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A long time ago, before the internet gave us pictures of cats in pumpkins to celebrate Halloween, people liked to gather together and tell scary stories. Even before Halloween as we know it became an official holiday the end of the harvest, the shortening of the days, the impending winter, and the chill in the air sent people rushing to huddle around a fire eager to scare each other witless. It wasn’t just about the fun of seeing who could be the last man standing, there was also a bond that was built that would be needed for the bleak months ahead. This was the case long before master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe was even in short pants (which probably caught fire, given his luck), but after his works started to gain popularity there was a whole new batch of horrors for people to soil themselves to!
Poe’s works were visceral, unapologetic, gruesome, and psychological. He pioneered the “singular effect,” which basically meant if your aim is to write a scary story every single thing you put to paper should be for the sole purpose of making your reader curl into a fetal position and cry. Poe’s works are almost always from a first person perspective, meaning you jump into a person’s brain every time you read one and it seems like they’re always begging you personally to back them up.
It also makes them the perfect works to read out loud in the storytelling tradition. For the audience, they get to see a performance rather than a reading, and for the reader, well, who doesn’t love the excuse to go a little mad from time to time?
In a world of graphic visual violence we often forget how terrifying just sound can be (until we hear something at the window while we’re trying to sleep and remember we live on the 10th floor). This Halloween, instead of just opting for another slasher-movie fest, or eating your weight’s worth in snickers, why not gather a group of friends together, dim the lights, and have a ghost story party? Special Guest star: Edgar Allan Poe. Plus 1: Terror.
Here are my top recommendations of Poe works to accomplish your singular effect of scary fun! Happy Halloween!
Honorable Mention: Annabelle Lee
If you don’t want to do a fully Poe themed evening this is a great choice to include among other readings. It’s well known, it’s brief, and shows your have a sensitive side. This is the last completed poem Poe wrote and is based on his very young and sickly wife Virginia who died of tuberculosis. Now doesn’t that make you just want to cuddle under a blanket with a certain someone? In the dark? You’re welcome!
From the Vault - Hop-Frog
Who? Exactly! This is not one of Poe’s more well known stories but it’s a doozy. If Tyrion Lannister had a favorite Poe story it would be Hop-Frog. It’s a tale of revenge about a dwarf who is kidnapped from his home and forced to be a dancing jester for the King’s amusement. Hop Frog suffers a thousand abuses under the cruel King and his court, but when they mess with his friend it is ON. Advantages to this story are that it’s twisted, satisfying, and isn’t well known so people will really listen! Extra points if you do it in Tyrion’s voice!
Old Standby New Twist? - The Tell-Tale Heart
We all know how this goes down: Old man, evil eye, hubris, madness. Classic tale of insanity! Now here’s something you may find interesting, go back and read The Tell-Tale heart. Other than using the word “madmen” (which the narrator uses to describe others, not themself) is there ANYTHING in there that says what sex this narrator is? Nope! It is totally open. In fact, a lot of Poe’s works are we just don’t always think about it. Now, I’m not saying that a woman can’t read any Poe story she wants, regardless of the narrator’s sex, what I’m saying is if you feel limited because you think all of Poe’s narrators are men, don’t! Because they’re not! The whole point of Poe is that it doesn’t matter who the narrator is. They’re all unnamed. Any one of us is capable of stalking an old man into oblivion, so rock the hell out of it!
Group Pick! - The Raven
Are you terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought yet? Wanna lighten the mood? Well, there’s safety in numbers and The Raven is probably the most perfect of all of Poe’s works to read as a group! Yes, it’s still scary, full of heart-ache, madness, and a guy basically screaming at a bird to get off his lawn, but it’s also very familiar and there’s a sense of comfort in the rhyme scheme. Also, who of a certain age doesn’t hear, “Quoth the Raven,” and struggle to not say, “Eat my shorts!” ala Bart Simpson. I would recommend this as the final reading of the night. Sit in a circle and pass around a worn copy of the book after each person reads a stanza. Go wild! Go Crazy! Winter is coming!