The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Art Works Podcast: Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

With Halloween on the horizon, it seemed a particularly good time to sit down with Baltimore mystery writer Laura Lippman and talk about the master of horror fiction---Edgar Allan Poe.

A pioneer of detective fiction and science fiction and a poet of haunting and evocative verse, Poe is also acknowledged as one of the first writers who developed the modern short story. Yet his technical mastery of the genre is often overlooked because of his ability to terrify his readers with his macabre tales. In other words, we are so overwhelmed by the sensation of reading him, we can miss the intellectual rigor that he brings to his work. But Poe's influence on modern fiction---while often unnoticed---is pervasive. As one critic wrote, "Poe came along and made literature safe for ghosts and murderers and crime-solving know-it-alls...for the subconscious mind, in all its murk and madness." And nowhere is the murk and madness of the subconscious more apparent than in Poe's classic story, "The Fall of the House of Usher."

"The Fall of the House of Usher” begins with an unnamed narrator, who has been summoned by a letter from his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, whom he hasn't seen in many years. Roderick lives in the deep countryside in a grand but decaying house with his sister Madeline. Both suffer from many unspecified physical and emotional ailments. During the course of the narrator's visit, Roderick informs him that Madeline has died, and that she must be entombed for two weeks in a family crypt deep in the bowels of the house. So the narrator helps Roderick inter Madeline, sealing her in a coffin that sits behind a bolted iron door. But Madeline is not dead, and the horror of that premature burial intensifies until the house itself literally can no longer contain it. "The Fall of the House of Usher," which is a selection of The Big Read program, has become the model for the gothic horror story.

While Lippman is not a gothic novelist, she does know a thing or two about creating fear and apprehension on the page. She has, after all, been a multiple recipient of the coveted Edgar Award. Lippman began re-reading Poe about a decade ago, and in this excerpt from the podcast, she discusses how the author creates an oppressive sense of foreboding in "The Fall of the House of Usher." [3:01]




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