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  • Martyn Rhys Vaughan

THE MACABRE WORLD OF EDGAR ALLAN POE

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was the son of the English actress Elizabeth Arnold and a Baltimore actor David Poe Jr. After his mother’s death in Richmond, Virginia, he was taken into care by John Allan, a Richmond businessman. While in Allan’s care he visited England and Scotland and began an education in the Classics.

In 1826 he spent 11 months at the University of Virginia but was expelled for gambling debts. He spent a short time in the army but succeeded in getting himself discharged through being AWOL.

He was determined to become a writer and won a writing prize from a Baltimore weekly of $50 dollars for his short story “MS. Found In A Bottle.”

He then went on to marry his cousin Virginia Clemm, who was 13 at the time (sic). His young wife predeceased him by two years but he had some more romantic liaisons before his own premature death in 1849. Put down to alcoholism at the time, it is more likely to have been a brain lesion.

He wrote novellas and short stories, mostly in the macabre and occult regions of literature. However, he is credited with inventing the detective story with his short stories about the Parisian detective C. Auguste Dupin, the most famous of which is the “Murder in the Rue

Morgue.”

Poe is only a minor figure in SF, but we can give him credit for “A Descent Into The Maelstrom”, where the hero escapes from a giant whirlpool through knowledge of physics; “The Conversation of Eiros & Charmion”, where Earth is struck by a giant comet; “Mellona Tauta”, where the story unfolds in 2848 on a huge balloon-ship which flies a mile high and has 400 passengers.

We are on firmer ground with “The Unparalleled Adventures Of One Hans Pfaal.” Here Pfaal uses a newly discovered element that is lighter than hydrogen to visit the Moon. He discovers that meteorites are stones ejected from Lunar volcanoes and also that the Moon is inhabited by humanoids who lack external ears.

His longest work, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym”, is an exemplar of the “Lost World” variety. After some ordinary adventures, he joins a ship that is sailing to explore the South Pole—of which very little was known in Poe’s day. En route, he finds the climate is becoming steadily warmer. He lands on the isle of Tsal, whose wicked inhabitants are entirely black, even their teeth. They hate and fear anything white—even flour and paper. The entire crew are massacred by the Tsalians with the exception of Pym and a villainous half-caste who find themselves by chance at the bottom of a pit. They manage to extricate themselves and escape on a canoe, only to find themselves they are being swept towards the Pole by an incredible current. Then out of the mist ahead of them, they see a shrouded shape, much larger than any man. They hurtle towards this unknown and then…

Nothing.

Poe did not finish the story (although a kind of conclusion was written by Jules Verne much later.)

Before concluding, Poe should be remembered for formulating the correct solution to Olber’s Paradox. This is the conundrum that asks: If the universe is enormously vast and filled with stars—why is it dark at night? Poe’s solution was that because of the vast distances the light from the furthest stars has not had enough time to reach us yet.

With a few modifications, this is now accepted as the solution.


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