I was a huge Poe kid growing up. “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Cask of Amontillado” were used in my 7th-grade English class as my introduction to the world of literary analysis. “The Raven” (and Poe’s accompanying essay “The Philosophy of Composition”) was the subject of a project I did on Roland Barthes and the death of the author. To this day, “Annabel Lee” is one of my favorite poems of all time. I went through such a Poe phase in my childhood that I even read many of Poe’s lesser works, ranging from his grotesquely violent short stories to that one God-awful novel he wrote.
So you can imagine my delight when I received my copy of the Edgar Allan Poe Tarot, new from deck creator Rose Wright and illustrator Eugene Smith. This is a lushly illustrated, dark Tarot deck where each card image is inspired by a scene from the œuvre of Edgar Allan Poe.
The deck comes in a sturdy box and is accompanied by a delightfully detailed companion book that includes a full-page color reproduction of each card and card descriptions divided into two sections: Tell-Tale Heart provides the backstory for each card image and explains how the image relates to Poe’s body of work, and Into the Maelstrom gives the divinatory meaning for each card. This guidebook is absolutely essential; some of the imagery in the deck deviates from familiar RWS imagery, but in looking through the LWB, it becomes clear that each image is carefully selected for a very specific reason. The book also includes a couple of Poe-themed Tarot spreads, which are great fun and a welcome addition to the LWB.
Looking through this deck is like a scavenger hunt, trying to find every connection to Poe and identify which bits of his work show up on which cards. Depending on your familiarity with Poe, this may prove easy or quite difficult. Some of the connections are obvious and brilliant: “The Pit and the Pendulum” as the Hanged Man, “The Fall of the House of Usher” as the Tower, the heart from “The Tell-Tale Heart” as the Three of Swords. Others will require a seasoned Poe-reader’s eye; I confess that I had to look at the guidebook to figure out where the image for the Sun was taken from.
The connection to Poe really permeates this deck, and it’s obvious how much time and care Wright and Smith put into making this a deck that breathed Poe, rather than just taking a RWS clone and smacking a couple of ravens on it. This has both advantages and drawbacks. On the one hand, it means you really get what you paid for: A true Edgar Allan Poe Tarot. On the other hand, it means the deck can be somewhat less accessible for novice readers or for those who are accustomed to relying on standard RWS-style imagery, unless they rely heavily on the guidebook in their readings. Likewise, the question of accessibility extends to clients. I would definitely use this deck when reading at a Halloween party (or some other intentionally spooky venue) or for a client who I know loves Poe, but I probably wouldn’t break it out for everyday client readings.
I think that broadly speaking, the three categories of people who will get the most out of this deck are collectors, Poe enthusiasts, and readers who prefer to use “dark” decks. Collectors will find joy just in the beautiful artwork and novel theme. People who already love Edgar Allan Poe will find that this is a deck specifically tailored to their interests, rich with symbolism that they can pick up on and use as they’re learning how to read the cards. And finally, experienced Tarot readers with a penchant for the dark will find that the world of Edgar Allan Poe perfectly lends itself to their reading, in line with other decks that focus on dark themes. There’s a reason that Poe is known as the master of horror: His work is full of sorrow, death, plague, and tragedy, and these themes shine through in the deck. If you’re looking for a deck to tell you everything is sunshine and daisies, Poe is probably not the place to look, but if you’re doing readings that wrestle with serious and upsetting subject matter, this deck may be exactly what you’re seeking.
At this point, it’s probably worth making a brief note about racial diversity. There’s not a lot of it in this deck. Personally, I see that more as an indictment of Poe than of the deck creators. Poe’s work was, at times, horrifically racist, and where non-white characters do appear in his stories, they are often racial stereotypes, villains, and orientalist caricatures. (See also the hilarious orangutan anecdote that sometimes floats around the internet, in reference to the short story depicted in the Knight of Wands.) This deck does not feature diverse characters, because every card is taken so closely from source material where racial representation is simply nowhere to be found. That potentially leads us into a long and tangled discussion about the appropriate way to view and interact with racist artworks from the past, but that’s a complicated issue. All I want to do here is flag the lack of racial diversity in this deck, talk about (what I perceive to be) the reason for it, and leave it to you to decide for yourselves if that’s something that will affect your interest in the Tarot deck.
That Three of Swords really is perfect, huh? Especially if you know the story of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It is perhaps unsurprising given the source material but where this deck really shines is in the cards that deal with suffering and loss. The Three of Swords and the Hanged Man are probably my favorite cards in the whole deck. The suit of Swords—everyone’s least favorite cards to get in a reading—really holds the heart (pun not originally intended but absolutely left there on purpose once I noticed it) and soul of this deck. The Edgar Allan Poe Tarot evokes the same feelings that Poe’s work itself inspires: Fear, excitement, dread, and even a strange sense of wonder at the horror and mystery that the world can produce.
I love this deck. I love the Poe of it all. It takes me back to my childhood, which is perhaps a grim thing to say since this is a deck so full of sorrow and death, but it’s true. More than anything else, this Tarot deck has made me remember how much I loved Edgar Allan Poe as a kid, and each card brought a smile to my face as I remembered reading the story it’s based on, and as I noticed small details like the “pallid bust of Pallas” perched on the mantel in the Magician. For anyone who loves Poe, or who wants something new and spooky, or who just wants a beautifully illustrated new deck for their collection, I wholeheartedly recommend this deck. I hope it’ll make you smile as much as it did for me.
Note: A copy of this deck was provided to me by the publisher, in return for an honest review. All the opinions expressed in this post are my own.