Both gentlemen were born in late January. Poe on the 19th and Farmer on the 26th. Both have influenced the genre of Science Fiction, and both were very interesting individuals.
The real cause of Poe’s death is still unknown, although alcoholism is the one that I hear the most. Still, his short stories along with his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, influenced my own quite a bit. Most of them tended to be “Gothic” a precursor to horror and suspense. But he did write a few that could be called science fiction-like and actually he did influence Jules Verne. Poe was actually more popular in Europe than America. He was a literary critic, so he made some enemies of his fellow American writers. Longfellow was an example of this.
I once edited the science-fiction section of an E zine which no longer exists called Nevermore Magazine, named after the line in his poem The Raven, probably his best known work still. Even “The Simpson’s” covered it in a Halloween special. His contribution to genre fiction extends to the detective genre as he influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories.
I always found his short stories, another thing he popularized in America, to be dark, brooding and a little bit melancholy. “The Fall of the House of Usher” has always been one of my favorites. It is just haunting, and tragic, and it is like all the characters are destined to this final ending, which they can’t avoid. They are all stuck, inexorably drawn into the destruction of the house and the family all in that one moment.
The Raven is also rather sad. Death is a frequent theme in his work. I think the reason I like Hawthorne, is a lot of his short stories in “Twice Told Tales” are a bit more light-hearted, or magical. They aren’t all doom and gloom, although some deal with ghosts and the like, his writing tends to be more hopeful. Less dark. When there is darkness, it is mostly attributed to the Puritans, and their religion interestingly.
Poe seems to have this darkness in the background, this sadness permeating most of his Gothic stories. I have to assume he influenced Lovecraft with the idea of making the setting itself creepy, the family residence of Usher and the town in The Shadow Over Innsmouth both take on a creepiness beyond any action of the characters themselves.
The Masque of the Red Death is another classic, dealing with the plague and how death once let in, chooses its victims at random. Of course the Pit and the Pendulum and The Black Cat deal with suspense. Using the sound of scratching in the wall to reveal the body buried in the wall was pure genius. Poe often used sounds to further the horror and action.
In Usher, the scratching of the lady of the house on her coffin attempting to get out, causes the suspense. Perhaps his background of reading and writing poetry caused a preference for sound instead of merely sight being the most important driving force of the action in these works.
Premature burial was a common thing he used to instill horror and suspense and it actually did happen back then as people could be presumed dead and buried and not actually be dead. Sometimes the most horrific fictional things can be inspired by actual events.
Part 2: Farmer, a modernizing influence on Sci-fi.
Philip Jose Farmer wrote in the sixties and seventies and beyond. He died in 2009. I have bought a few of his books in the past but I think they were all lost in my paperback trade in fiasco. He is known for introducing sex to science fiction. He also would deal with religion and would write stories under pseudonyms of fictional characters, most infamously, he used Kilgore Trout for Venus on the Half-Shell.
He had originally got permission from Vonnegut to use his character, but offended him in the end, so he couldn’t use it again. There is a daring in his choosing to write this way, and he also did mash-ups of genres, blending Melville’s Moby Dick into science fiction, using a descendant of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Nothing was sacred. He used Jesus as a character as well.
Heinlein thanks him in the forward to A Stranger in a Strange Land, which deals with sexual themes as well, and that makes sense as I learn more about Farmer. I read Stranger, and when I first read it I wasn’t sure I liked it, when I read it again, and then read Left Hand of Darkness again as well, it all sort of clicked with me. Farmer opened some doors that were closed to sci-fi before. He broke barriers on what was considered off limits or taboo.
Some considered him a great writer in the genre, others just another sci-fi writer among many like Frederick Pohl, Lester Del Rey, and half a dozen others who some may know or not know today.
I think I read part of one of his paperbacks before the great trade in fail, but it has been so many years. I may have to venture to my local library and see what I can find. Or perhaps find one of those awesome anthologies of works that I adore. I feel like learning about Farmer helps fill in some of the many gaps in my science fiction education between H.G.Wells and Jack Vance. So much to learn, so little time.
We are all just adding our own stories to the human story, and the more we know where we came from, the more we can know where we are going. The pioneers of the past assist the pioneers of the future. I truly believe knowledge is power. We are influenced by the past and we influence the future and I believe additional knowledge and resources into past writers actually inspires us to push the envelope and to keep on creating this tapestry of many ideas and colors and people. I believe speculative fiction is the key to understanding the human psyche.
Speculative fiction is the descendant of philosophy or the step child of literature and philosophy. That infamous red haired step child that causes so much turmoil and activity. Causing people to think and use their brains to further thought to see what we are doing and where we are going. Not peacefully but with all the voice raising and shouting that has to be done in times like these. Keep the ideas flowing and keep writing my fellow writers.
Any of you could be the future Poe, or Farmer, or Heinlein, or Verne, or Le Guin. But best of all, you can be the best version of You, and I would like to think there will be an aspiring writer maybe writing about me and what I accomplished someday, or maybe one of you that is passing this way. I have great hope for the future. For all of us. For humanity.