In his first published story, Poe shows us both his interest in gothic material and his detachment from it. "Metzengerstein" was going to be part of a collection of satirical tales, each allegedly the work of a different member of the Folio Club, an imaginary group of "Dunderheads" who assembled periodically to hear and criticize one another's fiction. "Metzengerstein" was probably told by "Mr. Horribile Dictu" (Thompson2, 4). We do not know all of Poe's plan for the Folio Club--he neverfound a publisher for his project-- but we do know that Poe was not serious about the gothicism in "Metzengerstein "; indeed, A. H. Quinn, Thompson, and others see it as a satire on the gothic mode. Certainly the story spends a good deal of its space telling us of its own absurdity, and Thompson (2, 4) catalogues ironic and contradictory elements within it: everything is so complicated and cockeyed that Poe must be joking. Incongruities abound, too, as when Poe tells us that "near neighbors are seldom friends," and places castle and palace so close together that the families can look into one another's windows, a modern urban phenomenon comically cozy for such rural and aristocratic protagonists. Readers who are unfamiliar with gothic literature or who have trouble understanding Poe's joke are urged to read Thompson's good essay, which spells out p's hoax in detail. The essay and an expanded discussion of its ideas appear in Thompson (4).
We suggest comparing this tale first with "Mystification" (see Levine 4), to see how Poe handles "meaninglessness," and second with some of his more serious gothic efforts, such as "The Fall of the House of Usher" or "The Pit and the Pendulum." Poe never ceases to "put us on," of course; there are hoaxes and little jokes hidden in all types of stories. But "Usher" and "The Pit" lack the peculiar itchy quality of this tale; it seems clear that here Poe primary intention is humor.
A note of explanation : The gothic wonders which Poe introduces into "Metzengerstein" were all readily available in literature which Poe knew. In a poem of 1827 by Richard Henry Dana, for instance, there is a horse which an evil pirate is compelled to ride to his destruction; in Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto ( 1764) are both a prophecy parallel to Poe's and an "ancestral picture" which comes to life; in Benjamin Disraeli's Vivian Grey ( 1826) are a comparable picture of a horse and bitter rivalry between neighboring aristocrats (Mabbott9, II).
In Poe's favorite book of comparative mythology, Jacob Bryant's Ancient Mythology ( 1774-76), red horses were connected through etymology to palm trees, death in fire, and phoenixlike rebirth (Levine 6). The connections between "Metzengerstein" and Bryant are too intimate to be coincidental. So Poe's spoof also has mythological resonance.