Tales of Adoration & Appreciation By Melissa Williamson
All my former and current students know how much I loved Edgar Allan Poe. I first became obsessed with Poe in middle school when we read “The Tell-Tale Heart” in English class. I loved the dark tone, the way his words moved (“a ray shot out upon the horrid eye!”), and the way he told his morbid stories. In middle school, I hardly knew what most of his words meant, but the stories always stuck with me.
When I taught Poe for the first time as a student teacher, I introduced my students to gothic culture and literature to give them a feel for the mood Poe uses in his stories. As a goth chick, I have a passion for teaching other people about my culture and I encouraged them to forget about the stereotype. I felt giving them more background knowledge on what gothic means would give students the prior knowledge to understand the macabre, dark, and gloomy style of Poe’s writing. In one of the classrooms I taught in, I was able to have a student reenact my favorite scene from “The Cask of Amontillado” where Montresor trapped the drunk Fortunato in a niche. My student stood in the middle of a space between a standing closet and the wall beside the door. We piled dictionaries in front of him. He wailed about the “amontillado!” as I laughed and pretended to spread the cement on our “bricks.”
In my own tenth grade classroom, one of our required readings was “The Masque of the Red Death.” This short story is my favorite, but I knew I needed a way to teach them this tale so they would enjoy it too. My love for Poe must be infectious!
I scoured my Poe bookshelf and picked up Graphic Classics: Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Tom Pomplun (2004). I bought three of these Graphic Classics. One for Poe, one on Ambrose Bierce, and one for Bram Stoker. I had never used graphic novels before, but I knew my students liked visuals. The textbook had some nice pictures, but this graphic novel included an adapted and illustrated version of the story.
I copied a class set of “The Masque of the Red Death,” illustrated by Stanley W. Shaw. The adapted story was shorter, but it used Poe’s language and got the basic plot line across. Prince Prospero was throwing a party for the people who were still alive after “the ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country.” It cost me a lot to copy, but it was worth every penny. The students ate it up!
We started with a project that I lovingly named “I Heart Poe.” Students worked in groups and researched different aspects of Poe’s life, Poe’s legacy, and gothic literature. We did some vocabulary with some of the more difficult words. And for the first time, students read the story on their own instead of as a whole class read. I even put a couple of the pictures on overhead transparencies when we discussed the story. I used pictures of Prince Prospero’s masquerade party in full swing. Their favorite picture was of the intruder’s rotten, decaying face when he crashed the party; “the mask was made to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse.” He was dressed as the Red Death. Eventually, I had to make more copies as my students started coloring in the black and white pictures. The images of the intruder ended up in pastels.
The best part was that the students understood the stories. They reacted to the pictures. They knew who Prince Prospero was and what different colors the rooms symbolized. We could focus on understanding these color symbols and other symbols in the story, rather than spend all our time understanding Poe’s difficult 1840’s vocabulary. They appreciated the comic book format and I wished I had more comic books to enhance the other stories we read.
I told them the stories of “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Black Cat.” We watched The Simpsons version of “The Raven,” which they read in 11th grade. (Many students thanked me for introducing them to this poem when they studied it the next year.) Later in our 10th grade year, we read “Annabel Lee” and “Alone” in the poetry unit.
At the end of the year, I gave an extra credit assignment. They were to write a letter to the students in my class next year. Many of those letters informed future students of my love for Edgar Allan Poe. “Edgar Allan Poe is Miss Williamson’s favorite dude, so respect him.” ~Carlos
Melissa Williamson is a former high school English teacher from Virginia and a current PhD student in English Education at Arizona State University.