Friday, October 21, 2011

13. Eddie

The Lost Youth of Edgar Allan Poe
By Scott Gustafson
Simon & Schuster, 2011
$15.99, ages 8-12, 208 pages

Imagine a demon filling a boy's head with dark thoughts and that boy using them to write some of the greatest horror stories ever written, and you have the basis of Scott Gustafson's marvelous biography of young Edgar Allan Poe.

Spinning the truth into a fantastic narrative, Gustafson imagines a young Poe listening to and engaging a real-life Imp of Perverse as he writes his first horror stories and poems. At his side is also a talking Raven who tries to moderate the imp's wily influence.

An Imp of Perverse, as Poe fans will remember from his short story by the same name, is a spirit who causes people to commit morally questionable acts. Here, however, the imp, named McCobber, doesn't corrupt Poe into doing dangerous things, but rather gives him fodder for his imagination.

The tiny goblin-like spirit shows up on Poe's shoulder the night his childhood begins to unravel. Poe's father is drunk, and he's slipped into Poe's bedroom to kiss him goodbye before deserting his family. At that moment, the imp jumps from father to son, a bitter-sweet gift that will change Poe's life forever.

In a brief introduction, Gustafson explains the meaning of the imp much as Poe did in his short story:  "If you have ever stood at the window in a tall building, or on the brink of a scenic mountain overlook, you may have heard a small voice whisper, 'Go ahead, jump!' Then, most likely, you also felt that chilling jab in the gut as you, just for a moment, imagined yourself plummeting over the edge."

Of course most people dismiss these feelings of the macabre, Gustafson adds, but Poe was different. He listened to his imp, they "lingered on the edge and peered over. And then they got creative," imagining each of them crashing down to a grisly, horrific end. And it's that devilish sensibility, Poe's desire to poke around in the dark side of his imagination, he continues, that made him extraordinary.

Along with the imp, Gustafson introduces the raven from the poem that made Poe famous, The Raven. The bird appears late one night flapping outside Poe's rain-splattered window. Against McCobber's rant of objections, Poe takes him Raven and discovers he can talk and not only that, he can see the imp too. Before now, Poe's imp was invisible to everyone but him.

Raven, who croaks Poe's famous word "Nevermore," becomes a sounding board for Poe and a counter to McCobber's naughty suggestions, a sensible influence amid a corrupting one. When McCobber keeps young Poe awake with nightmares and suggestions for sinister plots, Poe's pet raven tells the imp to lay off, stop needling Poe, so the boy can get some rest.

Thus begins the marvelous set-up for Gustafson's pseudo biography. Written as a trim narrative much like Poe's short stories and beautifully worded and illustrated, the story first introduces readers to the real-life events of Poe's dreary early childhood, then evolves into a fantastic tale of his boyhood that borrows from some of the characters, phrases and styles of Poe's greatest works.

For the majority of the book, Gustafson tells of an account of Poe being falsely accused of hanging a neighbor's rooster from a weather vane in the night and how the imp, Raven, as well as a traveling magician play a part in Poe's efforts to clear his name. Poe's foster father gives him 24 hours to prove his innocence, spurring Poe to sneak off into the night to do just that.

Gustafson draws off Poe's uneasy relationship with his stern foster father, John Allan, who did not appreciate his peculiarly dark nature or Poe's persistence in writing, especially after his early work was rejected. He also draws off Poe's talent for detective writing and his use of characters who conjure tricks, as his short story "The Gold-Bug" demonstrates.

Eddie is a story that is truly fantastic, both in how cleverly it diverges from the truth and how masterfully it captures Poe's imagination. And while readers who desire a full and accurate account of Poe's childhood will have to go elsewhere, they'll be hard-pressed to find another biography about "The Master of the Macabre" that's this entertaining. 

Fans of Poe will delight in Gustafson's references to his works as well as the author's very apparent admiration of Poe, so vividly expressed in both the writing and pictures. Even when Gustafson wanders into his own machinations, he stays true to the essence of Poe, his perfectionism (that compulsion he had to rewrite and rewrite his poems) and, most vividly, the dark and mystifying inner workings of Poe's mind.

As for newcomers to Poe? I suspect they'll be hooked at the introductory chapter -- and by book's end, be spurred to go out and read the Imp of Perverse and The Raven, maybe even look over the edge of their darker side and imagine a horrifically clever story of their own. This is a rousing debut and proves Gustafson to be as gifted at writing as illustrating.

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