The Pit and the Pendulum: The Essential Poe, ed Peter Ackroyd

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The Independent Culture

Peter Ackroyd has done the general reader a service with this Greatest Hits selection; a collection of Edgar Allan Poe's most famous poems and 14 of his most memorable tales. The poems are light on meaning but strong on atmosphere and euphony. Poe's 19th-century American prose style can be tiresomely stodgy, but his peculiar morbid genius shines through. The title story is a brilliant evocation of psychological horror. I'm wondering now, as I wondered the first time I read it, what was actually in the pit?

"The Masque of the Red Death" has the intensity of a nightmare; "The Fall of the House of Usher" is American Gothic in a form so pure and concentrated that it makes you forget all the imitations and parodies that followed it. As George Orwell said of Poe, no matter how bizarre the events in his fiction, they're always psychologically plausible. When the narrator in "The Black Cat" cuts out the animal's eye, you can't help believing that that's exactly what he would have done.