Saturday, June 24, 2017

"The Domain of Arnheim," "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains," & "William Wilson" by Edgar Allan Poe

I devoted so much of my young life to TSR, Games Workshop, and id Software that I didn't have much time left over to get educated.  So, when Edmond Hamilton namechecked three Edgar Allan Poe stories in his short story "Castaway," which I read earlier this week, it was the first time I had heard of them.  Thinking it better to get educated late than never, a few days ago my 45-year old carcass hied to the Columbus Metropolitan Library where I borrowed a copy of Doubleday's Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, and I can now aver that I am familiar with these three important texts in the history of American literature and the literature of the fantastic.

"The Domain of Arnheim" (1847)

Most of this story reads like a treatise on aesthetics and psychology.  The foundation of the story's very thin plot is a theory I never heard of before, but which Poe assures us "none but the ignorant dispute": while nature is supreme in all other realms of beauty (e. g., a painting or drawing or sculpture of a beautiful flower or beautiful woman is never as beautiful as the real thing), in the realm of landscape, a brilliant painter can construct a more beautiful composition of scenery than can be found in real life.  Wherever you may be on the Earth, whatever direction you look, if you have a sophisticated eye you can detect an element of the scenery which can in some way be improved upon.

Our narrator has a friend who is astonishingly wealthy, and extremely sophisticated, a Mr. Ellison.  Ellison has a theory about happiness: it can be attained by following four rules: 1) exercise in the fresh air, 2) have "the love of a woman," 3) have contempt for ambition and 4) have "an object of unceasing pursuit;" the more "spiritual" the object, the more happy you will be.

From these bases follow an inevitable result: Ellison spends his vast resources on landscape-gardening on a colossal scale.  The narrator describes Ellison's years-long quest to find the perfect site, and then the finished garden, which covers hundreds of acres; one views the vast garden from a boat while travelling along a river, the trip finally ending at a hovering city of an architecture reminiscent of European cathedrals and Islamic mosques.

The theories described in this story may be thought-provoking in and of themselves, and as a specimen of Victorian thought, but I can't call this story entertaining.  There's no conflict or climax or resolution or anything like that--it's just eight pages of long paragraphs and long sentences about stuff like the "two styles of landscape-gardening, the natural and the artificial," and then three pages of mind-numbingly detailed description of water and cliffs and hills.
The uniformity of the top and bottom lines of the wall is fully relieved by occasional trees of gigantic height, growing singly or in small groups, both along the plateau and in the domain behind the wall, but in close proximity to it; so that frequent limbs (of the black walnut especially) reach over and dip their pendent extremities in the water.    
Is "The Domain of Arnheim" just Poe telling us his idea of an ideal landscape?  Or a weird allegory of the journey from life on Earth to the afterlife in heaven?  This is one of those strange things you are glad you have read, but are not really interested in ever reading again.

"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" (1844)

This is a more conventional story with characters and plot and surprise ending and all that, and a story which holds appeal for all us SF and horror kids.  In fact, in 1958 it appeared in F&SF alongside stories by Poul Anderson, Mack Reynolds and Robert Bloch; editor Anthony Boucher credits Avram Davidson with pointing it out to him.

"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" begins with a frame story in which our narrator describes to us our young protagonist, an Augustus Bedloe, a resident of Charlottesville, Virgina who has no known relatives.  Bedloe is tall and emaciated, pale and stooped, and under the daily care of a doctor, Dr. Templeton, who doses him liberally with morphine and hypnotism.  The middle of the story is narrated by Bedloe, who, upon his return from a long walk in the mountains near Charlottesville,  describes being transported as if by magic to an Asian city of winding streets after getting lost in a foggy ravine.  In this city he participates in a wild fight between soldiers and the city rabble, and is killed; his soul flies back into the fog, where he awakens and returns to Charlottesville. The frame story resumes, and Templeton explains that he was first drawn to Bedloe years ago because of the young man's resemblance to his old friend Oldeb, whom he knew while both were serving in India in 1780, some 47 years ago; Oldeb was killed in exactly the kind of fight Bedloe described, and, in fact, while Bedloe was walking in the mountains, Templeton was writing about the battle and Oldeb's death in his notebook!  Bedloe, it seems, is the reincarnated Oldeb, or maybe a sort of ghost or wraith (as far as the narrator knows, Bedloe has no parents), this weird phenomenon may be explained by the fact that Oldeb was killed by a poisoned (blackly magicked?) arrow.

