Who’s Bothered by “Berenice?”

At twenty-six, Poe had three unsuccessful volumes of poetry to his credit and was trying to get noticed by submitting his short stories to writing contests. He complained, “to be appreciated, one must be read,” but he just couldn’t get his works in front of enough readers. Just when making a living from his pen seemed impossible, he got an offer from a new magazine in Richmond called The Southern Literary Messenger. Sure, the magazine was only a year old and still had only had 500 subscribers, but Poe saw its potential to finally make his name.

The editor, Thomas Willis White, knew little about literature, but he believed the South was in desperate need of a magazine that would publish the latest works by southern authors. At the time, the country’s most popular authors lived in the big northern cities like New York and Boston. White wanted his magazine to be a showcase for the best southern literature, but barely anyone was buying it. His first editor left after a year because White could not afford to pay him. Mr. White, it seemed, had nothing to lose by publishing the work of the unknown Poe.

To introduce himself to the Messenger’s readers, Poe sent a new story named “Berenice.” The response was immediate. The public was disgusted and outraged by this gruesome terror tale. Such tales, they thought, would warp young people’s minds and bring about the downfall of society. White was furious. Poe was delighted.

As Poe explained in a letter to White, this was exactly the kind of story that would sell magazines. Poe offered to supply a new story every month and that each one would be completely unique, unlike anything anyone had ever read. White took Poe up on his offer, and the Messenger’s subscription rate soared. The magazine established a national reputation, and Poe was famous—or infamous—for his imaginative (and sometimes controversial) stories. Thanks to his first horror story, “Berenice,” Poe was well on his way to becoming the master of the tale of psychological terror. Poe followed “Berenice” with the horror stories “Morella” and “Ligeia.” Years later, Poe wrote that he considered “Ligeia” his best tale.

When you listen to “Berenice,” see if you can guess the twist ending and why it offended so many people back in Poe’s day.

Storytellers Channel will soon be releasing an audio book Poe’s Dead Bride Stories: Berenice, Morella and Ligeia.

This post was written by Chris Semtner, Curator at the Poe Museum.