If you have any interest in speculative/weird/horror fiction, or have taken a 19th Century American Lit course, you probably have a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. I obtained my “Complete Tales and Poems” from my grandparents. It’s a staple to any self-respecting bookshelf. Certainly, if you already have a tidy Poe collection that includes the word “complete,” you wouldn’t need any other collection.
So thought I, until I was perusing the bargain section of B&N. I came across a handsome, tempting, eerie hardcover of “Tales of Mystery and Imagination.” Forces beyond those of the natural world placed the book–which I had first seen reviewed a couple months ago— in my hands.
The cover. The background design is an illustration in red and black; a skull and a woman in profile stare in opposing directions, imposed over a twisted vortex. In the foreground in black and white, a cloaked man stares at us probingly. The cover design tempts us — and challenges us– to open the pages and discover the dark things within.
The frontispiece is an illustration of the pivotal murder scene from “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The figures are long, lean, and mad-eyed. Like Poe’s writing, Harry Clarke’s illustrations forgo realism and sweep us into the dark and unfathomable recesses of the psyche. Fingers and toes are sharp and pointed; a cape swirls parallel to the floor with no apparent breeze. We are entering a dream-state.
There is really no need to comment on the stories themselves here, or discuss Poe’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I’d need a separate post (or college course) for that. What makes this edition really special are the illustrations. Harry Clarke was an Irish artist and illustrator from the turn of the twentieth century. His illustrations to a 1919 edition of “Tales” put him on the map, and he went on to illustrate a number of other important works: Goethe’s “Faust,” Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales, and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In an eerie twist of fortune, he died at the age of 41– the age of Poe’s death– of tuberculosis– the disease that killed Poe’s wife.
Why seek out this book? There’s something special about finding illustrations that capture and enhance the essence of the prose, and that is the case here. Reading stories in this volume is a different experience than reading them online, or on an e-reader, or even in a “Complete Tales” collection. It’s also the type of book that’s great to leave lying around conspicuously, so that houseguests can idly pick it up, thumb through it, and be either enchanted or disgusted. Think of it as a litmus test of the weird.
Keep an eye out for my next post, in which I’ll talk about a different take on “Tales of Mystery and Imagination.”