Guest Post: Melanie Jackson on Edgar Allan Poe and Tick Tock Terror

Written by: Melanie Jackson

In Melanie Jackson’s new YA mystery Tick Tock Terror, a young, overconfident climber accepts an old man’s dare to climb to the top of a The Pit and the Pendulum-themed thrill ride. Too late he realizes the crafty con man has tricked him into becoming part of a robbery. Our hero’s challenge: to set things right by outconning the con. In the process, he discovers something surprising about Edgar Allan Poe.

The famous author inspired Jackson to write Tick Tock Terror—and to sleuth out whether he was really as unhappy as popular image suggests.

Time for a second glance at Edgar Allan Poe

He’s famous as the brooding Baltimorean, but he has never failed to cheer me up. When I was in grade school, I rather liked getting sick because it meant I could stay home and read Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories. The swinging blade descending slowly, agonizingly toward the prisoner chained to the floor in The Pit and the Pendulum. The now-classic mystery trope of the locked-room which Poe invented in Murders in the Rue Morgue—along with the first fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin. To this day I enjoy these blood-curdling yarns.

So it’s no surprise that Edgar Allan helped inspired me to write my own mystery stories. In devising sinister settings and tossing unwitting protagonists into them, I was recreating the fun I’d found in Edgar Allan’s darkly atmospheric tales, in the wisecracks of Raymond Chandler’s P.I. Philip Marlowe, in the diabolically clever plot twists of Agatha Christie.

Writing Tick Tock Terror, I wanted to pay tribute to the wild-haired, moody-eyed Edgar Allan. Before starting my novel, I reread yet again his stories, including The Pit and the Pendulum, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-Tale Heart; and of course, doom-filled poems like The Raven. Because, if a yarn entertains you, you return to it. I then embarked on Tick Tock Terror, about a young climber who scales a thrill ride based on The Pit and the Pendulum. And just as I’d enjoyed Edgar Allan’s stories, I enjoyed writing my new novel.

Partway through writing Tick Tock Terror it occurred to me: if I enjoy writing mysteries, wasn’t it possible Edgar Allan had, too? His stories, like The Pit and the Pendulum, are exciting, constantly a-rollick with thrills. They’re also far-fetched to the point of being absurd—like the best Marvel comics, say. Being a master of storytelling, Edgar Allan gets around the absurdity. You read about the preposterous pendulum; you accept it without question. More and more I came to think that Edgar Allan was doing what I advise kids to do in school visits: first and foremost, entertain yourself with your writing.

A good brand isn’t necessarily an accurate one

Yet after more than a century and a half the image of the unhappy Edgar Allan persists. Look at it this way. Image is all about brand. A moody Edgar Allan is much more likely to sell scary (and enjoyable) stories than a happy, smiling Edgar Allan.

I read up on Edgar Allan. I’d known about the sadness in his life: his weakness for alcohol and the premature death of his wife Virginia. What I hadn’t known but had suspected was that there was, indeed, a happy side to Edgar Allan. In fact, those who knew him attested to his devotion to those he loved and his great sense of humor. Without giving spoilers, I tried to reveal some of this lighter side in Tick Tock Terror.

Why, then, does the image of the haunted Edgar Allan still hover? Blame an editor named Rufus Griswold. Seems the two were rivals in love. Jealous Rufus never forgave Edgar Allan and after the author’s death, penned a vitriolic obituary about him. Too cowardly to use his own name, Rufus adopted the pseudonym of Ludwig in portraying his late rival as someone who wandered the streets by night in fits of “madness or melancholy.”

The image stuck. As noted, Edgar Allan’s publishers would hardly have minded: a crazed creator is easier to promote than a contented one. But for those of us who enjoy his work, maybe it’s time to dispel the idea that Edgar Allan was all miserable, all the time. Nevermore with that, I say.

A 2018 CCBC-TD Book Week author, Melanie Jackson is the author of several books for young readers in the Orca Currents series including Tick Tock Terror, Medusa’s Scream and Death Drop. Every spring Melanie teaches a mystery unit at a Vancouver secondary school. When not devising diabolical mysteries, she works for corporate clients as a contract writer/editor. Melanie lives in Vancouver.

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