In the introduction to In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe, editor-annotator Leslie S. Klinger observes that “Poe’s best stories traverse the ranges of existentialism—pondering the inexorable nature of time and death and the indifference of God—and of the depths of the human soul.” The stories, dating from 1816-1914, that Klinger has compiled for this anthology aspire to the literary glory of Poe’s febrile fiction. Some attain the goal. Many of the tales are written by Poe’s contemporaries, others are from later authors who were possibly influenced by the master. Most of the yarns have been frequently anthologized. What makes this volume distinctive, among a great deal of similar works, are Klinger’s annotations and footnotes. He enlightens by explaining artistic and historical references of the period, archaic words and expressions are given perspective and defined. Klinger metaphorically shakes the dust off the muslin, making antiquated writing styles more accessible to the modern reader.
It isn’t surprising that the most effective stories in the book are ones that have been published multiple times over the centuries. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, incorporates detection into a supernatural mystery in “The Leather Funnel.” In it, a collector of arcane paraphernalia discovers the bloody history of an object in his possession. Doyle distills the personality of the collector in a few lines: “His knowledge was greater than his wisdom, and his powers were far superior to his character. The small bright eyes, buried deep in his fleshy face, twinkled with intelligence and an unabated curiosity of life, but they were the eyes of a sensualist and an egotist.”
For atmosphere, it’s hard to beat renowned ghost story writer M.R. James. His quiet spectral tales slowly build in tension. “Lost Hearts” is a fine example of his oeuvre, as this quote illustrates: “Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and unappeasable hunger and longing.”
Attraction and simultaneous revulsion are deliciously dissected in “The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers. A man knowingly takes a room where the last several occupants all committed suicide—in exactly the same manner. In his curious quest to find out why this happened, he comes under the bewitching thrall of a dangerous woman: “Fear is no longer what I feel. Rather, it is a sort of oppressive terror which I would not want to avoid for anything in the world. Its grip is irresistible, profoundly cruel, and voluptuous in its attraction.”
In addition to the well-known works of Ewers, James, and Doyle, the compilation also contains famous scary tales such as “The Upper Berth” by F. Marion Crawford, Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw,” and “The Yellow Sign,” from Robert Chambers’ collection The King in Yellow, which was referenced on True Detective Season 1. The twenty stories gathered in Pegasus Books’ In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe run the gamut from timeless classics to ponderous narratives that are rather mired in their time. Thankfully, those that fall into the latter category are made more readable and interesting courtesy of Leslie S. Klinger’s thoughtful explications.