The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 15, No. 3

Scary Stories

by Francis Ford Coppola

I am always reading a book. It waits for me each evening as a welcoming friend when I retire. And in the last decade or so, I've made a point that it be of a subject matter totally different from whatever project I may be working on or researching. For a reason I can no longer remember, several years ago I decided I'd read the complete writings of Edgar Allan Poe. One night, I searched for a volume of his collected works in the library I am pleased to own, and realized the book was divided into short stories, poems, and a novel. I began with the short stories, and the first one I read was "The Gold-Bug."
     I had known of Poe's difficult life as an orphan taken into the family of Mr. John Allan, who eventually—after being widowed by his first wife and taking a second—rejected his foster son. And of the complications when Poe's body of work was entrusted to Rufus Griswold, who played the role of Salieri to the writer's Mozart, and who did much damage to the collection and Poe's reputation. Were it not for the popularity of "The Gold-Bug" and "The Raven," we might have lost track of this great American author. Certainly, the translation of his work by Charles Baudelaire into French (great French, I'm told) propagated Poe's standing throughout Europe and South America, and helped it achieve the high position it has in our own time.
     After reading "The Gold-Bug," and witnessing a mind as brilliantly intricate as the cryptology Poe sought to explain, I progressed through the rest of the stories, and steadily entered the world of this extremely well-educated literary genius. He invented the modern detective story ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue") and created the gothic romance stories that my own teacher, Roger Corman, would later popularize with his movies during the 1960s (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tomb of Ligeia), with their beautiful and tortured heroines.
     And so each night I was welcomed by a new Poe tale, many of which I had heard of but didn't really know—or realize how short and to the point they were ("The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado"); and with every one I learned a dozen or so new vocabulary words.
     I had no specific purposes in this adventure, but I felt little by little the beautiful and tortured soul of Edgar Allan Poe become part of me. I read in tears the story of his love of Virgina Clemm, his thirteen-year-old cousin and wife, who fell ill in the prime of her beauty and wasted away before his eyes. He worked so hard to earn money to help her, to pay doctors to cure her, but despite all his efforts she died young, after years of suffering. Virginia is all over his work, and in all of his heroines. He turned his pain and his love for her into countless stories and poems ("Berenice," "Eleonora," "Annabel Lee")—all those depicting the shackled and bleeding, the imprisoned and insane, the walled-in. His work became the grave of its lovely tenant.

It happened that a year or so ago I was in Istanbul, Turkey, trying to see if that might be a city where I could make a film. While I was out for dinner with a young lawyer who was advising me on work conditions there, her sister arrived, and we had a great time and a lot of raki, the traditional Turkish liqueur.
     That night, under its influence, I had a particularly vivid dream, and even during the dream I knew it was a gift—the gift of a scary story. Its setting was not unlike those of the American tradition of stories I love—by Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne—and so I thought that maybe I could consider making a film at home for a change.
     Suddenly the call to prayer from a nearby mosque poured into my room, nearly knocking me out of bed, and I thought, Oh no, I've got to sleep—I've got to get to the ending! Of course, I never was able to return to that dream, but I immediately dictated the fragment of it I could recall into a recorder.

It's curious how one is called back to earlier temptations, and so it was when I realized that this dream was luring me back to those days working for Corman, when the limits of the budget were the prime determiner of style, texture, scope—the ultimate guideline. I asked myself if I could interpret the dream with the tools and ideas that I had learned at the beginning of my career.
     Surely, I believed the dream was a gift, but why did I feel that way? What was so terribly personal about it? And why was it intertwined with all those stories by Poe that I'd read years before? Was there something common to both Poe's life and mine? It seemed that we were both haunted by a little ghost, but I couldn't figure out how that insight might illuminate the ending I'd never reached. And moreover, while I immediately knew that Poe's ghost was Virginia Clemm, who was mine?
     Throughout his artistic career, whatever Poe was unable to accept or cure in his own life, he poured into the tragic characters in his writing. Virginia was Madeline Usher, Eleonora, Berenice. Perhaps I could do the same, but I had to find the ending. I had to work my way to it. And then, the answer was revealed: all I had to do was to follow Poe's lead. Just as Scrooge followed his own ghosts, and Dante followed Virgil, I yielded to the master. And as I did, that fragment of a dream in Istanbul became a story that became my new film, Twixt.

In honor of the inspiration I found in Poe's work, we present this special edition of All-Story, which is dedicated to new horror stories. We're very pleased and proud to have the extremely talented Kate and Laura Mulleavy of the fashion house Rodarte designing the issue. And we hope that something within these narratives and images might spark in you what Poe has brought out in me.

To read the Fall 2011 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.

Image credit
forest green double-face wool coat with cutouts; periwinkle tulle and polka-dot lace gown (Rodarte Fall 2011 collection)
photograph by Autumn de Wilde