The terror of suffocation and death are everywhere in Poe: Fortunato, walled into a living tomb in “The Cask of Amontillado”; Pluto, the reincarnated black cat, walled up with the dead wife of the anonymous drunk in the “Black Cat”; the man in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” watching helplessly as the walls of the Inquisition’s prison close in on him; the heart pounding loudly beneath the floorboards where the narrator has buried his victim in “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
But terror isn’t all that lies in Poe’s stories. There’s the blood that drenches people, there’s love and a heartbreaking sense of loss, especially in poems like “The Raven” or “Annabel Lee,” and there’s the analytical, critical mind at work in the Dupin stories, “The GoldBug,” and the thoughtful literary essays. Such a varied sensibility, combined with Poe’s turbulent biography, makes it understandable that artists as different as Toni Morrison and Dominick Argento have tried to come to grips with him.
Every reader has his or her own take on the poet, some colored by his stormy life, some by his work. Andrew Taylor’s The American Boy shows an inquisitive boy, the Poe who excelled as a student at Stoke Newington, the English prep school where he studied for five years. For Taylor, Poe is a detective manqu'e, as if Dupin emerged from the writer’s own experiences. Taylor ’s Poe is a quick-witted, attractive youth whose presence in the novel helps unravel its Gothic mysteries.
Louis Bayard presents us with an eccentric, mystic young man: The Pale Blue Eye is set during Poe’s few months as a West Point cadet. Bayard’s Poe is obsessed with death, and Bayard's poetic voice is shaped by an unfortunate love affair with the daughter of the Point’s doctor. The madness of the doctor's whole family is macabre in the extreme, and the denouement in the Academy’s icehouse is a staggering episode.
If Poe left the Point in disgrace, it wasn’t too serious-cadets and officers pooled their money to subscribe to his second collection of poems. And he’s still something of a romantic hero at West Point: the cadets love his poetry, and apocryphal tales of his exploits are popular, including the legend that he appeared on parade naked except for his sashes.
For Toni Morrison, it is the issue of color and race that matters in Poe. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison writes:
No early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe. And no image is more telling than [the one at the end of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket ]: the visualized but somehow… unknowable white form that rises from the mists… The images of the white curtain and the “shrouded human figure” with skin “the perfect whiteness of the snow” occur after the narrative has encountered blackness… Both are figurations of impenetrable whiteness that surface in American literature whenever an Africanist presence is engaged… These images of impenetrable whiteness… appear almost always… with representations of black or Africanist people who are dead [or] impotent. 
Poe lived a chunk of his life in the slaveholding South; at one point, although he wasn’t wealthy, he was in a position to sell a slave. I might read the images of whiteness somewhat differently than Morrison, but not the difficult, demeaning treatment of darkness. I cannot bear to read Poe’s depictions of Negroes, who always speak in the stereotypic language of the obsequious slave and who feel fulfilled in their service of the white master-as Jupiter does in “The Gold-Bug.” Despite his manumission, Jupiter could not be induced by “threats nor promises, to abandon what he considered his right of attendance upon the footsteps of his young ‘Massa Will.’ ”
Of all the literary and critical responses to Poe-including the critiques of his substance abuse-the one I find most compelling is Argento’s Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe. This opera, composed for the U.S. bicentennial, is an emotional account of Poe’s voyage from Philadelphia to Baltimore, where he died in the kind of mystery that invites conspiracy theories. Argento has a sort of psychological courtroom battle over Poe, with Dupin conducting the defense and Poe’s nemesis, the critic Griswold, attacking Poe for using the events of his own turbulent life as the basis for his creative work. The staging, with its insistent themes of blood, the intertwining of “The Masque of the Red Death,” which alludes to the deaths of Poe’s mother, foster mother, and bride from consumption, is shocking and compelling.
The blood-drenched Poe, the racially charged Poe, the analytic, the poetic-all are aspects of this complicated writer; none explains him fully. When I read Poe, what makes his stories terrifying is a sense of helplessness. I imagine him suffocating-almost literally, in the alcohol he consumed and the blood he saw his consumptive mother cough up-as well as figuratively. His father abandoned him, his foster father never accepted him and ultimately cast him off, his mother died when he was two.
Most children blame themselves for abandonments like these, and in Poe’s fiction it’s the narrator who is almost always the perpetrator when evil deeds are done: “The Black Cat,” “The Education of William Wilson,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado”-all have a narrator who is a knave or a madman. In “The Black Cat,” the narrator goes out of his way to explain how vile he is, torturing the animals who have loved him, degrading himself with drink, beating his wife, and finally driving an ax into her brain.
Of course, my response is as partial as Bayard’s or Argento’s. I can’t imagine trying to make such a difficult figure the subject of a novel or a story. In general, I’m uneasy with using real figures as players in a novel-highlighting one facet means overlooking others. Still, with Poe, I can understand the temptation to do so. The opium, the alcohol, the love affairs; the slave owner, the gambler, the writer-not even the masterful Stephen King could have invented such a complex character.
Edgar Allan Poe’s father’s name was David; Sara Paretsky’s father’s name was David. Both their last names begin with the letter “P.” Poe’s and Paretsky’s mothers were both accomplished actresses. Poe died in Baltimore. Paretsky gave birth to Sisters in Crime in Baltimore. Baltimore is in Maryland, abbreviated “MD.” Paretsky’s grandfather was an MD. Poe created Dupin, the earliest male private investigator; Paretsky created V. I. Warshawski, one of the earliest female PIs. Poe was not a drug addict; neither is Paretsky. Coincidence? Hard to believe. Paretsky is clearly a reincarnation of the master of noir. Or perhaps his great-great-great-granddaughter. Or an imposter.