When you read Poe for the first time, you come away with the impression of having just walked through a mist and catching a glimpse of a shadow. The shape of the shadow is strange, and it's gone before you can focus your eyes. Sometimes you're not even sure what the story is about, but you can feel the dampness of it, the darkness in it - you can sense that you're trapped in someone else's otherworldly tomb. You don't have to know what Gothic is, you don't have to read Poe's essays on mood, you don't have to know that the Murder at the Rue Morgue is the first modern detective story, (or, by the by, that Poe is credited with being the first person to suggest that the universe is expanding) - you don't need any knowledge whatsoever to experience the dank woods of Weir or the inevitability of Montressor. The language itself has a texture, and it's cold to touch.
I read most of it, but just two short stories and one poem have really stayed with me: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amantillado, and The Bells. The Fall because of its quiet strangeness, its shadowy unreal dreamscape, and because one of my first short stories (The House on Quamba Lake) ripped it off completely. The Cask because the tension in those Italian catacombs clawed at my brain and I remember squirming in my chair as Fortunato was slowly - so slowly - immured. The Bells because, if I hadn't read these lines -
Hear the loud alarum bells,
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now—now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,—
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,
Of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!