You are the influence I don't name because it feels obvious, because you remain widely taught in US high schools, because you don't need my help, and not just because you're dead. I don't know how to square your abject racism with your ability to capture the precise shape of my adolescent angst. You were my cloak of shadows, and I hid beneath you for years. How many outcasts sheltered beneath your expansive black wings?
Freshman year of high school I was harrassed by a skunk-haired boy in biology class. Every time the lights dimmed so we could watch a movie—asexual reproduction versus sexual reproduction—he'd begin masturbating under the table. "Do you know what this is?" he asked me, flinging something liquid across the tiled floor, where it narrowly avoided spattering my shoe. I did not know. When I asked to be seated next to someone, anyone else, I was told by the young TA (I knew the elderly man who grumbled through lectures wouldn't help) that boys will be boys—that exact phrase, which still tastes like burning in my throat. So in English class, when it was time to give presentations, I dressed up in all black and drew red dots on my face. Dimmed the lights. Read "The Masque of the Red Death" aloud in its entirety.
I was not a popular kid.
Which perhaps explains why I loved your revenge stories so, especially "Hop-frog." At 5'2", I was used to big people flinging me around—I received my first concussion from my first boyfriend, who threw me across the choir room in a failed attempt to flirt. "I didn't know you were so small," he said, and made it up to me by taking me to homecoming.
In "Hop-frog," a diminutive man survives by humor, until he's pushed to his limit, at which point he strings up his tormentors and burns them alive. Skunk-haired boy, biology teacher, accomplice TA—dress them in suits of flax and let them swing from the chandelier.
"Ah, ha!" said at length the infuriated jester. "Ah, ha! I begin to see who these people are now!" Here, pretending to scrutinize the king more closely, he held the flambeau to the flaxen coat which enveloped him, and which instantly burst into a sheet of vivid flame.
The problem with reading your work while growing up in the Southwest, and mildly dyslexic at that: I misread it as Amontadillo, which my pattern-seeking mind became convinced was some kind of armadillo. So what could this mysterious, desirable liquid be besides the milk of some ant-eating vertebrate, its tiered shell the visual echo of those bricks that wall up poor Fortunato?
"I have my doubts."
"And I must satisfy them."
And is it better that we never discover the crimes our narrator has suffered at Fortunato's hands? And what of the masons, a mystery called up partway through—a pun on the bricklayer's work (masonry, hawhaw), but also a secret society, the likes of which fascinated you, and me?
I had finished a portion of the last and the eleventh; there remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in. I struggled with its weight; I placed it partially in its destined position.
I do not know how to fit you into my pantheon. Angela Carter, Ursula LeGuin, N.K. Jemisin, China Mieville…you don't fit (quoth the Raven, anymore). Writing a dead letter to you is writing a letter to a dead self, a girl who would shut up and listen when a boy decided her body and attention ought belong to him. I don't miss her.
My most vibrant memory of loving your work is of reading the following as triumphant fantasy:
Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
I want to read this image as self. As the stand-in for what and who I would have to become to survive. A pure threat. A costume, a false self, with nothing underneath that anyone could harm. And I want to read this as an image of #metoo. The revelers who have cut themselves off from society. Let them catch plague, I've got mine, so why should I care about your suffering? And then into their midst comes this figure—despite the fact that it is described as wearing the visage of a corpse, I've always pictured it in a plague doctor's mask—who casts a pall on their revelry, who reminds them people are dying that they might enjoy excess.
So despite your flaws, I offer up sincere thanks for your words, lo these many years after they shaped me. Thank you for giving shape to horrors that protected me, at a moment when I needed protection. Thank you for giving me an imaginary in which the outcasts win.