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Edgar Allan Poe (Selected) Short Stories and Poetry Ranked!

American author (Born in Boston, lived mostly in Baltimore--leave a comment on whether Poe would have been a Red Sox or Orioles fan) Edgar Allan Poe is considered a literary giant in the canon of English-language fiction literature. Famously one of the first authors to attempt to make a living solely from writing, this had a major effect on Poe's financial life and the kinds of stories he wrote. This project has been undertaken 1. in part owing to my desire to begin reading again in order to be accepted by high-brow intellectuals and shed my former perception of being a nimrodic, foolish dope and 2. Poe was extensively covered in a high-school unit and I had former knowledge of the man's work but wanted to read more along with wanting to re-read what had already been read in high school. One caveat before I get into the ranking, short stories and poetry are fundamentally different in form and goal, so ranking them together may be a little...pointless. However, I can't think of anyone who would mind so I'm just going to do it anyway. On to the list! (Some of these story descriptions will have spoilers, the more I like a story the less inclined I will be to spoil it (probably))

22. The Murders in the Rue Morgue

This was so terribly, remarkably disappointing that just thinking about it bothers me. This was one of the last Poe stories I read in this project, I had been saving it due to its very cool name and its historical status as literally the start of detective fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle points to this story as inspiration for goddamn Sherlock Holmes so yea, I thought this was going to proverbially blow my socks off. It didn't! We start off with the unnamed narrator detailing what analytical thinking entails and this intrigues the reader, you believe you will come to witness and experience within this story the work of a great genius solving an impossible crime. After this brief start, (brief compared to the rest of the story, it is a long (often quite silly) piece) we are introduced to the first fiction detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin is an interesting figure who comes from a very wealthy family but has lost most of his wealth through a series of unfortunate happenings (a common character archetype in Poe's work). The narrator and soon-to-be detective become good friends after frequently running into each other in, of all places, the library and owing to their shared love of "obscure volumes" they decide to move into an abandoned mansion together in order to spend most of their days passing the time by reading. Okay! There was potential here. These two characters at this moment in the story are clearly gay. This was not Poe's intention but it's difficult to not view it that way. They sequester themselves away from society into a tiny mansion and spend the days reading and the nights going on walks and people-watching. This story should have been a romance.

Alas! It is not. Fast-forwarding to when our characters first hear about the murder, the description is quite gruesome and awful and makes the reader squirm. Dupin decides to take on the case in order to free a wrongly accused man and also wants to prove that he can solve a case which is perceived as impossible in solving and this is what the rest of the book details. Many pages are devoted to clues and witnesses and possible hints at what ultimately caused this crime. The reader delves into the possibilities before them, thinking about each and every suspicious character and what their motivations could be for murdering these woman. Who could have committed this terrible crime? It was a fucking orangutan. Or as Poe refers to them, an "Ourang-Outang." I was legitimately baffled and quite disappointed that I had wasted at least 40 minutes reading this story which had this ending. Oh, you think I'm joking?

Illustration of the story from 1870

While I'm sure that most human beings have a deep seated fear of orangutan home invasion, this story ends up being illogical and completely unpredictable from the clues which were given earlier, thereby rendering the main point of detective fiction absent. The good news is it's only up from here!

21. Hop-Frog

Oh god...the "ourang-outangs" are back. I'm not joking, a representation of orangutans plays a prominent part in this story. Did anyone else know that inaccurate representations of orangutans are overrepresented in the works of Poe? And if you did know that...why? Why did you know that? You weirdo. Anyways, this is a somewhat absurd revenge tale. Kind of inoffensive and somewhat interesting but I am naturally averse to revenge tales and this has a strange fairy-tale quality that I find to juxtapose with the tone of the story in a negative way. Imaginative but ultimately unappealing.

