During the pandemic, Paul Thaler, PhD, professor in the Department of Communications in the College of Arts and Sciences, didn’t set out to write a horror tale that pays homage to the American writer, poet, editor and literary critic Edgar Allen Poe. But as Dr. Thaler delved more deeply into his writing project, he brought to the page this psychological thriller with a Poe-obsessed serial killer, a traumatized young woman who has survived his horrific violence, and a former detective, now bestselling author, all of whom face off in The Maddening (Dark Ink, 2023), a dark and devious tale of murder and revenge.
This is the second work of fiction for Dr. Thaler, a former journalist and a media commentator for national and network news programs. His debut novel, Bronxland (Black Opal, 2027), was cited on Goodreads as the top-rated Best Historical Coming-of-Age book. He’s also the author of two nonfiction books, the critically acclaimed The Spectacle: Media and the Making of the O.J. Simpson Story (Praeger, 1997) and The Watchful Eye: American Justice in the Age of the Television Trial (Praeger, 1994).
Mad for Edgar Allen Poe
Throughout the two-year writing process of The Maddening, Dr. Thaler said he learned a good deal about the life of Edgar Allan Poe. “I didn’t know much of his backstory, all the tragedies in his life. It resonates in my killer [who calls himself] Poe. I also learned that Edgar Allan Poe was the originator of the modern detective novel. His character C. Auguste Dupin predates Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle on several occasions gave credit to Poe for his own detective.”
Poe, best known for his macabre short stories, influenced not only the character Dr. Thaler created, but some scenes in the book as well, including one from the short story “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which is about the torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition.
In addition to Poe, Dr. Thaler said the themes that are tied to his book’s title focus on the line between sanity and insanity. In his research, he came to understand real-life mental health conditions that resonate within the characters. One is hybristophilia, in which women fall in love with serial killers, and the other is taphophobia, a fear of being buried alive. Both are strong topics in the novel, which he said gives meaning to the book’s title. “I wanted to explore what makes people step over to the other side of our humanity,” he said. “I think that idea drives the heart of the book.”
Further, Dr. Thaler said he was influenced by the public fascination with serial killers that is a part of the horror movie genre, like the popular Netflix movie based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer.
Dr. Thaler, who has also served as chair of the communications department, explained that all three of his characters—Poe, the serial killer, and Detective PJ Bones and survivor Clara Knox—are damaged individuals. “They exist in the ‘maddening,’ an existential space where the tugs and pulls of fate link them together,” he said. “The question then becomes whether they will be able to survive. It is a kind of twilight zone in which we all exist to some degree, caught in the chaos that is life.”
Poe’s Inspiring—and Lasting—Popularity
As part of his promotional tour, Dr. Thaler did a reading at Edgar Allan Poe’s cottage in the Bronx in New York City on January 19 to celebrate the author’s 214th birthday. He said he found the venue a fitting site for his event. “Poe lived there the last three years of his life, and the house was preserved, just a small parlor and bedroom, where Poe’s 24-year-old wife, Virginia, succumbed to tuberculosis. I felt like I had been transported back in time in that cottage.”
At that reading, Dr. Thaler said an audience member asked him what accounted for Poe’s lasting popularity. Dr. Thaler concluded that Poe the author has become a cultural brand. “There are many photographs of him and he radiates the insanity and the horror of his work,” he said. “That look has been branded on T-shirts and coffee cups and all of that. He’s the perfect representative for his own stories.”
As Dr. Thaler continues to represent his own story, he hopes to do more book events and has plans to work on a new novel.