Like many, I suspect, I first encountered the work of Edgar Allan Poe through the TV show The Simpsons; most of the early Halloween specials featured one of Poe’s stories, whether it was the diorama that beat with The Tell Tale Heart or the episode which depicted a humorous retelling of The Raven.
Despite this rather unusual introduction, I did not fully become stuck on Poe until I started specialising in Crime Fiction at University. Poe’s detective Dupin is arguably the precursor to Sherlock Holmes, and indeed Doyle himself once stated “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”
Therefore, I wanted to celebrate this literary marvel and the truly wondrous stories he wrote. Whether you are interested in learning the origins of the detective story or you simply want to see what all the fuss is about, I have collated five of my favourite stories by Poe that will leave you with fear, fascination and an insatiable thirst for more.
- The Tell Tale Heart: The ultimate thrilling tale of deception and destruction, in The Tell Tale Heart a nameless narrator kills his companion because of his freakish eye, only to be tormented by the sound of the old man’s heartbeat after his successful murder. I have always thought that Stephen King could easily have written this; there is something in the plotting and the edge the narrative gets as Poe expertly drives it to its horrifying conclusion that is eerily similar to King’s early work.
- The Raven: All right, so this is technically a narrative poem rather than a short story, but nonetheless, The Raven is one of Poe’s most celebrated works, and therefore this beautiful poem definitely warrants a read. Depicted the lovelorn narrator and his quest to find meaning, both in the death of his beloved and the appearance of an enigmatic raven with a limited vocabulary, The Raven is brimming with philosophical allusions and makes a great poem to puzzle over and analyse.
- The Pit and the Pendulum: Having been parodied and done to death in popular media over the years, it may surprise some to see what is perhaps Poe’s most renowned short story on this list, however I for one have been utterly terrified by this tale ever since I first encountered it. Although not historically accurate, The Pit and the Pendulum is a beautifully crafted horror story that tells the tale of a man bought in front of the Spanish Inquisition and horribly tortured. It is Poe’s focus on describing the sensations that the man experiences that is truly horrific, and it is this that makes this story so haunting.
- The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The first story to involve the great and often overlooked detective C. Auguste Dupin, this brilliant story is both exhilaratingly fast paced and fantastically plotted, with a conclusion so dumbfounding it could almost be true. The murders themselves are enough to get the reader hooked; both shocking and perplexing, they offer the perfect puzzle. Incorporating various explorations of mental ingenuity and social class, the story is fascinating on a number of levels, and makes for both a great study of early crime fiction and a diverting read.
- The Purloined Letter: Easily the best short story Poe ever wrote, and also clearly the inspiration behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, this remarkably clever yet deceptively simple tale depicts Dupin and his unnamed assistant as they work to uncover a letter stolen by a blackmail victim. Although a simple premise, Poe weaves intrigue, scandal and audacity into the story, providing a thrilling and enticing tale that makes you wonder why he didn’t write more stories involving his masterful detective.