My introduction to Edgar Allan Poe wasn’t on the page, but in a darkened movie theater, my fingers clenched in fear around my mother’s hand. I wish I could say I was already an avid fan of Poe’s written work, but I had a good excuse for not reading him. I was only seven years old at the time, too young to appreciate his dense prose and his convoluted themes. But I was certainly old enough to be thrilled by the movies that were loosely based on his stories. There were seven Poe films made by legendary director Roger Corman, and I saw every single one of them, usually the very week they arrived in the theaters.
I had no choice but to go; my mother made me.
My mother is a Chinese immigrant who arrived in the United States in her early twenties, speaking almost no English. Even to this day her grasp of the English language is shaky at best. Back then, in 1960, it was truly a struggle for her to read an Englishlanguage book or newspaper. What she did grasp, however, were American horror films. How much English do you need to know, after all, to feel the terror of a good old-fashioned movie monster?
And so she dragged me and my younger brother to the theater. At the time there were no MPAA ratings to guide parents, no ominous PG-13 labels to deter her. She took us to them all. I spent my childhood cowering in dark theaters, tormented by nightmares of killer ants and pod people.
I also learned to love Poe-at least, the B-movie versions of Poe. Starting with House of Usher (1960), all the way to The Tomb of Ligeia (1963), I was captivated by those cheap sets and the hammy acting and happy to be caught up in the pure pleasure of being utterly, even sickeningly, terrified. I was no judge of what constituted a great film; my favorite was Premature Burial, which is generally considered by critics to be the worst of the lot. But to this day one shocking scene from that film (at least, I think it was from Premature Burial) still haunts me: a thirsty Ray Milland lifting a wine goblet to his lips, only to recoil in horror when he finds it brimming with maggots.
That’s the kind of image that tends to stick with a nine-year-old.
Everything I know about thriller writing, I learned by watching those B-movie versions of Edgar Allan Poe. I know they were hardly faithful translations. I have since read the tales bearing the same titles, and I can scarcely recognize most of them. As an adult, I can appreciate Poe’s groundbreaking literary work. But as a kid, I certainly would not have. I’m sure I would have thought him inaccessible and wordy and-if I had known the word at the time- pretentious.
It took a Roger Corman to translate Poe’s work into a form that even a seven-year-old kid could understand. He distilled it down to campy horror. Some would contend that by doing so he undermined the dignity of the literary works. I think not. I think Corman gave a whole generation of kids our very first look at Poe’s genius-and what an enticing peek it was.