Investigate the World of Edgar Allan Poe

The inventor of the mystery novel turns 200 years old in 2009.

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His work haunts us forevermore. He invented the detective story, penned sinister tales of the macabre, and wrote sublimely mournful verse that echoes endlessly in memory. He was Edgar Allan Poe, and though his life was short—born on Jan. 19, 1809, he died at age 40—his influence is long-lived and far-flung. So much so that to mark the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth this coming year, celebrations are scheduled in locales ranging from Richmond, Va. (where Poe grew up), and Baltimore (site of Poe's grave and home to the Ravens football team) all the way to Russia and Japan. And among other literary tributes, the authors' group Mystery Writers of America is publishing not one but two new anthologies that pay homage to the author for whom it long ago named its prestigious award for best mystery novel of the year, the "Edgar."

Studying Poe's works will help you clearly see his influence on our culture. Richard Kopley, author of Edgar Allan Poe and the Dupin Mysteries, says without Poe, Sherlock Holmes might have been very different because it was Poe's ratiocinator extraordinaire, C. Auguste Dupin, who influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Baker Street sleuth.

Then there are the many horror movies based on Poe's phantasmagorias. They made us shiver at the sight of Vincent Price (and wink at the Sesame Street puppet Vincent Twice/Vincent Twice). One way to measure the claustrophobic spell they still hold on the imagination is the response that bestselling crime novelist Michael Connelly received when he invited fellow writers to contribute essays about their favorite Poe tales to the Mystery Writers of America anthology In the Shadow of the Master. "So many people wanted to write about the movies that I had to say, no more!"

As to why Poe gets under people's skin: "The same appeal that haunted houses on Halloween have for people Poe's work has as well," says David Kipen, the National Endowment of the Arts director of Literature for National Reading Initiatives. Poe's work is about to be added to the NEA's communitywide "Big Read" program. Poe's appeal is only heightened by the mystery surrounding so many aspects of his own life and death. Born to impoverished thespians, Poe was orphaned by the age of 3 and as a young adult was disinherited by a foster father. One by one, everyone he loved (including his foster mother, his older brother, and his young wife, Virginia) died before him. The cause of death was almost always consumption, lending the presence of blood—and the color red (as in his story "The Masque of the Red Death")—a particularly chilling resonance throughout his work.

In the course of his life, Poe made just $6,200 from his writing, says Kopley. The still-unsolved puzzle of his death adds yet another layer to Poe's mystique. In September 1849, Poe left Richmond for New York—but instead went to Baltimore, where he was found six days later, severely ill and delirious, at a tavern. He was dead within days, but no one has ever resolved the unknown chain of events that took him to Baltimore, nor the actual disease that caused his death.

That is how Baltimore—where Poe had also made his home for a time—came to be his burial place. But will his body rest in peace? Poe scholar Edward Pettit has issued a threat to dig up the author's grave and move the body to Philadelphia, where Poe lived for several years. "Over what other writer's body would cities be fighting?" asks Laura Lippman, Baltimore resident and bestselling crime writer. "That in itself speaks to Poe's hold on the public imagination."