MADMEN & Edgar A. Poe

from The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 25, 2009


Edgar Allan Poe's most memorable characters are madmen. There is no gray area. The characters have crossed a clear line, breached a propriety, or even worse.

Poe could spin a frightening yarn. But what continues to intrigue so many readers is just how plausible it is for human beings to commit such foul deeds. How madness can be so close to the surface, and, in fact, is always a latent part of us all.

Recently, while pondering this author's birth 200 years ago, I've been poring over a few of Poe's most chilling stories, and like the raw weather and darker days of a recent weekend, the tales have gotten keenly inside my bones.

Poe had a creepy knack to put his characters in the most intimate of predicaments: dank basements, immolations, all manner of the paranormal. The shadowy trappings are scary, yes, but they don't really account for what is most terrifying in Poe.

The scariest thing about Poe isn't haunted castles or vampirism, it's something much closer at hand: the dare of the madman who implores us to see his sanity.

What Poe was able to do, as well as it has ever been done (Dostoevsky and Kafka also come to mind), was explore that razor-sharp line between madmen and everyone else.

True, Poe's great characters are patently deranged, but it is their insistent lucid streak that keeps us hooked. Plot-wise, a man or woman who is merely mad isn't sustainable. Freddy Krueger is a brutish goon, but Hannibal Lecter wins the Academy Award of true fright. Instead of losing touch with his rational faculties, a typical Poe character will perversely embrace his logical birthright to its gripping end. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," we are put on notice:

"WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story."

Despite all the drapery, terror in Poe is not veiled. Playing the Madness vs. the Lucid card, Poe is remarkably aboveboard: He tells us what has happened, or what is going to happen, or what is happening in the very moment we turn the page, to perhaps find our chilly selves in the very story we are reading.

In fact, the more reasonable a character in a Poe tale becomes, the more trouble we know we're in. Think of Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado." Each step into the subterranean vault, the narrator implores him to stop. "Come, we will go back; your health is precious," Montressor says.

"Enough," Fortunato replies. "The cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough."

"True-true," Montressor replies, "and, indeed, I had no intention of alarming you unnecessarily; but you should use all proper caution."

With Poe, those who act most rational are the ones we must fear most. Instead of loosening, Montressor's logic only sharpens as we descend into the ghastly wine cellar.

The scary part of these tales is not how mad the characters are, but rather how reasonable they can appear. To appreciate insanity in Poe we might even have to admit how bound up it is with hyperlucidity itself (that's one of the inferences at least).

It's hard not to concede how his characters soldier on reasonably in the most unreasonable of situations.

A private thrill of reading Poe is how careful and exacting his characters are to define their terms. In the opening moments of "Amontillado," Montressor claims that Fortunato has insulted him by a "thousand injuries." He spells out his complaint in the manner of a legal brief: "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong."

In "The Imp of the Perverse," a mad scientist propounds his own theory on the madmen within us. He puts this perversity — "to do wrong for wrong's sake" — under the microscope:

"Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promotions we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong."

These are heady times for Poe enthusiasts. It's the 200th year of his birth, he's the talk of the town as Baltimore and Philadelphia continue to scuffle over his corpse, but it's also that we are living in slightly darker days now.

These are anxious times, moody times, which is to say a very good time to read Edgar Allan Poe. Poe accurately describes something of our darkest nature, which is one reason his madmen continue to strike fear into our hearts and excite with their all-encompassing spells.