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Halloween and Edgar Allan Poe

October Thirty-First is Halloween. It is an unofficial holiday that celebrates the frightening and strange. We celebrate with a report about a nineteenth-century American writer. His stories were some of the most frightening and strange ever written. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Doug Johnson. The writer Edgar Allan Poe is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

((SCARY MUSIC))

Halloween is mostly a holiday for children, who like to be frightened. Yet many grown people observe Halloween, too. Those who love the writings of Edgar Allan Poe think Halloween is the best time of year to celebrate them. Poe is most famous for his stories and poems of strangeness, mystery, and terror.

He wrote about people buried while still alive. About insanity and death. About dreams that become real ... or reality that seems like a dream.

Edgar Allan Poe died in the city of Baltimore in Eighteen-Forty-Nine. Now, in that city, an unusual party takes place every Halloween.

In the dark of night, visitors go to the church ground where Poe is buried. Everything is quiet. Then a voice calls out. It is Poe! (pause) No, it is just an actor, reading Poe's work.

((Scary MUSIC BRIDGE))

Reading stories was one of the most important forms of enjoyment in Edgar Allan Poe's time. Poe created many of these "short" stories. They appeared in different publications.

Horror stories already were popular when Poe began writing. Critics say he wrote the perfect horror story.

Poe also wrote detective stories. These were mysteries about crimes, such as murder. The mysteries are solved by an investigator called a detective. He or she is able to find important, hidden meanings in facts.

The horror and detective stories Poe created remain extremely popular in books and movies.

Edgar Allan Poe's work is not easy to read. His language is difficult to understand today. And most of his writing describes very unpleasant situations and events.

His story "The Pit and the Pendulum," for example, is about the mental torture of a prisoner. Each time the prisoner saves himself from death, a new and more horrible form of death threatens him.

Another story is "The Masque of the Red Death." In it, a terrible disease -- the Red Death -- has killed half the population of a country.

The ruler of the country shuts his castle against the disease. He and his wealthy friends are inside. They pass the time by having parties. They believe the Red Death will not find them. But it does.

Edgar Poe was born in Eighteen-Oh-Nine. His parents were actors. At that time, actors were not accepted by the best society. Edgar was a baby when his father left the family. He was two years old when his mother died. He was taken into the home of a wealthy businessman, John Allan. He then received his new name -- Edgar Allan Poe.

John Allan never officially made Edgar his son. In fact, he came to dislike him strongly.

As a young man, Edgar attended the University of Virginia. He was a good student. But he liked to drink alcohol and play card games for money. Edgar was not a good player. He lost money he did not have. John Allan refused to pay Edgar's gambling losses. So, Edgar left the university. He began working as a writer and editor for monthly magazines.

Edgar Allan Poe worked hard. He became a successful editor. Yet he was not well-paid or well-known. His life was difficult. He was poor, and he was troubled by sicknesses of the body and mind.

Poe suffered from depression. He feared he was insane. He drank alcohol to escape his fears. The alcohol had a very bad effect on him.

At the age of twenty-seven, he married Virginia Clemm. She was the daughter of his father's sister. She was only thirteen years old. For a time, it seemed that Poe would find some happiness. But his wife was sick for most of their marriage. She died in Eighteen-Forty-Seven. Poe died two years later, at the age of forty. He was found dead in Baltimore after days of heavy drinking.

Through all his crises, Edgar Allan Poe produced many stories, poems, and works of criticism. Some of his stories won prizes. Yet he did not become famous until Eighteen-Forty-Five. That was when his poem "The Raven" was published.

There is no question that Poe suffered from emotional problems in his life. One critic said Poe's spirit was torn. He said Poe's stories were often about his own divided nature. Each person in the story showed a different side of the writer.

There is a question, however, about Poe's importance. Some critics say he was one of America's best writers. Others disagree.

Critic Vincent Buranelli says Poe discovered a new artistic universe. It is a universe of dreams. It is a place where the line between reality and unreality is extremely thin.

Even those who praise Poe agree that there are many difficulties in his work. These difficulties place Poe's writing outside the main body of American literature. Most American writing is realistic. Poe's interests and way of writing were not realistic at all.

Poe's work has been praised most in France. He had a great influence on many French writers, including the poets Charles-Pierre Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme.

Poe's best-known poem is "The Raven." Some people love it. They say it is like music. Others hate it. They say it sounds forced and unnatural -- like bad music.

"The Raven" is about a man whose great love, Lenore, has died. She is gone forever. But the man cannot accept that all happiness is gone. He sits alone among his books late at night. He hears a noise at the window. Here is the beginning of the poem:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered,

weak and weary

Over many a quaint and curious volume of for-

gotten lore --

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there

came a tapping,

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my

chamber door.

"Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my

chamber door --

Only this and nothing more."

The man looks out the window and sees only blackness.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there

wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared

to dream before:

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness

gave no token,

And the only word there spoken was the whispered

word, "Lenore?"

This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the

word, "Lenore!"

Merely this and nothing more.

But there is something at the window. It is a large black bird -- a raven. It comes into the room like the spirit of death and hopelessness. The raven can speak just one word: 'nevermore' -- meaning 'never again'. We know the raven will never leave the man's room.

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust,

spoke only

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he

did outpour.

Nothing farther than he uttered -- not a feather

then he fluttered --

Till I scarcely more than muttered, "Other friends

have flown before --

On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes

have flown before."

Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

This program was written by Carolyn Weaver. It was produced by Lawan Davis. Our poetry reader was Shep O'Neal. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Doug Johnson. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.


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