Dear Edgar #1: Metzengerstein

In 1832 a now former Sargent Major in the United States Army had almost reached the age he’d claimed to be on his enlistment forms four year earlier. Why he lied about his age when joining the army is a bit of a mystery as he was 18 at the time but while he was at it he also lied about his name, the recruitment papers stating it as being Edgar A Perry.

During his time in the army Edgar managed to publish what became the first of several poetry collections. This first collection was about as successful as poetry collections from unknown poets tend to be which is to say it had a print run of 50 copies and there was only ever one print run. There is probably an attic somewhere in an old family home that still has 38 of them tucked away in a cardboard box…

Edgar A Perry left the army, by finding another man to cover the remainder of his enlistment term, and then promptly went to West Point to train as an officer cadet but not before he revealed he had lied on his original enlistment papers. His cohort of clearly got on well with him as they helped effectively ‘crowd-source’ a print run of a revised 2nd edition of his book of poetry, with many of them giving 75 cents each to get him up to the total of $170.00 he needed to do a new print run.

From which we can determine that the ‘crowd-sourcing’ poetry books is not a new idea, and 19th century US officer cadets are fans of obscure literature. That one of the poems lampooned West points commanding officers may have had something to do with this. Sales were again much what you might suspect for an obscure volume of poetry written by an obscure poet and another cardboard box of books is doubtless in an attic of a former Poe family home somewhere…

In 1832 however, now disowned by a father who was too busy spawning the plethora of Edgar’s half-siblings, and having buried recently his legitimate elder brother who died of complications brought about by alcoholism, the unsuccessful poet had his first real publishing success when he submitted a bunch of stories to a writing contest held by The Philadelphia Saturday Courier. Five of his stories were published over the course of the next year. This then was the beginning of the literary career of the most influential writer of the early 19th century. Arguably one of the most influential writers there has ever been, because the former Sargent major Edgar’s real surname wasn’t Perry, it was Poe.

That first published story was Metzengerstein: A Tale in Imitation of the German.

‘Metzengerstein: A Tale in Imitation of the German’ is a bit of an odd duck. As is that full title the second part of which was added four year later when then a relatively successful Edgar Allen Poe building a reputation as a writer agreed to it being republished in the Southern Literary Messenger. German horror literature was popular at the time so the addition of the subtitle is one suspects a publishers gimmick and how much input Poe actually had with the subtitle is debatable. It certainly disappeared again when Poe added the story to his 1840 collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, or more correctly in Volume 2 which wasn’t quite as popular as the first volume. It not having the one about the collapse of a noble family line in it.

Noble lines are however very much central to the plot of Metzengerstein. The Metzengerstein’s of the title and their rivals the Berlifitzing’s. the two Hungarian noble houses have been at odds for generations, since at least one of them with more than a little Moorish blood in the mix… The exact cause of dispute between them is, we are told, lost to history. Though there is a tapestry which seems to suggest a beheading in battle or two may have been at fault. Which just goes to prove that the instagram of the medieval period was apparently as forgettable as the modern equivalent, because even with the tapestry right there no one can remember why the two noble houses hate each other…

There is however an old prophecy:

“A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing.”

A prophecy’s go its a tad vague, but then vague is generally what you expect form a good prophecy about two ancient noble houses. Though Poe moves heaven and earth to make this tale fit around the prophecy in the end.

The current Baron Metzengerstein, is a young reprobate called Fredrick, while his opposite number Count Berlifitzing is an old man clinging to life in the ruin of his family estates. The Berlifitzing family is at the end of long years of decline while the Metzengerstein’s have being long in the ascendancy. The current Baron however came to his title young and started laying wasting to the family fortune as fast as a teenager left alone in the family home for the weekend with a key to the drinks cabinet lays waste to the Pernod…

Then comes the night old count dies and the Berlifitzing family stables burn down the same night. the young baron, is examining an old tapestry while well into his cups and he sees one of a great unnatural seeming horse, at the murder and betrayal one of the Counts ancestors by one of the Barons.

Then things get a bit weird. Fredrick witnesses the tapestry burn, but only the bit with the horse in it. Then a horse is found that the Berlifitzing stable hands swear is not one of theirs, though it clearly appeared when the stables burnt down, and Fredrick develops something of a equiphilic attachment to the beast. Which may or may not be the old count reincarnated into an adult horse… And this eventually leads to the tragic end to the tale…

It is all a little odd, which is fine… But it is also a story that’s odd because it isn’t quite sure what it is, or to be more exact the reader can’t be entirely sure what it is. The other stories that followed it in the Saturday Courier, all of which he wrote at the same time, were satirical humorous affairs, and there is much of this tale that could be perceived as satire. Yet if that is the case it is a somewhat poe-faced satire, as opposed to Poe satire.

It is also a horror story with little in the way of horror to it. What horror there is, is visited upon or witnessed by the young Baron, whom is not a character it is easy to sympathise with. Sure it is harsh to say he deserved to bare the brunt of this climax to a multi-generational rift between noble houses, but he’s an unlikable brat who treats his servants like… erm… servants.

There is a case, made by those reading this tale from an academic lint, that this is all an allegory, to do with the relationship between family’s and generations, or that it is autobiographically inspire and to do with Poe’s relationship with his step-father… Except Poe reputedly despised allegory as a literary form, and as for the autobiographical element… well lets just say its a stretch shall we.

In the end its is much of a nothingness as a story notable mostly for being Poe’s first to see print and because Rudyard Kipling notes its inspire him to write ‘The Phantom Rickshaw’ which is in turn most notable as being the title story of a collection that included ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ which later inspired the movie of the same name… This is a somewhat thin claim to fame for a story.

Metzengerstein also inspired a song of the same name on the ‘Theatres des Vampires’ album ‘Horror Masterpiece’ which is… well Italian Industrial Goth Vampiric Black Metal is surprising as it may be to some readers not really my cup of lukewarm blood.

That said the next track on the album is a cover version of Aha’s ‘Take on Me’… Which is unique in its own kind of wonderfulness. Also my cousin Jane decided she hated Aha back when the original came out because Morten Harkat looked very much like me in the mid 80’s (when I wasn’t in black eyeliner and going down the Phonograthic) But lest not delve into the insanity of the late 1980’s and stick with Poe shall we..

In the end this is not Poe at his finest, but then I wasn’t really expecting it to be, first stories seldom are and all I really wanted was a bench mark. As is traditional I am going to score each tale, but as tentacles is so Lovecraft and last year as a measurement of awesomeness I will instead be marking Poe’s stories out of Ravens. In this case just a couple, which is not much of a gauge I know but you have to lay down a bench mark somewhere…


Should your read it: Well its not going to keep you up at night, make you laugh or make you particularly thoughtful so you can give it a miss I suspect

Should you avoid it: No reason to do so beyond it being a bit dull ( unlike Italian Industrial Goth Vampiric Black Metal which is probably best avoided )

Bluffers fact: While Metzengerstein was indeed published by the Saturday Courier after it was entered in its writing competition. It wasn’t actually the winner. It was also originally ascribed to that most notable of writers Mr A Nominous, unlike the rest of the Saturday Courier stories which carried Poe’s moniker.

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