That one book that changed my life is The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. A brilliant teacher, Mrs. Church, had introduced my small middle-school class to the great poet and writer, and my extreme interest in “The Raven” meant my academic parents were happy to immediately procure a copy of his collected works. This book, a soon tattered and dog-eared paperback, set my course entirely.
Not only is Poe imminently accessible for a young, avid reader, the gripping, spooky angles of his works are incredibly exciting and don’t lose one ounce of power over time. Poe never for a moment felt like schoolwork; he immediately served as a muse. He became like a friend and mentor, and his work jumped from assignment to goal: an aspiration when I considered my own writing, a relentless discipline that has been with me since I learned how to complete a sentence. I’m not shy about the fact I’m a proud Goth and that Gothic themes, in architecture, music, fashion, and literature were my earliest sources of inspiration.
I truly found myself through Poe—through his ability to make terrible things somehow beautiful. Poe helped me shape and understand what I wanted to say to the world through my being, through my work: through darkness there can be aching, perilous, ecstatic, staggering wonder, through struggle there can sometimes come joy, relief and transcendence. Not all of Poe is tragedy. His work was not only one ending or one tone. He was not a writer of single meaning nor a man of constant pain. His cautionary tales are a sort of guide and his poetry is navigating through storms. The Gothic, for me, has always been a way through.
The engine of a Gothic is dread. Its narratives focus on the psychology of the main characters, be they reliable or unreliable narrators. But in every case, a Gothic tale is seeking relief from that creeping, constant dread. The protagonists of a Gothic seek a way out, an understanding of their situation. They embark upon a journey through. No Gothic tale stays in stasis. The dark and stormy night might get worse before it gets better but it is never a static, unchanging state. The Gothic as a style is wildly dynamic. It is theatrical and full of possibility. For a narrative that likes to cling to the shadows, it has surprisingly hopeful possibilities.
Poe doesn’t allow the reader, in any of his tales, to relish the darkness or the horror he presents. The whole of it is deeply uncomfortable and inconvenient and he makes us complicit by drawing us into the thought processes behind dastardly deeds or witnesses to private terrors. His tales are intimate and harrowing, but ultimately very human, even in the most extreme cases. Poe wrote simply, effectively and accessibly in a time known for overly flowery, complicated text paid by the word. He cuts right to the tell-tale heart and makes you feel every beat as your own. His body of work has been, for me, that journey through.
As a kid, young adult, adult, who has always suffered from some inexplicable bouts of depression, Poe’s melancholy, whether in his work or in his own personal history, felt reassuringly familiar. Whether looking at the trajectory of his difficult life or his work— his passion for writing and the prosaic beauty of his aching poems and searing stories—he felt like a kindred spirit who could understand my interest in the mystical, darker mysteries of life and could empathize with any difficulty. I wanted to move past a constant dread and this work helped me process and fulfill that journey.
Through Poe I hoped to mitigate some of my own darknesses and translate them, as he did, into words. It was the greatest balm to do so, then and now. Writing has been an outlet for as long as I can remember and I remain blessed to call it a profession, now taking meticulous time to balance craft with the raw muse as he did as a master craftsman. He remains the best tutor as I continue my journey and try with every book to hone craft and purpose, taking all my characters on a Gothic journey through mystical wildernesses and hearts of darkness towards alleviations of their dread burdens.
Poe as a tragic figure in life was also his own cautionary tale. I wanted to honor him by living as an artist as well as I knew how, a drive to outlive him kept me going as I feel he would have wanted for himself, if anything, just to write more. I certainly wish he had been able to do so. I did not want mysterious darkness to wholly consume me, to get lost as he did, his own death still a mystery. As his acolyte I wanted to carry forth and persevere, a strong disciple.
Themes rife in Poe run rife in my work. The images of his stories are imprinted in exquisite detail in my mind more than any other author and my characters are very aware of his influence. Every time I return to him I glean more and more from his work, whether from his literary criticism or his bold expansion of genre fiction story after story. He is my favorite never-ending maze, the most magical of dark and stormy nights, the blessed raven who, “never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting” as my muse and patron saint, lifted nevermore.
Actress, playwright and author Leanna Renee Hieber writes Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy novels for adults and teens. Her Strangely Beautiful saga garnered numerous regional and genre awards, with new revised editions now available from Tor Books as Strangely Beautiful and Perilous Prophecy. Darker Still was named an American Bookseller’s Association “Indie Next List” pick and was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier award. Her latest, The Eterna Files trilogy, is now available from Tor Books with the release of the finale, The Eterna Solution. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and has been translated into many languages. A proud member of performer unions Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she lives in New York City where she is a licensed ghost tour guide and has been featured in film and television on shows like Boardwalk Empire and Mysteries at the Museum. Writing resources as well as free reads and other information can be found at her website.