Growing Up Poe: Cherie Priest

Poe. It all goes back to Poe, doesn’t it? Heck, Weird Tales exists in the first place because this kid Jacob Henneberger discovered Poe in high school and became a huge fan. Since it was around 1910, there was no way to express his fannishness right then and there on the Internet: no chatrooms full of fellow Poe lovers, no poignant animated avatars of Annabel Lee, no LOLravens. Jacob had to take the long approach — which meant that he grew up, went into journalism, and after years of newspaper work finally started his own pulp-fiction magazine dedicated to following in Poe’s literary footsteps. So during this, the 200th birthday year of Edgar Allan Poe, Weird Tales will be periodically bringing you the true life stories of modern-day horror and fantasy writers who similarly grew up loving Poe. First up, on Edgar’s birthday itself: Cherie Priest, author of the Eden Moore trilogy, the new apocalyptic monster-thriller Fathom, and the forthcoming steampunk zombie adventure Boneshaker.

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GROWING UP POE: The Virtues of the Dead
by Cherie Priest

copyright © 2009 / May not be reproduced without permission

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My father says that my mother wasn’t always the Evangelical weirdo I grew up with, but I don’t have any proof to the contrary so it’s difficult for me to imagine. All I know for certain is that by the time I was old enough to read, fiction was a dangerous gamble — because Mom’s guidelines for acceptable reading were fluid, odd, and sometimes arbitrary.

For example, during the 1980s there was a trend in Christian fiction toward stories of white pioneer women getting raped and creatively mutilated by filthy godless Indians on the prairie. As far as my mother was concerned, those stories were just dandy. She owned scores of them. And since, in the end, Jesus always triumphed and the good guys went to heaven, these books fell into the category of Perfectly Wholesome Reading Material for Third-Graders.

But the Nancy Drew stories I brought home from the library were thrown in the trash, to be paid for out of my own meager allowance. Apparently I should have known better than to invite the presence of Satan into our home. I’d like to pretend I’m kidding, and that she didn’t say this out loud in front of God, the librarians, and everybody, but alas.

I’m not, and she did.

As I grew older and better able to hide books, my leisure reading became a battleground where my by-then-divorced parents could fight without bloodshed. Dad figured out that I was a big fan of mysteries, ghosts, and monsters; Mom figured it out too, and she subsequently became hyper-vigilant of my bookbag, lest I introduce any of this heathen nonsense into her austere Protestant temple.

But there was an escape clause: Dead authors were okay.

(Does this make any sense? No, no it does not. But my mother also believed that men who could do the splits were likely in league with the devil, and that doesn’t make any sense either. Many things in my childhood can therefore be taken with a grain of salt.)

My dad got crafty, and one Christmas I received a Complete Tales and Works of Edgar Allan Poe. I was ten years old, and it was the single largest book I, personally, had ever owned. It could’ve sunk a canoe. I could barely lift it, so I mostly read it lying down — on my bed, chin in hands and feet flapping happily while I pored through some of the coolest, bleakest, darkest, most engaging stories I’d ever encountered.

Oh, I still loved Nancy Drew — and I still snuck the small yellow hardbacks home from the library, sometimes down my pants, if necessary; but I had a new Most Important Writer in my life. He was a sad-eyed man wearing old clothes and a sour mustache, and he wrote about beautiful women with supernatural wasting diseases, and talking birds who foretold doom. He told stories about peril and tragedy, and addiction and loss. He wrote elaborately and thickly, and passionately and profoundly, and I adored him from the bottom of my black little heart.

Poe was my first introduction to truly strange secular literature.

He was the first author who ever told me that it was okay to tell dark, sad little stories and take them seriously — and furthermore, that this was the only way to write them. I took heart from his insistence all through high school, when I doodled scary tales in notebooks that nobody saw; I leaned on it at the private Christian college I attended, where horror and fantasy were not so much encouraged; and I clung to it in graduate school, where I was told that genre fiction of all kinds was trash, and no one should ever bother with it, least of all me and certainly not in a respectable workshop filled with upstanding students who damn well knew better than to write such drivel.

So thank you, Edgar. Thank you for refusing to apologize, and for the pride you took in your work — critics be damned. You set a great example for me, and you’ll always have a soft spot in my heart, and on my bookshelf.

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