36. Edgar Allan Poe – Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1839)
Poe is one of those legendary American figures that I, not being American, have never read, but most Americans appear to know off by heart.
As the founder (or at least most celebrated practitioner) of Southern Gothic, it felt necessary that I read him. Burroughs wasn’t Southern, he was Midwestern, but the title of Gothic certainly fits and his depictions of sweltering, suffocating small town America are much in the Southern Gothic vein.
He also owes a clear debt to Lovecraft, who I’ve still yet to read.
It’s a good thing that I did read Poe. Reading through his short stories there are at least two very clear points of direct inspiration for Burroughs. So clear, in fact, that I’m surprised nobody’s commented upon them before.
Firstly, there’s the story “The Black Cat”. In it, the narrator is possessed with “a spirit of PERVERSENESS” and seeks to kill a little black kitten, only for the animal to get its own back.
There’s a story, reproduced in both Morgan and Miles’ biographies (and subsequently in much other criticism), about a young Burroughs, recently graduated from Harvard and hanging out in New York with the Beats, walking in on David Kammerer hanging a cat.
The ultimate origin of the story appears to be Kerouac’s The Town and the City, where it’s mentioned as potentially one of Burroughs’ Gide-inspired tall tales. The hanging being the type of “acte gratuit” that so intrigued him at this time.
Clearly, the story was a lift; not from Gide, but from Poe. The scene is the same in both cases – the bedroom, hung from a light – and the reason is the same – a “spirit of perverseness” in Poe terms being essentially the same as an acte gratuit in Gidean terms.
The second concerns the first Dupin mystery: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. In this story, bodies are found torn to pieces and the culprit, to cut a very long story short, turns out to be an orangutan in a frenzy.
Now, where else have we seen bodies torn to pieces by a pet orangutan who’s got out of control? Paging Doctor Benway…
Burroughs later makes reference to the Poe story in his dream diary – My Education – in the kind of terms that make the similarities between his own infamous Naked Lunch scene and Poe’s story totally unmistakeable.
What we have here, I believe, is a clear case of the anxiety of influence.
The elder Burroughs is more comfortable admitting the influence than is the younger one. Enough time has passed. The story about the cat, although never explicitly addressed, it effectively denied via Burroughs’ continual statements reminding his readers that Kerouac’s work is fictional and not to be taken as fact.
Notably, Burroughs does acknowledge a debt to one particular story: “The Masque of the Red Death”. He does so implicitly, by reading it, alongside Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee”, in a recording made for the 1995 videogame The Dark Eye.
The story, involving a plague tearing through a group of decadent aristocrats, is thematically directly in line with Burroughs’ work. It exhibits the flood motif as an ending, just as his do, and the supernaturally anthropomorphised plague getting revenge on Control could quite easily be something out of Cities of the Red Night. The Red Night indeed might even be this Red Death.
But where the cat and the orangutan lifts are more direct, and so more embarrassing to acknowledge, the themes of the Masque are so common that Burroughs has no problem at least tacitly recognising the influence.
In short, Camille Paglia wasn’t lying when she said that all twentieth century American writers are fundamentally influenced by Edgar Allan Poe.