January 14, 2010

Poe publishes his first horror story

Edgar A. Poe started his literary career with an obscure self-published book of poems in July 1827. A second book of poems two years later offered him little success either. By his third book of poems in 1831, Poe must have felt despondent, still struggling to make any kind of mark in the literary world. So Poe did something that changed his fate: He started writing prose.

It's likely that Poe would have died forgotten if he hadn't begun experimenting with the short story genre. His first, "Metzengerstein," was published in the January 14, 1832 issue of the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. Poe would soon become known predominantly as a horror tale writer and, to some, the first to perfect the short story as a legitimate literary form.

"Metzengerstein" follows the story of two feuding noble families. The young Frederick, the Baron of Metzengerstein, has just inherited the family fortune after the death of his father. His rival patriarch dies shortly after in a stable fire which also kills many horses; young Frederick is suspected of arson. Soon, a mysterious horse arrives that looks like it belongs to the rival family, though it is unrecognized. Despite its ferocity (it is described as "demonlike"), Frederick takes a liking to the horse and attempts to break it in. The horse, however, turns out to be the instrument of Frederick's eternal punishment.

Encased in a European Gothic tradition, "Metzengerstein" is not only Poe's first published short story, but also his first horror tale. It remains, however, distinctly unlike most of his later horror works. For one, it is vaguely moralistic (the man who "out-Heroded Herod" is punished for his wickedness) but, more importantly, it lacks the psychological depth that mark works like "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Fall of the House of Usher," which also features a Gothic castle setting. It does, however, introduce us to the theme of life after death, which Poe will continue to explore throughout his career.

Poe then turned to comedy writings; it would be two years before he wrote another horror story ("The Assignation" in 1834 followed by "Berenice" in 1835). He would continue writing humorous works throughout his career, such that the number of his comedies outweighs the number of horror tales.

*The above illustration for "Metzengerstein" is by Byam Shaw, published in 1909. It depicts the final climactic scene in the tale.

1 comment:

  1. Haven't read this one yet--I'll have to remedy that soon!!