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Horror fiction is rooted in hysteria: the narrator’s and the reader’s. That’s why it lends itself so fluidly to the graphic novel. From one “kapow” moment to the next, it never gives the reader a moment to relax. And this is what Gareth Hinds’ new graphic novel, Poe: Stories and Poems, does so successfully. The pictures wed the text, which has been adapted to graphic novel format. That Hinds pulls this off with the work of a master literary stylist like Edgar Allan Poe is an accomplishment. Meanwhile, the plot moves from one sensational frisson to the next, resembling a series of mountain peaks with very few valleys—in fact, more like a sort of mountain range.
The book opens with an adaptation of a slightly lesser known story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” which gains its unique horror from how this plague kills—its victims bleeding to death from their pores, especially in the face. The very first panel shows a blood-drenched corpse, which kickstarts the plot: To escape this horrible, gory death, Prince Prospero leads a thousand courtiers to a remote, secluded abbey. They lock themselves inside, and the fun begins, culminating in a masked ball, at which the mysterious, minatory, and terrifying Red Death himself makes an appearance, killing the prince and everyone else.
For Poe fans, “The Masque of the Red Death” is special, not marked by the same pitch of insanity in, say, “The Tell-Tale Heart” or the kind of cruelty in “The Cask of Amontillado” or “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Though gruesome, it is less emotionally gripping, which is actually a point in its favor. Because this story can be read at leisure—less of a page-turner than others—the illustrator could conceivably narrate more freely. But interestingly, Hinds chooses to speed up the pictures, to restore the more typical Poe pace, to counter the relative slowness of “The Masque of the Red Death” and match its rhythm to that of Poe’s other stories. Before you know it, you’ve reached the illustrated portrait of the Red Death himself, the tale’s climax and turning point. Yet it doesn’t seem too soon. It works. Hinds has combined the text and visuals to give the story a new and engagingly different rhythm.
Hinds’ illustrations parallel Poe’s tempo in his rendering of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” As the tension builds in this murder drama, the images become increasingly frenzied, until they are finally resolved with the last serene drawing of the narrator in an insane asylum cell. This is Hinds’ own ending but a logical interpretation of Poe’s work. Quite discreetly, it is only presented visually. Until the end, the colors are garishly orange and yellow, befitting the narrator’s mad confession. But the last two pictures subdue the mood. They are brown and gray—muted colors that match the reality of a lunatic in a madhouse.
Other works Hinds illustrates here are “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Bells,” and “The Raven.” The volume concludes with a somber sketch of Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore headstone and a raven perched on top. This last picture, understated and fitting, connects the stories of a writer who had a short and difficult life. But happily and crucially, the image does not invite us to psychologize about Poe, something there has been far too much of in the 167 years since his death. Instead, it identifies him as the supreme artist he was—as a sovereign writer who knew how to control his audience’s reactions to his tales of blood and horror., not as a man whose personal problems compelled him to depict madness, murder, and death.
Poe: Stories and Poems is available now from Candlewick Press. 120 pages. $14.69.