First published in 1838, horror master Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia" tells the story of a woman's surprising return from death. It's often grouped together with two other Poe tales, "Morella" and "Berenice," both of which are also named after and about women who just can't stay dead. But something key separates "Ligeia" from the others: quality. Poe once claimed that "Ligeia" was his best story, and lots of critics have agreed with him.
Like many Poe stories, it has inspired a number of very loose adaptations, notably "Tomb of Ligeia," starring Vincent Price. Oh, and there's a "metalcore" band from Massachusetts that borrowed the name. Go figure.
Why Should I Care?
If you had to sum up Edgar Allan Poe's work in one word, what would you say? Ask most people and they'd say something like, "Scary," "Spooky," "Creepy," or "That's the guy who wrote 'The Raven,' right?" All those answers are correct – Poe wrote a lot of scary, spooky, creepy stuff (including "The Raven"), but that's only one side of the story.
You see, another word that maybe doesn't but really should come right to mind when you hear "Edgar Allan Poe" is "inventive"; and "Ligeia" is a perfect example of that inventiveness. Yeah, it's got all the thrills and chills you want out of a good horror story: a woman not only comes back from the dead, but she takes over the body of her husband's next leading lady in order to do it. But even though that's the end of the story, it's only the beginning when it comes to what "Ligeia" has to offer.
In "Ligeia," Poe poses a simple question: What if the only reason we died was because we weren't trying hard enough to live? The harder you think about it, the scarier it becomes. What if that's all that is stopping us from living forever? What if we're just a bunch of weaklings? Soon enough you'll be tearing your hair out and foaming at the mouth. OK, hopefully not. But maybe. Now you're starting to sympathize with the narrator a little, though? You could call the whole thing a thinking man's scary story – and really, some people believe the whole return-from-the-dead thing is just that: the story of a man who thought too hard about the possibility of his wife coming back.
Poe takes what could be a very simple story – woman comes back from the dead! – and turns it into something else – women triumphs over death (maybe) by sheer force of will. And he leaves open the possibility that we, too, can do the same if we go for it.