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How I learned to stop worrying and love Edgar Allan Poe

A portrait painting of author Edgar Allan Poe shows a man in period dress with a short moustache looking intently at the viewer.
Hulton Archive
Getty Images
Edgar Allan Poe's works get the Netflix treatment in "The Fall of the House of Usher."

Edgar Allan Poe. The Bard of Baltimore.

You know him, and you know his work. Admit it: Back in high school, you couldn't get enough of the guy. His whole haunted, hollow-eyed vibe perfectly matched your hormonal, moody, indoor-kid energy. He was goth before Dracula; he was emo before Philips.

You devoured his stuff, carefully tucking away his musty-dusty vocabulary words for that longed-for day when you could bust them out, all at once in a raging torrent, to show your bullies and detractors just how smart and dark and cool you were. You kept those words of his — words like fervid and miasma and inhume and surcease — on a low, steady boil inside your head, waiting. Waiting.

You thrilled to his tales of the macabre and mysterious. You pretended to understand all the Classical references in his poetry. He was the perfect companion throughout your teenage years; whenever you'd slam your bedroom door or performatively fling yourself across the furniture or let out one of your long, wet sighs of disaffection and self-pity, he was there to say: Yes, exactly. I get it. You're special. You're different. They don't understand you, and they never will.

Then you went away to college. And Poe, suddenly, wasn't cool anymore.

Who knows why it happened? Maybe it was your jerk of a Freshman English professor, who sniffily dismissed his prose as overripe and purple and — most woundingly — fervid. Or maybe it was that time you read one of his poems aloud and realized the rigid rhyme schemes you'd previously savored for their steady, inexorable drumbeat now made his poetry sound weirdly simplistic, like so many bouncy commercial jingles commissioned by Despar itself.

Maybe it was how everyone around you had now moved on to the lurid, gore-flecked immediacy of Stephen King and Clive Barker to get their literary willies, and only rolled their eyes at Poe's baroque and comparatively prim diversions. Or maybe it was the whole "married his 13-year-old cousin" thing.

I was thinking about all this as I watched writer/director Mike Flanagan's pretty terrific The Fall of the House of Usher, all eight episodes of which drop on Netflix next Thursday.

A woman stands on a bed ready to swing a fireplace poker at an unseen assailiant.
Eike Schroter / Netflix
Samantha Sloyan as Tamerlane in The Fall of the House of Usher.

Like some of Flanagan's other Netflix work (The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, The Midnight Club), Usher takes several works by a given author (in the aforementioned examples, Shirley Jackson, Henry James and uh ... Christopher Pike, respectively), tosses them into a narrative blender and presses liquefy.

The result is a spooky, darkly funny tale made to get gobbled up over a crisp and chilly October weekend. It follows the rough outline of the Poe short story it's named for (doomed siblings Roderick and Madeline Usher, an old house, a cursed bloodline, etc.). But Flanagan stuffs every episode with references to other Poe-etical works.

A priest delivers a sermon that turns out to be a mashup of several Poe grief poems (which has the knock-on effect of making Catholicism sound even gothier than usual, if you can imagine). Characters turn up with names like Tamerlane and Prospero and Annabel Lee and — wait for it — Lenore. There's a deadly masquerade and a black cat and a tell-tale heart and an immurement (which is the walling up of someone in an enclosed space, but you knew that already, having read Poe as a kid).

We big-time professional TV critics have a specific term of art that we reserve for shows like The Fall of the House of Usher, thusly:

Hoot and a half. This show is a hoot and a half.

It made me remember how much I love Poe and always have, though I spent far too many years nervously disavowing him. But life's too short to pretend not to love the things you love.

Look, there's a time and place for the spare, flinty, minimalist, you-can-bounce-a-quarter-off-it prose of your Raymond Carvers and your Lydia Davises. But there's also a time and place for phantasmagorical miasmas hanging low over the sullen waters of a black and lurid tarn, you know? (A tarn is a small lake. ... But, again, you knew that.)

It's October. Treat yourself. Get some apples, walnuts and Stilton cheese — the stinkier the better. Pour yourself a sherry. You can get your hands on a bottle of Amontillado for like 13 bucks. Grab a cider donut and curl up on the couch to watch The Fall of the House of Usher.

Then, as the light just beyond your chamber door starts going all crepuscular (read: around twilight), dive headfirst into one of Poe's more quaint and curious volumes. You can do that. You may have cruelly and faithlessly ghosted him in college, but he's still there, waiting for you.


This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy. Listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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Glen Weldon
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.