The Man Who Called Himself Poe

Another Poe related retro review, this time from April 13, 2009.

Review: The Man Who Called Himself Poe, ed. Sam Moskowitz, 1969.Man Who Called Himself Poe

This is a theme anthology that doesn’t even stick to its stated theme: stories and poems that feature Edgar Poe.

Moskowitz’s introduction contrasts Poe with Sherlock Holmes. The latter, as a fictional character, has an immense accretion of fictional biography about him. His fans want to bring him into the real world and settings never imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle. Poe, a real man with a real, fairly well-documented past, has a legion of fans who want to make him a character, introduce him to realms never seen in his life.

A reprinted 1962 from Poe scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbott concisely sums up Poe’s life, his influence, and scholarly work on him.

The book then starts into presenting various fictional Poes, each usefully introduced by Moskowitz.

First up is a rarity: “The Valley of Unrest” by Douglass Sherley. This 1883 work purports to reveal the real circumstances behind the composition of Poe’s eponymous poem. We see Poe in his University of Virginia days – an account, notes Moskowitz, perhaps based on published recollections of his classmates there. However, any power the Byronic-like characters and fulfilled prophecies might have had is lost in a meandering narrative full of nested stories.

“My Adventure with Edgar Allan Poe” is by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian. This 1891 story is actually intriguing, rather affecting, and ironical. The narrator meets Poe in a restaurant – 42 years after his death. The resurrected Poe is leading, aided by his beautiful handwriting, a quiet life as a banker’s secretary. Not only has this Poe lost any interest in liquor. He’s lost all interest in everything else that made him a singular figure.

Vincent Starrett’s “In Which an Author and His Character Are Well Met” from 1928 has an intriguing start: Poe, in his last days of life, meets Legrand, the hero of his “The Gold Bug”, in a Baltimore restaurant. But the story doesn’t really have much of a payoff, and Poe’s delusion of finding a treasure left by his grandfather General Poe isn’t that interesting.

Manly Wade Wellman’s “When It Was Moonlight” from 1940 is one of those story-behind-the-story works. Specifically, this vampire tale, with a specimen a bit different from the ones we’re used to seeing, purports to show the inspiration behind Poe’s “The Premature Burial”, “The Black Cat”, and “The Cask of Amontillado”.

Robert Bloch’s “The Man Who Collected Poe” from 1951 is part a homage to Poe in his two iterations – Poe primary and Poe secondary as derived through H. P. Lovecraft – and part a literary experiment in that Bloch quite openly copies the setup, plot, and, sometimes, actually quotes Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. It all works to good effect.

“The Man Who Thought He Was Poe” by Michael Avallone from 1957 is a biter-bitten tale. Here the biter is obsessed with Poe to the extent he wants to flee the modern world for Poe’s. The final payoff is memorable.

Nothing much good can be said for Charles Norman’s “Manuscript Found in a Drawer”. It’s original to the anthology, but a treasure hunt inspired by Poe and a death coincidental to Poe’s don’t add up to anything memorable or significant.

“The Dark Brotherhood” is based on an idea by Lovecraft and finished by August Derleth. It’s too long, and Poe is an irrelevant gimmick added to this tale of alien invasion.

Also original to this anthology is Edmond Hamilton’s “Castaway”. Its central idea, that Poe’s fantastic visions point to his otherwordly origin, is nothing special. But there is an air of melancholy and pain about Poe as he considers a fantastical claim about his nature.

Robert Bloch credibly finishes the 600 word fragment left by Poe just before his death: “The Lighthouse”. The language, plot, and ending are something I can imagine Poe writing.

“The Atlantis” by one Peter Prospero, is a reprint of the first four installments of a magazine serial published in 1838 and 1839. Poe scholar Arthur Hobson Quinn seems to have been alone in thinking that Poe lurked behind the pseudonym. The majority of Poe scholars think the similarity in language, tone, and even names exists because Poe’s friend and close student, Nathan Covington Brooks, wrote the work. The story itself involves a magnetically powered ship discovering, in the southern latitudes, a utopia inhabited by the resurrected dead. Famous philosophers, scientists, and most American presidents debate various matters and run the place, and those like Nero, Tiberius, and Borgia have to pay for their past sins with a life of manual labor. It’s an interesting and obscure work of satiric utopianism.

The anthology concludes with some decent poems. Adolphe de Castro’s “Edgar Allan Poe”, R. H. Barlow’s “St. John’s Churchyard”, and H. P. Lovecraft’s “In a Sequestered Churchyard Where Once Poe Walked” were all written at the same time when the three visited a Providence graveyard Poe walked in his days of wooing a local poetess. Robert A. Lowndes’ “Baltimore, October 3rd” may be the best Poe tribute. While not great poetry an untitled Valentine’s Day poem from Poe’s wife Virginia has obvious interest.

There’s not enough inherently interesting, high quality material to recommend this book to anyone who is not at least a casual Poe fan. However, those in the latter category will want to read the Bloch, Hawthorne, Avallone, and Hamilton stories. And hardcore Poe devotees or those interested in obscure 19th century American works will want to read “The Valley of the Unrest” and the excerpt of “The Atlantis”.


The Poe page.

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7 thoughts on “The Man Who Called Himself Poe

  1. I read this book many years ago — back in 1989 or ’90– when I happened to notice it at my local library, but I can still clearly remember several of the stories. A few of them, I remember, were decent, but probably a majority of them were not so well written or had harebrained plots. When I’d finished it, I came away thinking that the editors could have made better choices for inclusion in the book.

    “It’s too long, and Poe is an irrelevant gimmick added to this tale of alien invasion.”

    Yes, and there were probably several other stories in which he seemed like just an added-on gimmick or in which he was the central character but just didn’t “sound” like Poe.

    1. The best fictional Poe I’ve come across is “No Spot of Ground”, an alternate history by Walter Jon Williams. It imagines a Poe who survived to become an officer in the American Civil War and ruminating on his life and some of his poet contemporaries.

  2. The concept sounds interesting. I just had a look, though, and it appears that “No Spot of Ground” is only available as an e-book. I don’t actually own a digital reader or whatever it’s called, so hopefully it’ll come out in print someday.

    Harry Harrison — maybe best known for his “Deathworld” trilogy– wrote a trilogy of alternate-history novels called “Stars and Stripes” that were also set during the Civil War. I noticed them when I was buying his three “Eden” books –yet another trilogy of his– at a used bookshop last year. This is also an alternate history, and is about a race of intelligent dinosaur descendants challenging humans for mastery over the planet. I still have yet to read even the first in the series, but my wife quickly read all three and highly recommends them.

    1. I think you can get the story in the What Might Have Been, Volume 2: Alternate Heroes and in WIlliams’ collection Facets. I’ve occasionally seen the first in second-hand shops. I’ve never seen the second.

      I read the first Star and Stripes book but haven’t gotten around to finishing the series. Definitely tongue in cheek.

      The Eden books aren’t and are quite inventive. I think I reviewed them for the blog.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll see about getting a copy of the first title you mentioned one of these days.

    I see that you’re already well acquainted with Harry Harrison. Maybe he’s not as obscure as I initially thought. He probably just seemed obscure to me because I only found out about him a year or two ago.

    I’ve just done a search and can see that you’ve reviewed all three of the “Eden” books. I’ll read them one at a time once I start making my way through each title.

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