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Side by Side: Edgar Allan Poe

Side by Side

Side by Side: Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is famous for writing some of the eeriest poems and stories in English literature, rife with people being buried alive, talking ravens and mysterious detectives. Years later, his works are still frightening readers everywhere --- and inspiring a new generation of authors.

For our latest side-by-side, we talk to Bethany Griffin and Jessica Verday, both of whom based their latest YA novels on one of Poe’s masterpieces., Bethany Griffin reimagines the short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” in the tension-filled THE FALL, which follows a girl named Madeleine who is trapped in a living house that is slowly driving her mad. In OF MONSTERS AND MADNESS, Annabel discovers that her father’s two assistants --- Edgar and Allan --- are in fact two halves of the same person, and that they’re determined to commit the crimes described in Allan’s stories.

Read below to learn what inspired Bethany and Jessica, their biggest irrational fears, and what they’d do if they had a day to spend with the legendary author himself. What inspired you to base a book off of Edgar Allan Poe and his stories?

Bethany Griffin:      “The Fall of the House of Usher” always captured my imagination. I loved the atmosphere and imagery and the creepy old house. But I didn't get the idea to retell the story until one day when I was rereading and thinking of Madeline Usher. I love writing about characters who are trapped, and I love to give voices to characters who wouldn't otherwise have them. Madeline Usher has no voice in the original, and I wanted her story. At first the idea was very intimidating --- I wasn't sure if I could pull off a retelling of a Poe story. But once I started, it wasn't something I could stop. 

Jessica Verday: It's funny, because while I've always been a huge Poe fan, I was actually never interested in doing anything directly inspired by his works. But then one day I had this scene pop into my head of a girl asking a priest for forgiveness as she swore to stop a madman from murdering anyone else. She was so intriguing that I wanted to know more about her and somehow the idea of meshing that scene with a Jekyll and Hyde/Poe aspect got all wrapped up in my head and it came together from there. I started wondering where all of Poe's darkness came from, and what would happen if he had literal inspiration for his stories? Although that scene never made it into the final book, it's still very near and dear to my heart as it was my first introduction to Annabel. 

TRC: What's the most interesting thing you learned while researching your book?

BG: There are so many interesting things about Poe and his life. One of the best is a tidbit I used when discussing Poe in my role as an English teacher, rather than in my research for THE FALL. Actual premature burials weren’t common, but they happened enough for caskets to be designed with bells, so that casket occupants who weren't actually dead could be retrieved. That's some creepy stuff! The first Poe story I read was “The Cask of Amontillado,” and it was followed by “The Fall of the House of Usher,” so the premature burial theme in Poe’s stories was very obvious to me even in middle school. Then, as I read more of his stories, I realized just how obsessed he was with it. Maybe he was pretty over the top with his morbid fascination, but it wasn't a completely insane thing to be worried about! 

JV: There were so many cool medical gadgets and crazy scientific practices I got to research for OF MONSTERS AND MADNESS, but the most interesting thing of all was all of the connections that Philadelphia has to medicine and the macabre and Edgar Allan Poe. From being the place where Pennsylvania Hospital was built (the nation's first hospital) to The Mütter Museum and all of its medical oddities to the town where Poe was at his most prolific... Philadelphia was just begging for a mad scientist/Poe-esque story to be set there!

TRC: What's your biggest "irrational" fear?

BG: Well, when I was writing this book I developed a bit of claustrophobia. Being buried alive, and all. But my biggest lifelong phobia is the fear of snakes. When I was about seven, my mom and I read THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON together, and there are several horrific snake scenes in that book. Then there’s the snake scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark . . . I had nightmares about snakes off and on throughout childhood and I still really can't stand them. There are crocodiles in my Masque of the Red Death series, mainly because they creep me out, but not so terribly as snakes. Ugh snakes. I hate them so much. 

JV:  I can’t sleep when things that get hot are plugged in while they’re not being used. (Toaster, blow dryer, phone charger, laptop, etc...) I’m afraid of spontaneous combustion!

TRC: What's your favorite scary story or movie and why?

BG:  I'd have to say that my all-time favorite scary book is SHADOWLAND by Peter Straub. I don't know why, but something about it just captured me. It's an odd book with magic/magicians and a prep school setting (for part of the book) and a weird bird, and well . . .  it's really an odd book and I've reread it many times. As far as movies, I totally love The Sixth Sense. I know it isn't a scary movie in the typical sense, but I love the build-up, the details, the characters --- really everything about it. 

JV: I can't pick just one, so it's a tie between two --- my first favorite is the short story “The Velvet Ribbon” (from the 1970 Scholastic recording "The Haunted House and Other Spooky Poems and Tales.") I used to listen to this on a record player over and over again when I was growing up, and the scratchy background paired with the narrator's dramatic reading is deliciously spooky! My second favorite is the German version of Erlkönig (Erl-King) written by Franz Schubert and sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. (Check out the YouTube video --- it's AMAZING.) My elementary school music teacher played this for us in 6th grade and although I couldn't understand a word of it, the melody and lyrics have stayed with me ever since. Such a vivid and haunting song!

TRC: You get to spend the day with Edgar Allan Poe! Where would you go, what would you do, and what would you talk about?

BG:  Well, I'm sure that he'd be impressed by my ability to recite “The Raven,” except that I get the tapping and rapping mixed up, so I think I'd better not share that with him. And I'd want to do some sort of reenactment of his last days to figure out what really happened. But I'm not imagining that would be much fun for Poe.

Still, I've never spent much time in Baltimore beyond driving through . . . so I think we'd have to go on a tour of the city and check out one of the walking ghost tours. Maybe it would inspire him to come up with some kind of incredible new story! And we could go to bookstores and he could make fun of all the books he didn't like (since Poe was known for scathing literary criticism). And then we could discuss his last hours in some awesome quaint tavern over some cheese fries, or something. 

JV: It would probably be a rather boring day as he'd most likely want to spend all of his time writing... But perhaps I could convince him to visit a cemetery for some inspiration? 

TRC: What was the scariest thing about your high school experience?

BG:  I can't think of anything that wasn't scary about my high school experience. The entire idea of a bunch of teenagers being herded into a huge building with nothing (at least in my experience) in common, except for their age . . . well that was pretty horrific for me. I never thought I would ever end up teaching high school! 

JV: That we didn't have a junior/senior prom! I went to a very small, strict private school that didn't believe in dancing, so they had a fancy meal every year instead of a prom that everyone got dressed up for. I'm still mad about the fact that I never got to have a prom! (But glad I get to write books where proms happen, and I can live out my wildest dreams through them.)