Exploring the Uncanny with Edgar Allan Poe

In this new student-submitted post, Yustyn Kokor discusses their experience at last quarter’s Honors Book Club for The Best of Poe.

I wouldn’t consider myself a big reader. The reason I decided to attend the book club was mostly to broaden my literary horizons through discussion. I feel like we often get carried away and think that to become good readers we just need to read. It seems like a logical argument on paper, but I believe that reading and understanding the story is only part of the full experience. A story itself is worth very little unless it helps us explore something, whether it be ourselves, others, or the world. A story is a tool and a form of art that serves to share and preserve the human experience. That is why I consider my experience in the book club to be a meaningful one. For me, the discussion aspect is by far the most enjoyable. We talked about a ton of interesting ideas and interpretations that I could never have thought of by myself, which enhanced my understanding and appreciation of Poe’s work.

During our club meeting, we discussed Freud’s idea of the heimlich and unheimlich. In German, heimlich translates to “homely” or “concealed”, whereas the negative form, unheimlich, means “not belonging to home” or “foreign”. When reading Edgar Allen Poe, one can’t help but feel this from the very start thanks to Poe’s signature first-person narration. It serves as the backbone to his unheimlichkeit—”uncanniness”—by giving us a taste for it over the duration of one short story. As we read the words on the page our conscience becomes guided by the words like a train on a railroad track. We feel the realization of an unavoidable disaster but there is nothing we can do to rewrite the words in front of us.

 I think Edgar Allen Poe’s work is a reflection of himself in many ways. His stories are captivatingly horrifying, grim, and hard to make sense of. Poe is famous for writing stories with no clear moral value. The few times there is a clear point seems to be when Poe wants to ridicule a cause like Transcendentalism in “Never Bet the Devil your Head”. In this sense Edgar Allen Poe possessed a character flaw that also permeates his writing and sets it apart- perversity.

His characters are often introduced as sensible people with flaws that make them appear relatable and human. One is naturally inclined to sympathize and relate with them at first, but it proves to be very hard. This is partly because the characters possess an unreasonable urge to do exactly the opposite of what they should as if solely to piss someone off just because they can. In most cases, the character will nearly get away with some ungodly deed or horrific crime until suddenly their arrogance and spite take over their rational thinking like an uncontrollable itch and they turn themselves in just to prove the other party wrong. This in my opinion is the most bizarre attribute of Poe’s work, and I also believe that the uncontrollable and uncanny drive towards self-destruction is what makes Poe’s stories truly mortifying.

Perhaps the true horror of Poe’s uncanniness lies in just how familiar it is to us. It’s said that around 95 percent of brain function is subconscious. The other 5 percent, it can be argued, is often guided by forces other than free will. This is what makes horror effective. It’s true enough to make us question ourselves and reevaluate the world around us.

My favorite story out of Edgar Allen Poe’s collection would probably be “The Pit and the Pendulum”. I found the writing style to be so enthralling and immersive that I would find myself on the edge of my seat while reading it. The story is well-paced, easy to read, and very short, around ten pages, which I liked a lot. This story is great for people interested in reading a good psychological thriller. I also liked Poe’s mystery stories like “The Purloined Letter” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. It’s interesting that few people know that these were the first mystery stories that served as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and other detective novels. For me, it was cool to explore the beginnings of the detective mystery genre. I would have to say that my favorite poem was “Eldorado”. The poem is easy to understand yet leaves room for interpretation. I think the talking shadow can be seen as a metaphor for many things.

 Reading is a uniquely uncanny medium that everyone should explore, and what better way to do so than through discussion with your peers. Poe’s stories could never be as effective if they were in the form of a movie or an audio recording. Without the freedom that reading provides as an artistic framework Poe’s unheimlichkeit would simply be lost. I would definitely recommend that everyone join and explore both the familiar and unfamiliar together in the next book club meeting.

If you would like to submit a piece to the Honors Blog, email honorsprogram@depaul.edu

Sold on the Honors book club? Join us on February 9th to talk about Pride and Prejudice!

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