Tales of Mystery & Imagination

by Edgar Allan Poe
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This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my
annus horribilis. During the
course of the year
if we survivewe will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet.  
Essay by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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Great Books Guide
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Fractious Fiction
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My Year of
How influential is Edgar Allan Poe? Let’s look at the numbers. The mystery or
detective story, a category virtually invented by Poe, represents 10% of fiction
book sales in the current day. The horror genre, in which Poe sets the standard
for all later writers, accounts for another 3-4%. The suspense or thriller story,
another specialty of this author, generates around 15% of current-day fiction
sales. Poe also dabbled in science fiction, comedy and other categories, but
you hardly need to consider his efforts in those areas in order to conclude that
he exerted a greater influence on modern storytelling than any other author in

But are you ready for Poe the postmodernist? Can you
make room for him in the pantheon of avant-garde
innovators? Yes, the careful student of his writings finds,
again and again, extravagant literary devices that few
others adopted until the second half of the 20th century.

For example, did Poe invent the unreliable narrator?
Consider, as evidence in his favor, the opening to his
story “The Black Cat”:

For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I
am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.
Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where
my very senses reject their own evidence….

This is standard fare for Poe. In the opening paragraph
of "The Tell-Tale Heart" the narrator admits that listeners
think he is insane. At the start of "The Pit and the
Pendulum" he declares that his senses are leaving him.
Again and again we encounter this opening gambit. Did
anyone before Poe populate stories with narrators who insist
with such vehemence, in advance of the tale, that they simply can’t be believed?

Indeed, we encounter other postmodern elements in
Poe’s writing. Note, for example, his deliberate blurring
of the line between fiction and non-fiction. In “The Premature Burial,” he even
insists at the outset that his story is only worth telling because it is scrupulously
true—and he actually sticks with fact-based reportage for the first half of his tale,
although this is merely a ruse to lure the reader deeper into the deception. In
"The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," he even boasts that he solved a real-life murder
case with the deductions made by his fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin—a greatly
exaggerated claim, but presented persuasively in the context of the story.
Poe was so good at this kind of manipulation of textual expectations that
many readers actually thought that his tale "The Facts in the Case of M.
Valdemar"—in my opinion, the most gruesome Poe story, almost repulsive in
its particulars—was a trustworthy account of an actual incident.  

The most basic expectations are thwarted again and again by this author. One of the
most time-honored rules of horror fiction is to start with an appearance of normalcy
and conventionality—if only so that the terrors ahead will have all the more shock
value. Even the lowliest director of the most tawdry slasher film understands the
importance of doing this. But Poe will have none of it. His narrators (and almost
every one of his masterpieces is told by a first-person narrator) typically launch their
testimonies with grand declarations in the opening paragraph. They tell us that they
are falling into lunacy, or seeking extreme revenge, or that the reader can hardly
expect to believe the dark and eerie things that have happened to them. Poe is so
fixated on setting an extreme mood for his tales that he dispenses with the slow and
gradual build-up and instead immediately thrusts us into the manias and deliriums
of his protagonists.

Poe maintains his intensity of vision even in passages where we might expect
formulaic prose. Consider the opening sentences of "Ligeia" where Poe’s narrator
describes the facial features of his beloved—a passage that, in the hands of another
writer, would take up a few phrases with the familiar modifiers and metaphors. Not
so with Mister Poe. Instead he launches into a feverish and obsessed disquisition on
the limits of the memory and aesthetics as it grapples with the ineffable qualities of
an effulgent countenance. The description lingers much longer than we expect,
eventually stretching out for almost one thousand words. Before the expostulation is
finished, the reader is repulsed by its neurotic quality. This perhaps enhances the
effect of the story, but we still might wonder at Poe’s willingness to destroy the
symmetry of his tale by focusing so much on the symmetry of his heroine’s visage.
But at the story’s conclusion, when the narrator recognizes these same features, but
now transplanted to the face of his dead second wife Lady Rowena, the reader feels
the horror amplified—and only because of the elaborate care Poe had lavished on the
appearance of Ligeia at the outset. Compare how other, lesser authors handle stories
of the resurrected dead—usually with all the subtlety of a Hollywood zombie film—
and marvel at the means by which Poe achieves a much grander effect. Here the key
to the entire story resides in the skill with which Poe can depict a woman’s face in
prose—the very passages that most genre authors would fill with clichés.

Poe is equally unconventional in his construction of detective stories. Even the most
basic requirements of the genre are flagrantly violated. But who can blame the
author who essentially invented the genre for imposing his own rules? Even so, what
could be more basic than the expectation that the murder be committed by a
murderer?  Yet in his debut mystery, “The Murders in Rue Morgue,” Poe refuses to
accept even this obvious stricture.

We have had more than 150 years to assimilate Poe, but it’s still bloody hard to treat
him as part of the literary mainstream. Too many strange ingredients show up in
these stories…and I’m not just talking about the phantasmagoria of the plots. For
example, at the mid-point in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe inserts a poem—a
strange choice for a short story writer, signaling a rupture in the narrative, but one
that this author resorted to in other tales. The poem in question, entitled "The
Haunted Palace," is ostensibly about a stately residence that has been taken over by
some strange power, marked by "vast forms, that move fantastically to a discordant
melody" and a "hideous throng" that rushes out the door, but never seems to have
left the premises.

What could this possibly mean?  When Poe had previously submitted this poem to a
literary magazine, the editor rejected it, claiming that he found it incomprehensible.
Most scholars today interpret the poem as an allegory of the collapse of person’s
mind and personality—a view supported by the many comparisons in the text
between the palace and a human head. In the context of the short story, the poem is
sung by Roderick Usher, who is undergoing precisely this kind of collapse. This is
one of the most evocative moments in Poe’s oeuvre, but few authors today would
dare emulate its discords and arcane misdirection. Instead of abandoning a poem
few readers could hope to understand, he puts it in a story!

Note that this interpretation of "The Haunted Palace" could be applied, with more
than a little justice, to most of Poe’s tales. Again and again in his work, the author
obsesses over setting and scenery, and in almost every instance, these details
represent a kind of externalization of the psychological malaise embedded in the
narratives. Few nineteenth century writers were more sensitive to mental states than
Poe, and this is true even when he seems to be describing a landscape, or a building,
or even a raven perched upon a pallid bust of Pallas just above his chamber door. His
plots can be outlandish, the particulars so beyond the conventional bounds of
realism that the mind rebels at the required 'suspension of disbelief'. But Poe
remains convincing nonetheless, and almost entirely because of the extraordinary
conviction of his narrators. They are committed entirely—and sometimes ought to be
committed legally—and this intensity of vision draws us in to the depths of the story,
even when our rational mind rebels.

How strange, nonetheless, that this author of genius should have set in motion the
world of American genre fiction—the most despised segment of the literary
marketplace. Yet perhaps here, above all, does Poe prove his prescience. We are now
living through a golden age in which literary fiction is borrowing heavily from genre
concepts. A host of highbrow literary stars—Cormac McCarthy, Salman Rushdie,
Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem and many, many
others—have come to realize that horror, sci-fi, fantasy and suspense plots can serve
as springboards for masterpieces. And with that leap of imagination and embracing
of mystery they have finally caught up with Poe’s extraordinary
Tales of Mystery &

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent book, Love Songs: The
Hidden History
, is published by Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: January 18, 2016
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