Friday, 12 March 2010

Just Finished: The Masque of the Red Death (and Other Stories) by Edgar Allan Poe

I should admit that 'just finished' is a bit of a lie, I finished it about a week ago and am already halfway through my bloody brilliant new book.

I can't remember for the life of me where I heard about the Masque of the Red Death. I do know it was referred to in a book, a reference that flew unimpeded straight over my head. To ensure I grasped the full meaning of the sentence, I looked it up and thought "Hang on one minute - that's sounds a bit interesting!" and so added it to my list of books for 2010. Being a man of a short attention span, I didn't really read into it too much and as such I was unaware that this is a book of short stories. This is a good thing; had I known, I probably wouldn't have picked it up. I've never really been a big reader of short stories, and the words "And Other Stories/Tales etc" normally cause me to put the book back on the shelf and walk on by. I like to get into a story you see, to get to know people. However, as I said, it was a good thing I didn't know, because it meant I gave the book a chance.

And it was worth it, I'm pleased. Poe is obviously a rather large deal in American literature, and it's not hard to see why - the stories were wickedly gothic, twisted and dark, which is just how I like it. They do seem to follow a quite rigid, almost predictable formula*, but I suppose the man knew his art and his audience and, well, if it ain't broke - don't fix it.

  • Beginning - "you won't believe me/I'm mad"
  • Middle - "Something funny's going on here old have taken a rather odd turn!"
  • End - someone dies.

They don't all follow this pattern, and I like I said I do understand that this has a purpose; each piece is finely tuned to shock or to spook, but after a few stories it had almost the opposite effect - I started to feel like I knew what was coming. I think I read, however, that at least some of them were originally published in magazines and I reckon that if you were reading them monthly or quarterly this wouldn't be a problem - it's because I was reading each one immediately after finishing another that I became acclimatised to Poe's writing style.

I won't bore you with all of the stories, but here's my top three:

  • The Mask of the Red Death - while a plague ravages his country, a nobleman locks himelf and his friends in his castle for a giant rave up. However, bricks and mortar can't stop the Red Death, and events take a worrying turn. There's also a very odd clock.
  • The Pit & The Pendulum - a prisoner is tormented by the clerics of the Inquisition who use a series of imaginative methods of torture in attempts to kill him. One of the stories that breaks free from the formula above, but is spooky nonetheless.
  • The Cask of Amontillado - lulls you into such a false sense of security you forget the beginning, and are shocked by the ending.

Overall I'd say this was a rather enjoyable read. I like most things gothic, Poe is obviously a master craftsman and I got to experience a form of prose I wouldn't normally consider. However, I'm heading back to not-so-short stories for a while now, I need something juicy to get my teeth into.

Now reading: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

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