Fiction Reviews

The Pit and the Pendulum and Other Tales

(1998 /2018) Edgar Allan Poe & edited by David Van Leer, Oxford University Press,
£14.99, hrdbk, xxviii + 338pp, ISBN 978-0-198-82729-0


Edgar Allan Poe’s work has inspired generations of writers. The width of his writing, experimenting with different techniques and ideas that we would generally ascribe to one or another genre today makes him an integral part of the modern writing method.

Poe’s best work was always in at short story or novella length as this format best showcased the narrative conceits that he tended to use. The concept of the flawed narrator, gradually unpicked and forced to confront their inadequacy was one amongst several tools he would employ, and one picked up by H. P., Lovecraft in his later works.

Poe, by comparison to Lovecraft, is a writer of greater ability. Free from the constraints of any particular theme, his work explores whatever interests him and though there is a definite slew towards darkness, that has been argued by others, reflects the dark qualities of his life.

The Pit and the Pendulum and Other Tales is a beautiful, purple hardback produced by Oxford University Press. It is a curation of selected tales, meaning that a substantial amount of Poe’s work does not feature in the volume, but does sit well in a series alongside other classics produced by the publisher. This edition is aimed at the classic literary collector, who might eschew the more elaborate and illustrated editions of Poe’s stories that are often published as Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Included in this edition is an extensive and well-referenced short biography of Poe’s life that quickly turns into a critical discourse on his writing. This is accompanied by a timeline of pertinent events from his birth to his mysterious death all provided by David Van Leer. Poe’s struggle for professional recognition is well documented, as are the alleged battles with alcoholism and the death of his young wife. Van Leer does not dwell overmuch on this. A wise choice as many events are disputed these days.

The collection itself contains many of the acknowledged highlights of Poe’s work and these would be hidden treasures on a bookshelf for new readers. The titular 'The Pit and the Pendulum', 'The Fall of the House of Usher', 'The Masque of the Red Death' and 'The Tell-Tale Heart' are all here, along with 'Murders in the Rue Morgue', the tale that establishes Poe as an inspiration to Arthur Conan Doyle and the plethora of detective story writers who came after him.

Poe prose is nearly two hundred years old, so some of it is slower than a new, present-day reader might be used to, but there is a purpose and restlessness to it; the images continually move and change with his sublime turn of phrase. You are never far away from a quotable line and unlike many stories that are considered classics, his work stands up well to critical scrutiny.

The Pit and the Pendulum and Other Tales from Oxford University Press is an excellent bookshelf edition of Poe’s work that might suit private or public libraries. Every writer looking to improve their craft can learn something from these stories and this writer.

Allen Stroud


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