Not bad.

"William Wilson" (1839)

Like "Humbert Humbert," "William Wilson" is the euphonious pen name used by a sophisticated criminal with psychological problems in the writing of his memoir.  In the early 19th century Wilson attended a boarding school in the English countryside, Dr. Bransby's, the appearance and architecture of which Poe describes in great detail. But while the descriptions of the idealized landscapes in "The Domain of Arnheim" threatened to put me to sleep, the descriptions of this labyrinthine institution and its environs set a mood and painted distinct and enduring images in my mind.  (I'm guessing the school, with its innumerable mysterious passages, is a metaphor for the brain/mind, and the grounds, surrounded by a prison-like wall and an awe-inspiring gate, through which the students only pass to go to church, the body.)

Wilson is the cleverest student and best athlete of his class at Dr. Bransby's, admired by all the members of his cohort, with one exception: a student his same age (the very same birthday!) who arrived the same day he did and even has the same name!  This other Wilson, by imitating the narrator and providing subtle whispered bits of advice (usually to refrain from some bit of foolishness or knavery) antagonizes and infuriates the narrator, who, after some years, flees the school to escape his doppelganger's "tyranny."

The narrator continues his academic career at Eton and then Oxford, and then travels across Europe, living the life of a conman and a womanizer.  But again and again, when he is about to commit some sin, seducing a married woman or cheating a man out of a fortune at cards, for example, the second Wilson will suddenly appear and frustrate his schemes.  Finally, exasperated beyond endurance, the narrator drags this second Wilson into a private room and murders him, at which time he finally realizes what we readers may have already realized: this second Wilson was his conscience or soul, and by destroying it he has doomed himself: "henceforward art thou also dead--dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope!"

Of the three Poe stories I read this week, this is easily the most compelling and entertaining.


Another spot of education under my belt.  Who knows what's next on this journey from ignorance to knowledge (maybe?) and then senility, oblivion and the grave?


  1. I think "The Domain of Arnheim" is a fascinating and boring piece of fiction for the reasons you gave. Lucius Shepard did sort of a thematic follow up with the thoroughly unmemorable title "Kirikh’quru Krokundor".

    If nothing else, it proves Poe was a lot more than just a horror writer.

    Reading your review of "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" it occurs to me for the first time, even though I've read the story before, that this may have influenced Poe worshipper Lovecraft's interest in bodyswitching tales.

    Yes, "William Wilson" is a Poe classic, sort of an inverse of his "The Imp of the Perverse". There's a movie version in the Poe anthology movie "Spirits of the Dead" done by Roger Vadim.

    1. I love hearing about and thinking about all these connections.

      When I typed "William Wilson" into isfdb, to see if it had appeared in any SF magazines or anthologies, a story by Thomas Ligotti came up, one that appears only in an odd little limited edition book of "vignettes" called The Agonizing Resurrection of Victor Frankenstein. All the vignettes seem to be pastiches or responses to famous characters and stories. I've liked the Ligotti I've read, and am now curious about this collection.

  2. Hi

    I have read "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" but not the others stories something I will have to address in the future. I also want to say how much I have enjoyed the focus of your blog. I enjoy Hamilton and other pulp era writers as well, if you have not read his novel, The Haunted Stars I recommend it as well.


    1. Thanks for the kind words, I'm glad you are enjoying the blog! More Hamilton and other writers from the pulps in the future!

      I read The Haunted Stars years before I started the blog, and I also liked it. It must have been one of the very first things I'd read by him.