This edition of the Storytellers Channel’s newsletter Chris Semtner, Poe Museum Curatoe, previews our next audio book: Tales of Dark Humor by Edgar Allan Poe. I’ll be headed into the studio over the next few weeks to record King Pest, Hop-Frog, and Loss of Breath
Our latest Stories Matter! Showcase was well received by the audience last Friday February 1st and will continue throughout the month.
If you’re in Richmond we hope you’ll join us.
Remember: You Matter. Your Stories Matter. Tell Them Well!
The Storytellers Channel
Some subjects are just too dark and disturbing to joke about. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “King Pest” was in such bad taste that author Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) wrote, “He who could write ‘King Pest’ had ceased to be a human being.” Stevenson thought it was his duty to warn potential readers to avoid this story, lest “another victim should be permitted to soil himself with the perusal of the infamous ‘King Pest.’”
What did Stevenson find so disagreeable about this narrative? He opined that Poe “scatters [horrible images] abroad in these last tales with an indescribable and sickening levity, with something of the ghoul or the furious lunatic that surpasses what one had imagined to oneself of Hell.” Basically, the critic was disturbed that Poe had made comedy about sickening, ghastly things like disease, death, and decay. Stevenson admitted, “There is much laughter; but it is a very ghastly sort of laughter at best — the laughter of those, in his own words, ‘who laugh, but smile no more.’”
“King Pest” is set during a plague. It may already be difficult to imagine laughing at a comedy set against a backdrop of suffering and disease, in which the dying drink from human skulls as they throw themselves a disgusting party in anticipation of their own deaths. Now imagine you are reading that story when Poe first published it in 1835—just three years after a worldwide cholera pandemic wrought millions of agonizing deaths from India to the United States. Poe was in Baltimore when cholera struck the city, and he witnessed cartloads of corpses carried to mass burials. The pandemic claimed one of his closet friends, so how could he write a tale making light of such an awful tragedy?
Apparently, Poe thought no subject was off-limits, but he also found nothing to be above ridicule. In “Hop-Frog,” Poe sets an initial comic tone only to turn the tale sharply and horrifically to terror by the end. It is a tale about a court jester named Hop-Frog who exacts agonizing punishment on the king who has enslaved and maltreated him, and the reader sympathizes with the murderer. The reader, in fact, laughs alongside that mad jester. Was Poe thinking of the many slave rebellions that left his fellow Southerners in a state of constant fear when he wrote about the enslaved Hop-Frog setting his master on fire? If so, Poe, who grew up in the pro-slavery South, seems to be taking the side of the rebellious slave. Could Poe be suggesting that sometimes violence is justified in the face of injustice, or was he just trying to write a terrifying tale?
In “Loss of Breath,” a man gets wrongfully hanged on the gallows, mistaken for dead, and buried alive. That might sound like a horror story, but Poe plays the subject matter for laughs and adds grotesque details about having the narrator’s ears cut off by an anatomist and his nose eaten by cats.
Few critics have found much nice to say about Poe’s dark comedies, but they seem strangely modern and in keeping with the dark humor of Shawn of the Dead, Southpark, or Family Guy.
Artifact of the Week: Mortality Statistics for New York City
Poe survived the great cholera pandemic of 1832, and the experience inspired his stories “King Pest” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Then he nearly died during another cholera outbreak in 1849. Nearly two-thirds of the population evacuated New York, which Poe passed through on his way to Richmond. Then he contracted the disease in Philadelphia.
Cholera caused its sufferers extreme diarrhea, which led to such severe dehydration that the victims turns blue and often died within a day. Poe complained of spasms and bloody fluid coming from his ears, so his doctor gave him some toxic mercury pills to “cleanse” his system. It is a wonder Poe escaped with his life.
Many others were not a fortunate as he. The July 8, 1849 issue of New York’s Christian Intelligencer provides the following list of the causes of death over the course of one week. Over five thousand New Yorkers would die by the end of the epidemic. Keep in mind that the city’s population was only about half a million at the time.
Cholera Infantum, 31
Cholera Morbus, 10
Coup de Soleil, 1
Drinking Cold Water, 1
Dropsy in the Head, 15
Inflammation of Brain, 15
Inflammation of Bowels, 6
Inflammation of Lungs, 11
Small Pox, 12
Let Us Entertain You
Friday nights at 7:00 pm Storytellers Channel presents stories honed in our Stories Matter! Workshop.
And we hope after you hear them; they’ll matter to you, as well.
More importantly, we hope they’ll inspire you when you leave the showcase to share stories that matter to you with those who matter to you.
We know you’ll have a good time, because everyone who has every come to one of our storytelling events has said they had a great time!
Steven Saltzberg had such a good time last Friday he’s signed up to participate in the February Workshop and will be telling in the March Showcase.
Join us and bring a friend.
I Want to Hear from You
Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what storytelling topics you’d like to me explore.
Til next time,