20. A Descent into the Maelstrom

Another story where a very cool title turns into a disappointing story. Even the description of this one will sound cool. On a hike, the man leading the tour tells another man his story of surviving a massive, engulfing whirlpool (the titular maelstrom). The basics of the storytelling fail this interesting premise though. First of all, the decision to have the narrator be told this story as opposed to writing a first-person account of the event makes it lose dramatic tension. I don't fault the convention as it was very popular in the literature of the time and Poe used the same convention in brilliant stories, but it did not serve this story. Another fault I find with this story is Poe writing all the characters and the story in the same manner of dialect. There is not differentiation between characterization and the author's usual prose which once again makes the act of having the narrator be told this story somewhat pointless. It also allows the work to be more clearly seen as a work of fiction which fails the work in its initial intention to be viewed as a real story. (Poe was fond of passing off fiction as reality and selling it to newspapers as legitimate; a prankster practice which I enjoyed finding out about--see The Balloon-Hoax) Lastly, this is one of Poe's tales of "ratiocination" which was a recurring story type in Poe's work where characters within his stories attempt to rationalize their way out of impossible situations. When I read these Poe stories, they mostly come across to me as Poe saying "look at how smart I am, I can solve the impossible problems (that I made up and then created the solution for.)" However! I think the writing is beautiful. Poe's mastery of the English language is a consistent joy to read and his description of the Nordic scenery and the maelstrom itself conjure up images of the Kantian conceptualization of the sublime.

19. The Purloined Letter

Our genius investigator C. Auguste Dupin is back in Poe's last detective story. While an improvement on Murders I find this story to just be quite boring. His detective stories hold little to no dramatic heft and don't include the reader in the investigative process thereby making the stories so inactive for the reader that there is barely anything emotionally meaningful or mentally involving to glean from the reading. However, I will say that his writing is beautiful throughout, but that would be the main complement I could pay to this piece. There are some other slight compliments waiting in the wings. Its brevity is appreciated when compared to Murders (useless) length and he actually leaves some clues to help the reader decipher their own ideas about where the letter could be as opposed to pulling a random ending out of his ass. An "ourang-outang" stole the letter! NO! (That may have been misleading, there was no orangutans in this story) A briefest of final points: this story is the first mentioned which Poe begins with a misattributed quote, a strangely recurring practice in his work.

18. The Pit and the Pendulum

Overly complicated writing to a frustrating degree, I am confused at the perspective of the story. Is the writer the most educated man to ever have been punished by the Spanish Inquisitors? The overly complicated writing style makes it harder to feel what should be a very horrifying experience. Also, the order of events here is somewhat ridiculous. The narrator utilizes rats to aid his escape. I don't know, I just wasn't feeling this one. I also dislike historical inaccuracy in fiction (can mostly be forgiven here as Poe didn't have access to the internet; 2022's All Quiet on the Western Front cannot be forgiven) and this has much of it. Svankmajer made this story better.

17. The Oval Portrait

The shortest of Poe's short stories which I read, this is an interesting little tale. The story begins with two hikers taking an injury timeout from the hike after coming upon a very stern and grand manor. After breaking into the manor, the narrator settles into a room and happens upon some volumes of books which he begins to enjoy while the night passes. The story takes a rapid shift here and becomes an allegorical tale regarding the conflict between art and life. Certainly interesting but much too brief to fully flesh out its ideas.

16. Lenore

The first poem to be featured in this list! This piece has an interesting structure with four stanzas demonstrating a back and forth between mourners of a deceased young woman. One of the parties responds normally and describes the feelings of pain and grief that this loss have brought about. The other party responds that this death should not be mourned and their life and ascension to a new world should be celebrated. I interpret the poem as wanting the reader to identify with the second party and I do not. I also think some of the language used is a bit silly like referring to life as a golden bowl and death as the breaking of aforementioned golden bowl. It's still a nice read though and Poe writes beautifully in this work which features a recurring theme in his writing (the death of a young, beautiful woman).

