaps the best known of which is “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” a tale of the supernatural that takes place, in part, on a golf course in a seaside resort town. From here the curious reader can easily chart the rapid progression of James’s innovative technique—a fearful encounter with the paranormal in some mundane and manic-depressive suburb—from England across the pond where it has been and continues to be employed by just about everyone from H.P. Lovecraft to Richard Matheson to Stephen King to Peter Straub.

James is also credited with having perfected the method of “narrating supernatural events through implication and suggestion, letting his reader fill in the blanks.” But a number of critics and writers have also argued, somewhat more persuasively I would contend, that Edgar Allan Poe was in fact one of the first authors to successfully combine psychological case histories with the tropes normally associated with the popular horror story. Though he frequently leaned on the tired conventions of Gothic literature, Poe had one important tool that James seemed to lack—a keen and sometimes ferocious sense of humor.

As Stephen Peithak writes in his The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (Avenel Books 1986), “‘Fun’ is apparently not a word most people associate with Poe. But the truth is that there is a great deal of humor in Poe, for here is a man who sees both the tragedy and the absurdity of life and who can write of either—or both at the same time. Poe is a man who loves puns, hoaxes, swindles, satire, and parody.”

A sensitive and sophisticated poet and unabashed hack out to make a quick buck, Edgar Allan Poe, during the course of his tragically brief life, seems to have made many enemies, both personal and professional, and was often the object of their ridicule and scorn. He did not take these insults lightly and vowed revenge against the thousand injuries he had borne as best he could. In one of his more amusingly malicious moods, Poe, making full use of his caustic wit, penned his macabre masterpiece of economy and style, “The Cask of Amontillado.” The story’s narrator Montressor confesses how, fifty years ago, he “walled up” his buffoonish and boorish buddy in the dank and dripping catacombs beneath his estate. His nemesis Fortunato, dressed as a court jester, complete with conical cap and bells, is reputedly modeled on Poe’s personal rival Thomas Dunn English. The two men had a number of confrontations, usually centered around caricatures of one another, but English apparently went too far when he penned a novel about a drunkard and liar named Marmaduke Hammerhead, author of the famous poem “The Black Crow” with its obnoxious repetition of phrases like “the lost Lenore” and the word “Nevermore.”

Poe’s response was to dash off “The Cask of Amontillado,” a wickedly funny revenge tale that I frequently allude to in The Captive Condition. In my view the story manages to achieve the supreme aesthetic objective of being many things simultaneously—it is comedic and tragic, laugh-out-loud funny and horrifying—and I think this is the reason why Poe exerted such an early influence on me as a reader and writer. Life is never one thing or the other. It is always both. To borrow a term used to describe Shakespeare’s work at its most enigmatic and ambiguous, life is “a problem play.” That is to say, life often shifts rather violently from comedy to horror and from horror to comedy, and we’re never quite sure when one ends and the other begins.

The Captive Condition begins with an intentionally comedic and a self-consciously Gothic style that owes much to Poe, but as the story progresses the comedy mutates into tragedy and finally into horror, but there is never any clear distinction between these boundaries, which I’ve always considered artificial and empty, the stuff of conventional genre. In my novel a character known only as “the Gonk” shares Montressor’s lust for retribution, and in his spare time he requests mystery novels from a college library:

“He studied their plots, which like the streets of town were straight, perpendicular, Euclidean in their logic and predictability, cobbled together with prefabricated blocks of prose, a black-and-white world that was precisely structured, carefully framed, and inhabited by characters as flat as the surrounding countryside. In those stories death was a farce, an amusing way to pass the time, but the Gonk, who was building something grandiose and dangerous in his mind, read those stories the same way he might read books on carpentry and electrical wiring…”

Like Poe, like Montressor, like the Gonk, I suppose I’ve been searching for something new, something unique, and with The Captive Condition I struggled to create a parallel world, one that I hope is satirical and terrifying but also internally coherent. But ambition of this kind is fraught with hidden dangers, as William Carlos Williams pointed out in his own essay about Poe: “Invent that which is new, even if it be made of pine from your own yard, and there’s none to know what you have done. It is because there’s no name.”

Read more from authors on influence here.