Poctober: The Imp of the Perverse

Continuing on with our seasonally-apropos look at Edgar Allan Poe, we’ve got the short tale “The Imp of the Perverse.”


Really had to power through the first half (or more?) of this one, which reads for a while like a philosophy essay. Poe throws out all sorts of “word of the day” vocabulary (“supererogation” is a nice one) as he muses about the purposes of men’s actions – why they do what they do. Really the most I can say for this is that he touches upon some interesting pseudoscientific and philosophical ideas. His references to phrenology help create a nice gothic kind of vibe.

Eventually he gets to talking about something that is rather opposite the conscience (man’s impulse to do good) or his selfish sense of self-preservation (man’s impulse to do what is good for him) – what he calls “perverseness.” Perverseness, he contends, is a sort of impulse without a motive that drives a man to do something ill.

The story picks up when he shifts to narrative, telling us of a crime he had committed in a bout of perverseness. Again I won’t give away the ending, but once more there is a sort of madness that overtakes him and causes his undoing.

If you can make it past the first half, it’s a nice, weird little tale.





11 thoughts on “Poctober: The Imp of the Perverse

  1. In his day Poe was known as an editor, poet, and literary critic well before his short stories became popular. In fact, he was quite roundly disliked by a number of authors for his scathing criticisms. Poe’s theory of “modern” writing was that of minimalism, where each word was weighed in context to build up the story, with heavy allegorical form and writerly affectations were to be avoided. Keep in mind that Poe’s career starts before the Victorian Era and peaks before the middle of that period. You’ll find his wording concise and clear compared to Georgian writers, but it may seem quite heavy in a modern reading.

    It’s true that Poe had a touch of the imp of the perverse, for example Rufus Griswold published a rather silly hoax autobiography of AEP (provided by himself) in 1842 for the anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America, which went through several printing. Griswold was a master publicist who eventually gained control of Poe’s literary output and worse yet, his image. Facts never got in the way of Griswold making sensational copy, so making Poe a heavily flawed but romantic writer was just what Victorians wanted to hear. See the Griwold/Poe article link below.

    You may not know that Poe had a strong sense of humor, along with a rapier-sharp wit. For easily accessible examples, he wrote the short story The Great Balloon Hoax, which admits to the hoax right out front and some Poe scholars suggest that The Fall of the House of Usher was itself a satire on gothic stories current at the time. I’m not going to worry much about the kind of twaddle published about AEP over the past century and a half, but suggest that he be read in his historical and cultural context. See the links below for an interesting five part read. This five part article illustrates his humor it much better than I.


    Griswold/Poe article https://www.eapoe.org/geninfo/poegrisw.htm

    I won’t pretend to be nonpartisan here as I’ve published a couple on Poe posts myself.

    BTW, supererogation is a term that disappeared pretty much from the standard vocabulary, and even eventually from Christian sermons by the end of Georgian period. I’ll admit I have only seen it in print a few times and never heard it spoken aloud. There was a richer vocabulary in those days and people not only studied other languages French, but Greek and Latin as well, despite not having Google and phones at their fingertips. I’ll leave you to Goggle the word, if you are curious enough. If you want a real Georgian novel, read Tristan Shandy and then compare it to Poe’s writing style and you’ll understand.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Definitely take a look at the posts. As far as humor in Poe, I agree. He’s kind of remembered as a two note writer these days (horror and the detective story), but he had various modes. I’d nominate “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” as his most humorous story.

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  3. I like Poe’s stories a lot, and I consider that in many ways they still hold up today. I believe, however, that you need to be in the right mood to read him. Not to mention that you need to have something relatable to his stories for them to affect you.

    (A bit of SPOILER btw if you haven’t read these stories)

    For Example, I liked the atmosphere of The Fall of the House of Usher but it didn’t leave a trully lasting impression on me. The Black Cat, on the other hand, legitimately made me sick, in a good way, since I love animals in general and own two cats, so some of the descriptions in that story were hard to stomach. It stayed with me for a few days after reading them.

    One of my favorite stories from him was Ligeria. You could just FEEL his longing for his lost love poaring out of every word from that story.

    I also love his poems, but like I said above, you need to be in the mood to read them. But when you are, they can stay with you for a long time. Even now I can recite the The Raven fully when I feel melancholic.

    So yeah, I think his stories are great, but he is not an easy writer to get into. You need to have similar tragic experiences and a good literary knowledge to fully appreciate his stories.

    But that’s just my opinion of course, I could be wrong :)

    Liked by 1 person

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