15. The City in the Sea

A strange, image-filled work which can spur on the imagination. It describes an underwater medieval-styled place ruled over by death. Yea, pretty metal right? Ultimately though, I feel like this piece doesn't communicate much more than that. It ends up being just an imaginative setting conveyed in stunning poetic language. It's like a really good painting of a castle with like skeleton guards on it or something. Definitely cool, but not much else.

14. Ligeia

Such a strange, otherworldly story here. Out of everything I read, this may be the story I am most torn on when trying to decide how I feel. I'm gonna have to spoil plot elements to describe my feelings. The story begins with the narrator happily married to the lovely lady Ligeia whose mix of beauty and brilliance would enthrall anyone. Sadly, Ligeia begins to succumb to a long illness and the narrator gradually sees her whither away. During this process, she writes the poem "The Conqueror Worm" and begins to delve more deeply into metaphysical knowledge. She passes away. After this, the narrator remarries quickly after being consumed by his own loneliness. He does not love his new wife and she also passes away within months of the marriage occurring. Now, the freak shit happens. The narrator (an opium addict) is under the influence of the drug at times while mourning his second dead wife (rough year huh). On the fourth night after her death, he begins to hear a low moaning from the body. He goes to the room and witnesses the body gradually reviving itself from the dead. In intervals, the body shakes and groans and moves and then stops again. This is genuinely scary. Legitimately, when I try to imagine this I get goosebumps, it is such an effective generator of horror, and borders on cosmic horror with how unimaginable it is. Try to think of the painful, grotesque revivification of a long-dead person. It's freaky! Ultimately, after an indeterminate period of time, the narrator notices the hair of his wife has changed from its previous blond color to the darkest of dark hair. He realizes that Ligeia has...come back from the dead after taking over his second wife's body throughout the night.

The ending is what I struggle with. It is indeed horrifying, but it ultimately doesn't mean much to me. Its supernaturalness comes out of the blue and is only hinted at in the prior portions of the story. Ligeia does believe that the only thing that causes death is mortal will and if you try hard enough not to die, you won't. But once again, this doesn't do anything for me, as its ridiculous. And since the whole story seems to be based around this premise, ultimately I guess I find the whole story ridiculous? It has even baffled many critics throughout history, with its many contradictions and odd narrative turns. Some view the ending as one of the narrator's opium-induced hallucinations. Some view the story as a satire, some as a gothic literature masterwork, and some as a failure. I view it as an interesting experiment that is beautifully written but ultimately has no deeper meaning for me to sink my teeth into, leaving it as empty to me as Ligeia's tomb is at the story's close.

13. The Raven

Uh oh. Before the middle school English teachers of America rip me to pieces for this relatively low ranking, I should say that I do indeed enjoy this narrative poem. But upon re-reading it, I do find it to be remarkably overrated. This is one of the most famous poems in the English language and has inspired so many works, other artists, and even a football team's name. Let's dig into why I feel the way I do.

Firstly, I think the premise is excellent. A mourning man in the late night comes to interact with a dreadful representation of everlasting grief. This is very powerful and has already laid the groundwork for a fulfilling tale which leaves a lasting impression. I think the choice of the raven is excellent. (As a bird lover though, it is unfortunate that now people equivocate gloom and doom with the raven as it is a sweet and smart bird. Time for Luke's bird facts of the day: birds mate for life! birds are very communal and are some of the best animal parents! birds show higher intelligence than you would expect and there have been some stories of birds finding money in order to trade it with people for food! yay birds!) The setting is wonderfully gothic as well and the early interactions between the raven and the man are intriguing and lead the reader to empathize with the grieving man's mind state. Some of my problems arise from the poetic forms used in the piece. The rhyme scheme is very repetitive and so is the usage of words. Some have pointed to this repetition as helping to create a dark, entrancing atmosphere for the story. However, to me, it came across as an author stifling himself in order to appeal to as many readers as possible. The fourth and fifth lines in every stanza end with the exact same rhyming words. The rhyme scheme throughout is ABCBB and within the stanzas there is no derivation from this basic scheme. Basically, he runs out of words that rhyme with Nevermore.

