Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Steve Berman
Reviewed by Anthony Cardno
10 July 2013
The concept of taking pop culture characters and "queering" them or their canon is not new in speculative fiction. The most well-known example is the Kirk/Spock fan-fiction of the late sixties and early seventies, of course, but almost every fictional character is rife for queering: Superman and Batman. Holmes and Watson (covered memorably in Lethe Press's 2012 release A Study in Lavender: Queering Holmes). Rand al'Thor and Mat Cauthon. The work of some authors is more obviously suited for this than others. In his introduction to Where Thy Dark Eye Glances, editor Steve Berman says he always "imagined that Poe's canon, his effect on readers, even the strange life and death he led, deserved 'queering.'" While I can't quite agree with Berman's choice of words ("deserved" implies that some authors' works are not worthy of viewing through a queer lens), I quite agree with his sentiment. Like Berman, I was drawn to the nameless narrators and implied-but-unspoken relationships of so many of Poe's tales.
Edgar Allan Poe's works, and the stories in this anthology based on the man and his canon, are full of melancholy, longing, and wistful descriptions of ephemeral beauty while at the same time heavy on the less-savory outcomes of such obsession. A number of Poe's nameless narrators commit crimes of passion with motivations that are hinted at, sometimes subtly, but just as often left to the reader's imagination. Any number of these nameless narrators could have been hiding the secret that in Poe's time dared not speak its name. Was Montresor more than just jealous of Fortunato's treatment of his family? What really drove the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" to murder the old man? And what exactly was the relationship between Usher and his old school friend? In works of prose and poetry, twenty-six authors take up editor Berman's challenge: find the queer side of Poe and his work. "The grim revelry with which Poe tied together love and death made him irresistible to writers who have feared (or faced) violence as a result of expressing their affections openly," Berman says elsewhere in his introduction. Throughout the collection, stories focus on the ease with which, in the period in which Poe was writing (and, as recent gay bashings in the news attest, today as well), gay love could turn into death.
The two tales inspired by "The Tell-Tale Heart" exemplify this theme. "Heart" is perhaps the best known of Poe's tales featuring two male main characters ("The Fall of the House of Usher" and "A Cask of Amontillado" also come quickly to mind) so it's no surprise that the story would inspire multiple authors to flesh out the undefined relationship between the nameless narrator and the old man he kills. Even with common inspiration, Clare London's moving "Telltale" is a very different take from Kyle S. Johnson's "His Hideous Heart." Both are effective and moving, both narrated as Poe's tale was from after the murder and looking back. London's tale starts with a familiar trope: the teenaged homosexual disowned by his parents for acting on who he is. "My parents did not want me. Understand this, I am not offering it as any kind of defense for my behavior—not now, not then" (p. 90), the narrator professes, perhaps more noble than many real people when it comes to laying the blame for our actions on our parents. Disowning is a stereotype because it is still so common. Another trope follows: the businessman to whom the narrator is indentured (coyly named "Mister Allan" by the author) of course has a sexual interest in the boy, and the boy is grateful for the physical connection he's been told is wrong by everyone else. In other hands, "Telltale" could be just another piece of gay bondage fiction; London moves beyond that to detail the boy's confusion, his recognition that this is a relationship that needs to end, and his ultimate discovery of the path to freedom: murder. The story also carries a bit of Stockholm Syndrome in the narrator's behavior and his remorse. By contrast, Johnson's "His Hideous Heart" posits a different relationship between the men: an elderly gentleman takes in the narrator, a homeless man with a "tainted" past. Neither can openly admit the attraction they feel, and so they pass their relationship off as one of employer and employee, until the employee's obsession with the one thing he cannot have—his employer's heart—leads to the violent end we expect. Where London's narrator is well-spoken but verbose, Johnson's is a bit more colloquial and grandiose but far more terse in the telling (the epistolary form of the story may have lent itself to tighter narration, as well). In both stories, love/obsession leads to violent death via differing paths.
