Remembering, Reimagining, and Revitalizing the Work of Edgar Allan Poe by Dahlia Adler
I can’t watch scary movies. It’s one of my biggest fears, that I’ll internalize the images on the screen and turn them into nightmares, making me vulnerable while I’m asleep and can’t control or understand what I see. No matter what kind of horror we’re talking about, it’s a no go.
That doesn’t sound like a big deal, I know. So just skip them! But the thing is, I love that stuff, in theory. I want to know what happens. I want to see how twisted it gets. I want the blood and the guts and the sheer terror of it all. I want to open myself up to that entire creative world. But I can’t.
Not on screen, anyway.
This is just one of many reasons I’m so grateful to books. The imagery is there, sure, especially in a well-crafted title, but my brain doesn’t carry it in the same way. I don’t worry about them imprinting on the insides of my eyelids. And I get to focus on so much else while I read—the language, the setting, the character development—that I have no doubt would be lost on me the second I saw blood and guts on the screen.
Edgar Allan Poe was, for me, the perfect master at this. One of the strongest memories I have of reading in junior high is “The Cask of Amontillado,” because by the time you finish that story, it’s almost impossible to breathe without feeling raspy and smelling mold. He placed you in an atmosphere, chilled you to the bone, and left you to fill in as many blanks as you wished. He was chilling, haunting, clever, and one of the scariest things of all was that his characters often didn’t have a well-articulated motivation; they were just determined.
The funny thing about reading Poe as an adult, though, is you realize that despite being left with extremely strong impressions of the plot you read as a child, the vast proportion of many of the stories is actually dedicated to setting and description. “The Masque of the Red Death” could be its own lineup of paint colors for Benjamin Moore, it’s so dedicated to the design of each and every room. The titular character of “Ligeia” is described so thoroughly, you could imagine the author spend days upon days doing nothing but drawing her face in the dark. It wasn’t all bricks and chains and blades and sickness and death at every turn. A lot of it was just…window dressing. Literally.
Now, 170 years after his death, we pay tribute to his work by reimagining it in a YA anthology called His Hideous Heart that’s being used in classrooms, pored over in libraries, and flying off shelves. It’s a tremendous privilege, and one I know none of us take lightly. But one common theme from the authors who wrote stories for this collection was that the Poe stories didn’t read at all as they’d remembered them as kids. “Did you remember that this story barely has a plot??” more than one of them asked during the course of writing. “Did you know that nothing actually happens the entire time??”
The thing was, we saw as we wrote our stories, it didn’t matter. In these reinventions, every author took the story as we remembered it, as it had imprinted itself on our adolescent brains, and however fractional the plot might have been to the original, it became the center of the new work. The lengthy descriptions of purple walls and luminous orbs fell away, having done their job of implanting the meat of the work in our brains for decades, and what remained were the intense and powerful stories where the Gothic nature, the chilling rooms, the dusty bricks were already a given.
Essentially, created these movies where all the visuals were painstakingly set up before you got hit with the one-two punch of devastating plot, and he did this before film, and it worked. He gave me my scary movies, and I’m so incredibly proud of what we’ve turned around and done with them.
But you still may want to read this book with the lights on.
Dahlia Adler (Editor) is an associate editor of mathematics by day, a contributor to the B&N Teen Blog by night, and a writer of kissing books at every spare moment in between. She lives with her husband and son in New York City. Dahlia is the author of YA novels Behind the Scenes, Under the Lights, and Just Visiting. His Hideous Heart is her first anthology.