After the poem was released it became incredibly popular and Poe attempted to capitalize on it by releasing an essay on his writing process while creating the poem. This essay makes me like the poem less. Poe describes how every choice he made had a logical idea behind it. "The raven enters into the house to get out of the cold, stormy night." Boring! Bringing logic to a story which should be entirely supernatural is strange and takes away from some of the conclusions and enjoyment readers can draw from it. He also details how he is averse to symbolism or allegory. It's a strange style of writing which works in many pieces but in stories of potentially supernatural happenings maybe it shouldn't be the basis of your storytelling. So, owing to the repetitive rhyme scheme, lack of imaginative foundations for the story to expand upon, and its forced meter and conclusion, I find The Raven to be overrated. However, there is brilliant imagery, absolutely iconic ideas found throughout and a great foundation. You have to take the bitter with the sweet I suppose. I end this blurb with two quotes. William Butler Yeats: "[The poem is] insincere and vulgar...its execution rhythmical trick." Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I see nothing in it."

12. The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether

Actually hilarious. This is such a wild shift from Poe's usual work and it really was a breath of fresh air from where I was in the reading project at the time. The narrator in this story is such a braindead idiot, it's so funny to see him buffoon his way through a setting in which he is clearly misunderstanding what is occurring. The story is very fun to read and works as an absurdist comedy in a gothic setting.

2 "brief" asides:

Films inspired by Poe: Many brilliant visual works have been inspired by Poe including an Oscar-winning 1953 adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart. I think the animation in this short film (only 7 minutes, watch it) is stunning and it conjures up a great frightening psychedelia. Many other famous Poe adaptions were directed by B-movie legend Roger Corman and star Vincent Price. These are basically gothic camp, there's an insane blend of melodrama, "horror", and overacting. Not exactly my cup of tea always, but when in the right mood these are a hoot and a holler. Some of the best are The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Fall of the House of Usher. Another director who loved adapting Poe was Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer, who adapted Poe 3 times but I will only recommend two of these films. The first would be the short film adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum which Svankmajer renames The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope. A very unnerving film, it takes place entirely in the first person and demonstrates Svankmajer's mastery of sound design, technical elements, and tension-building. The second film I have actually not seen yet lolz. But I've heard quite good things about it and Svankmajer is one of the most famous surrealist artists in the world and I'm sure the movie is like really really good guys okay. It's called Sileni. Lastly, I would like to recommend the best Poe adaptation ever, Jean Epstein's 1928 work The Fall of the House of Usher. The artistic pedigree behind this project is top-tier with Epstein being one of the foremost authors of the French Impressionist movement (along with Abel Gance who's Napoleon film is unanimously considered a visionary masterpiece) and the film features a somewhat famous assistant director. Luis Bunuel! Okay, I realize most people don't know who Bunuel is but he (similar to Svankmajer) is one of the most famous surrealist artists in the world. He worked with Dali, succeeded in 3 countries and had a 5 decade career with masterpieces in every decade. This was the first project he worked on. Please watch this film. Don't let history wash it away.

On my usage of the word brilliant: In using the word brilliant to describe Poe's prose I refer to my admiration of his stunning exactness in his usage of words and terms. His erudition is something to envy and he always communicates exactly what he wants to describe. I find this very impressive.

11. The Cask of Amontillado

One of Poe's most famous short stories, there is definitely strong writing throughout this piece. Its setting is beautifully rendered, its opacity helps to increase reader interest, and its brutality was surely thrilling to people in the 1840s. And it almost certainly has one of the hardest opening lines in any written piece ever: "The thousand injuries I had borne as I best I could; but when ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." Okay girlie damn! However, despite these positives it is a revenge story and its intricacies only become more interesting if a reader is interested in the initial revenge. I don't often connect to revenge plots so I could not fully envelop myself in this story.

