Thursday, July 13, 2006

Basic Instinct

Reading short stories by the unsurpassed genius of Edgar Allan Poe is quite an experience. They thrill, chill, excite, interest and many a times screw your brains right inside your skull till you have the unmistakable feeling of giddiness and mental fatigue, so strong that you are ready to collapse at any place that can afford you rest. For the uninitiated, E.A. Poe is one of the most gifted writers in American literature and has an amazing range of works to his credit right from detective fiction to horror, humor to science fiction, critique to romanticism, fantasy/supernatural to crime and even musical, mellifluous poetical verses.

I started with his acclaimed collection of detective fiction. I realized that not only are all the detective stories that I had read so far, more or less inspired by this master’s work, the most famous detective Sherlock Holmes is also a comprehensive and shameless rip off from Poe’s idiosyncratic character, a noble Frenchman called Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. Both the characters are glaringly similar and for all the Sherlock fans (I mean those who have religiously read all the 56 short stories and 4 novels) there is another shock in wait. The plots and the storylines of a few (and the smartest) of Sherlock’s adventures have been lifted (plagiarized down to the last thread of mystery) from Poe’s detective stories. Read up Poe’s ‘The Gold Bug’, ‘The Purloined Letter’ and the uncanny resemblance to Doyle’s offerings will be crystal clear to you. In conclusion Doyle’s claim to fame is a stake through Poe’s grave. And the irony of the situation is that the original genius isn’t even half as popular as the scheming plagiarist.

Anyways apart from the detective fiction, there are other stories too. What is fascinating and creepy about Poe’s work is that even the humorous tales have a hint of sadism and gothic horror, which will make your insides turn. Check out ‘Never bet the Devil your head’ and you will know what I am talking about. And the other interesting thing is his insistence that he isn’t telling anything relevant. There are a few stories that start by his disclaimer stating that the following story is almost unbelievable/unimportant/silly etc. However his insight on humans and their behavioral patterns, his close observations of the typical and the unique, his impeccable knowledge of the sciences, the languages and philosophy choose to differ with his disclaimer and soon the reader is aware that he is in the presence of the modest maestro. The language will seem highly ornamental and tedious to the average understanding (I sat with my dictionary next to me) and the grammar, archaic, very difficult to follow and keep track of, but if you pursue it till the end, I bet you will end up being satisfied and not just because it is a Herculean task to get till the end. There are many other reasons too.

I have one here. When I read his stories, especially the ones about conscience and horror, I had an uncomfortable feeling, something that made me sick inside. But something that I could identify with, yet wouldn’t dare to claim in public, lest I be considered a maniac in a civilized society. But I guess it is in each one of us, the one that makes us inherently human, capable of doing wrong for the sake of it, toeing the line to walk into the world of the forbidden and giving into temptation to do the thing that we know is a sin. I guess it is an instinct that is latent in majority of the population thankfully. Many of us are even blissfully unaware of it. There are very few who would dare to acknowledge it even in isolation for it makes us insecure, scared of our own dark side. And that’s what makes Poe’s horror so compulsively noteworthy. He doesn’t make us fear the unknown; he makes us afraid of ourselves. He frightens us with our own hidden fears and beastliness. He introduces our dormant (almost dead) sinful, subconscious tendencies to the conscious mind and leaves off gleefully as we try to fight the inner demons and make them go away. And that’s the true power of his work…..I haven’t read any other author who has had that kind of power over me, my mind, my consciousness. And that is why Poe has to be read, to feel the shadow of the dead casting its gloominess over the sunshine of the alive.

For more on Poe, check out this website, which contains information on Poe and showcases his brilliant work.

P.S. For those who need more clues as to what instinct I am referring to in the last paragraph, read up Poe’s “The Black Cat” (Tales of Conscience).