In response to a February 28th post on Carrie Keeps Typing , according to The Illinois Libary Project of 1941, March is the month to read the books you've always meant to read. So Carrie suggested readers pick a book they've always meant to read and read it this month. I actually picked an author: Edgar Allan Poe. I have a slender volume of his stories, Tales of Mystery and Terror (including The Fall of the House of Usher0, and a slender volume of his poems, The Raven and Other Favorite Poems.
So far I've read four of the stories and am halfway through the fifth, and I would love to say I'm enthralled and on the edge of my seat and left astounded by horror at the end of these tales. But, I'm not. He certainly can induce an atmosphere of foreboding and unease -- pages and pages of it. But then the story leaps to its conclusion and... that's it. I can't help feeling let down.
Take the Usher story: a family curse that the victim dreads... and dreads. He recounts the curse to his visiting friend, who, seeing Usher's devastated condition and learning of the curse, feels unease... and more unease. More dread and unease. More atmosphere. And then, BAM! The curse is fulfilled, the last of the family dies, the friend flees -- and just in time, too, because the house falls to pieces, and the fragments are sucked into the deeps of the tarn.
Was this surprising? Only the last little details. Do we know who cursed this family and why? Nope. I have query letters on my brain right now, and a side question that immediately pops into my mind is, "How would Poe sum up the plot in a query letter?" (See my challenge in red at the bottom of this post.)
So far, the other stories follow a similar pattern: Ominous atmospheric description (if you don't mind rereading a few paragraphs more than once to be sure you really understood what has taken place), a terrible sense of dread on the part of the narrator, finally a horrendous catastrophe that you've been warned was coming via numerous foreshadowings -- and that's it: end of the story. No denouement. No changed narrator. No conclusions to be drawn about the meaning of it all. Just disaster predicted, disaster delivered. Often the tale is told via a "device", as a message in a bottle, or a book lying handily near the narrator, describing the story behind a painting, etc.
I'm presently halfway through a fifth story: A Descent into the Maelstr . It's a longer story, and so far I'm hanging in there. The narrator has followed a guide up a steep cliff to look over island-studded waters that are so affected by deep rocks that periodically a deady vortex wrecks ships and destroys unfortunate swimmers. The guide is one who lived to tell the tale. As usual, the aura of doom is wonderfully drawn. I'm at the place where the guide's boat has been sucked into the vortex, and I am pushing on to find out why he's still alive. I will have to report on this story in some future post.
Likewise the poems.
But for now, back to The Fall of the House of Usher. This story is a classic, a famous one. Even though I'd never read it, I knew of it. And, having read it, for other readers who are so motivated to go get a copy and read it, I would like to know:
How would you query this story to an agent or publisher? What would you put in your first paragraph? Let me know. I am eager to see replies.
Meanwhile, mosey on over to Carrie's blog, because she has another funny post to ponder.