10. The Imp of the Perverse

One of the first stories I read for this project and one of my favorite new discoveries from Poe's bibliography. I love the way this piece is structured. It begins in essay form with the narrator describing the human disposition to feel drawn to unnatural things. In the essay, procrastination and staring over a deep ledge are cited as examples of this "imp", things which don't make logical sense but humans are drawn to anyways. This was by far my favorite part of this story, it could even be seen as an early precedent to psychoanalysis. Poe grasping this element of the human psyche and describing it so aptly before Freudian theory is really impressive. The rest of the story lacks though. Basically, the man is not only drawn to procrastination but also...TO MURDER. So he kills someone and then 7 years later, this "imp" causes the man to shout out in public that he killed someone. This abrupt sort of ending is a common trope in gothic literature and in Poe's work. What required more development was sped through and this unfortunately prevents a couple of Poe works to not feature higher on this list.

9. The Tell-Tale Heart

Combines elements of the previous two list entries. Takes the abrupt ending from Imp and the purposeful opaqueness in narrative reasoning from Cask. I find both elements to work better in this story. I don't feel a large need to expound on my feelings for this as it is one of Poe's most famous works and you've probably read it before. A thing I really liked is that the story is written like the murderer is just talking with someone and the way the murderer is written is great. The recreation of speech and especially in this raving, wild style is done really well and freaks you out a little bit. There is a sentence which is chilling in its plainness when compared to the murderer's prior long, rambling sentences. "First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs." You're messed up man! It's detached depravity reminds me of John Lennon's verses in A Day In The Life. "He blew his mind out in a car/He didn't notice that the lights had changed." You're messed up dude! I think the ending is rushed though and I feel like the animation mentioned above is actually better at capturing the heart of the story than the actual story.

8. The Bells

Very much a musical piece, this is all about how words flow together. Imminently re-readable, this somewhat experimental piece builds on its onomatopoeia and repetition to become an effective and entrancing read.

7. The Premature Burial

This one I really liked but I should like it even more. It begins with a very unsettling description of the narrator's medical condition and his deep-rooted fear of being buried alive due to this condition. Most of the story is focused on this and near the end, the narrator passes out and wakes up in a position where he seems to be buried alive. At this point of the story, I'm like really into it, I'm going wow this is really messed up and vicious and dark. Poe went off with this one. And then his terrible rushed endings come in and RUIN everything. It turns out he just fell asleep on a small boat and he's basically like, "wow that was scary, good thing I'm all better now tho." Stupid! Boring! But back to the good parts. There's like a whole skeleton god dream sequence/freak out which is so evocative and amazing, it was very fun to read. I'm just going to leave off with a quote from when the narrator first thinks he has been buried alive. "There arrived an epoch--as often before there had arrived in which I found myself emerging from total unconsciousness into the first feeble and indefinite sense of existence. Slowly--with a tortoise gradation--approached the faint gray dawn of the psychal day. A torpid uneasiness. An apathetic endurance of dull pain. No care--no hope--no effort."

6. A Dream Within a Dream

This is a poem and it is a poem I find to be exceedingly wonderful. It progressively becomes more negative in tone and the ability to communicate emotional descent through poetic language is very impressive. It also works really well, it flows good, it's just a great piece.

5. The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

Very much about detailing a fantastical process and then imaging the absolute worst possible outcome from that process. I don't want to spoil this one, it's relatively little-known and is full of very nasty scary things. Honestly fun! and gross! and wraps up in a neatly disgusting little bile pile.

4. Annabel Lee

Equally love- and grief-stricken this lyrical poem has such a raw power it washes away any technical constraints I hold against poems of its ilk. Its tragic nature and clear heart demonstrate deep love and yearning for the lost figure of its title. Clearly Poe's best poem and even more tragic in it being the last piece he wrote before his own untimely death.

