How can a set of illustrations drawn in 1901 tell us something about tales written some twenty years before?
The pictures you see are two of four illustrations from Aubrey Beardsley’s Illustrations to the Tales of Edgar Allen Poe. The lines are simple and the pictures have few ornate details, and yet they still manage to capture that certain grotesque horror that keeps readers of Poe enthralled, even today.
The illustrations are about the size of a piece of printer paper, contained in gray matting. Accompanying the illustrations is a pamphlet that gives the imprint (a literary term for the publication information) and the titles of the stories depicted in each illustration.
These stories are: The Murders in the Rue Morgue, published in 1841 (first photo), The Masque of the Red Death, published in 1842 (second photo), The Black Cat, published in 1843, and The Fall of the House of Usher, published in 1839.
The pamphlet gives us little else to go on: no impression or edition information, no letter from the artist or publisher’s explanation, although we can tell that
these drawings were not done in Beardsley’s early career, as they are signed (see the symbol in the lower right hand corner?), a practice he began when his career picked up.
What Beardsley’s illustrations do tell us of is that Poe’s stories are not static, but living works that each new generation gets to experience in their own way. In literature studies, we often consider a work’s reception at the time of its publication or its perception now, but rarely do we ask ourselves: How did people in the early 1900’s experience this story? The 1950’s? The 1980’s? Beardsley’s illustrations give us a glimpse into a slight decadence and gothic-ness still preferred in horror at the time (a giant orangutan envelopes the girl in his arms—King Kong anyone?) But they also remind us that our taste for creepiness, for hearing tales about the darker side of human life, hasn’t changed appreciably in over 150 years.