There are likewise two stories very loosely based on "The Raven": Tansy Rayner Roberts's "The Raven and Her Victory" is a story of unrequited love and the lengths one woman will go to get revenge via the printed page, while "Corvidae," which involves the famous raven a bit more directly but in a modern setting, is Peter Dube at his surreal and poetic finest. "The Fall of the House of Usher" inspires a poem (Ed Madden's "The House," effective with mood but not a standout of the collection) and a story (L. A. Fields's "The House of the Resonate Heart," which serves as prequel to Poe's tale and addresses that possible childhood romance). Satyrus Phil Bucato's "The Lord’s Great Jest" is such a darkly detailed and emotionally raw retelling of Poe's "Hop-Frog" that it put me in mind of HBO's Game of Thrones. Christopher Barzak's "For the Applause of Shadows" plays with the identity of Poe's "William Wilson" in a delightful yet gothic way other reinterpreters of the story have not.
Reinterpretations of Poe's work only account for half of the book, however. The volume leads off with several pieces about Poe himself. Seth Cadin's "The City and the Stranger" explores that poorly-documented period when Poe was first in New York trying to sell his writing, and dwells on what sort of possibly-supernatural encounter might have inspired the poem "Israfel." It's a tale full of longing and a meditation on inspiration, a perfect lead off for the book. They say that Poe is more influential after his death than he was while living, and editor Berman's own contribution to this section, "PoeTaster," delivers strongly on that premise by looking at the hours immediately after the author's passing. With a nod to current trends, there's an intimation of zombie-ism/cannibalism. (Poe's own work flirted with the subject. Think Madeline Usher, among others.) Cadin and Berman's tales couldn’t be more different in style, focus, and execution and yet they perfectly encapsulate the start and end of Poe's adult life, and also fit with the theme that love and death go hand in hand, especially in Berman's tale.
The final section of the book is titled "Reading Poe," and the stories explore Poe's influence. The strongest stories in this section include Alex Jeffers's "A Portrait in India Ink by Harry Clarke," which takes on Poe and one of his most distinctive illustrators and is set on a dark and stormy night in rural Ireland (no death, but lots of love here); Richard Bowes's "Seven Days of Poe," in which a teen relates Poe's work to the tumultuous events of his own life (and in which violence, if not death, goes hand-in-hand with seeking out the love of another male teen in the 1960s); and Nick Mamatas's "Eureka!" in which we, and our focal character, pay a visit to one of the many Poe Houses around the country (no real love or death here, but the sex leads to a death-like place for the narrator). Matthew Cheney's "Lacuna" ends the anthology as strongly as Seth Cadin's story opened it. "Lacuna" has all the hallmarks of classic Poe: an unnamed narrator who sets out to tell a tale of gothic horror in which the human evil is more palpable than the supernatural and in which, of course, revenge is involved; it's a story-within-a-story told at a slight remove from the events and plays perfectly on the theme that love and death cannot be disconnected. But Cheney also twists the tropes to deliver a twist worthy of the author who inspired this collection.
Only a handful of the stories in the collection are slavish about imitating Poe's particular prose or poetic styling; the few that attempt it are mostly successful. Johnson's "His Hideous Heart," for example, which begins "E—, This will be our final correspondence, for by the time you read this I will be no more" (p. 129). Or Mairead Casey's "Gwendolyn," in which the nameless female narrator declares "Long and baleful are the nights when I struggle in vain to suppress the memories of my misfortunate Gwendolyn. I stalk the rooms and dim corridors of this vast estate like a spectre, only taking respite in another perfunctory taste of some infirm relative's spirits or dose of ether" (p. 83). Most of these stories work with Poe's themes and characters but are told through the authors’ own voices.
Where Thy Dark Eye Glances is a solid collection; as editor Berman puts it, it is "no mere dream within a dream." The depth of Poe's work allows for a breadth of approaches to the idea of "queering" the Poe canon. The characters may be gay and lesbian, but the themes are universal. Poe fans should not pass this collection up.