Love is a drug of noteworthy effectiveness and the high it produces is like none other. If that thesis is followed to a logical end point there must be nothing more difficult than the comedown from love, going cold turkey on the joy of life. Death brings an end to all life but the horror of losing a young love who you had imagined a long life together with is surely one of the strongest, sharpest pains one can feel. And what to do with all those terrible, intrusively brutalizing thoughts? You can either crumble or create.

3. The Black Cat

Rarely does Poe approach evil in his work. Campiness, sure! Creepiness, of course! But evil seems to be something Poe either did not want to conjure or was unable to conjure. This story though. My god.

The Black Cat details the fall of a once kind-hearted, docile man into a misanthropic, violent, alcoholic beast. There is an inherent tragedy to his demise which hurts my soul. Poe conjures the internal mind state of madness, guilt, and horror to an absurdly successful degree. This is a cursed piece, a haunted fiction. It suffers from the abridged ending that some other Poe works suffer from but that is a small scab on a massive, brilliant work. You should read it. I will now write out a paragraph from the story which I adore. (This takes place after the protagonist? of the story has...GOUGED the eye out of his favorite pet, a black cat named Pluto)

"In the meantime the cat slowly recovered. The socket of the lost eye presented, it is true, a frightful appearance, but he no longer appeared to suffer any pain. He went about the house as usual, but, as might be expected, fled in extreme terror at my approach. I had so much of my old heart left, as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart--one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself--to offer violence to its own nature--to do wrong for the wrong's sake only--that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;--hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart;--hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence;--hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin--a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it--if such a thing were possible--even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God"

Jesus dude! Go to therapy!

2. The Masque of the Red Death

Forever one of my favorite short stories, there is a sense of impending and overwhelming doom that pervades this story which is almost entirely unlike anything else found in Poe's work. There are many things I've come to genuinely adore about Masque. A main adoration belongs to the setting of this piece. It is a vividly rendered medieval setting with an immensely detailed, impossibly constructed castle wherein Prince Prospero and his other wealthy elites try to outlast the permanence of death. I really do adore this story, I have vivid memories of when I first read it (7th grade: our english teacher (strange lady, loved "Runaway Train" by Soul Asylum and frequently talked to us children about her brother who was on death row for murdering her parents) had us read this story, Fall of the House of Usher, and various Keats poems) and those memories are among the most powerful I have from any piece I've ever read. The stunning symbolism, immaculate imagery, and wonderful writing make this procession for the monarchy the second best Poe writing of all time!

And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

1. The Fall of the House of Usher

Contains most, if not all of Poe's common archetypes. A beautiful woman lost, the effects of disease, once-wealthy protagonists now near destitute. And it is also the peak of Poe's powers as a writer. This story most clearly and effectively demonstrates Poe's theory of literary totalism (not the Branca genre, a clear better totalism) which suggests that every element of a piece should contribute to the meaning of the whole and should have a conclusion. This is a theory I disagree with. It seems very limiting and may perhaps be why Poe never wrote a successful major novel (even though the novel Poe did wrote didn't follow this theory at all). However, Fall makes the strongest possible case for it as an idea. We are introduced to Roderick Usher at the beginning of the story. He lives in a dilapidated mansion and is a sickly yet spectrally beautiful person (not many of those around anymore!). He has grown weary and depressed in his seclusion and the narrator has come to give him company. Things develop from there.

This piece has most likely the ultimate conclusion to any gothic work. Roderick comes to the narrator's room at night in a terrible madness. The lake outside is aglow and the night wind is picking up. The narrator attempts to calm Roderick down by reading from an old book yet there are continued bangs and noises from the interior of the room. Suddenly! The wind blows open the door of the narrator's room and there stands Roderick's sister who had been interned due to her seeming death, yet was buried alive. Roderick and Madeline (both insane) experience their last vestiges of the life and the mansion collapses. Incredible stuff. Whether the story is a warning to the rich, a teardown of aristocracy, or a warning about mental health and how it destroys families, its power will be able to arouse horror in readers for many centuries going forward.



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