It is not known whether or not Edgar Allan Poe created the concept of an imp of the perverse or whether he simply popularized the phrase when he used it as the title and the theme of this story. Simply put, an imp of the perverse is a little creature inside us all that compels us to do the wrong thing just because the wrong thing is an option in the first place. For example, if we know that we should carry a full glass of water carefully to avoid spilling it, the imp of the perverse might compel us to sprint across the room in our socks balancing the glass in one hand. Poe believed he might have a little demon like this inside himself, something that literary critics have also suggested because his urge to self-sabotage and self-destruct seemed to have been so strong despite his success and the opportunities it afforded him. An example of this was seen early in his career, when he was given the job of Editor at the Southern Library Messenger but felt compelled to drink too much in front of the periodical's owners, quickly losing the job almost as fast as he had found it.
The Imp of the Perverse is a short story with a narrator who feels that it is this imp within him that has caused him to murder a man, and that his conviction and subsequent death sentence result directly from his failure to resist the imp's urging to do wrong. The story was first published in 1845 in Graham's Magazine, a monthly periodical that attracted well-known writers of Poe's standing chiefly because it paid five dollars per page, a weighty sum in Poe's era, and one that was rarely matched by other magazines. For Poe, who was the first known writer to make a living by writing alone, this was particularly attractive. In 1846 Poe made some changes to the story and it was published for a second time, this time in The Mayflower, a literary anthology published in Boston.
The story was not very well-received by critics who felt that Poe's philosophies were all over the place, and bordered on the fairy-tale rather than a discussion about personal ethics and free will versus compulsion. The harsh critique was rather unusual given Poe's popularity and general favorable reception amongst critics and editors at the time.
Poe is widely regarded as the foremost writer of gothic horror fiction in history, although it was as a literary critic, rather than as a writer himself, that he was best known when he was alive. It was not until after his death that his fiction garnered similar respect; he became a big influence upon other writers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes novels always showed a marked tendency to the ghostly gothic so prevalent in Poe's prose. Poe is considered so influential in detective fiction that the Mystery Writers of America named their annual awards The Edgars in his honor.
Poe passed away in 1849 at the very young age of forty.