October 18, 2012

The Haunting Life & Death of Edgar Allan Poe

"There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell... Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful… they must sleep, or they will devour us—they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish." (from The Premature Burial by Edgar Allen Poe)

Poe daguerreotype
In rare cases, no post mortem appearances are required to forever link an individual to that World Beyond the Grave. Even in Life, he (or she) seems to be an intimate of Death—not just the Idea, but that dreadful, dark Being who hunts us all.

Of course, I’m speaking of Edgar Allan Poe, who gave Death a form and face in haunting tales like The Masque of the Red Death.

In this chilling story, Death makes an appearance amidst the torch-lit, barbaric splendor of a nightmarish masked ball. Secure behind the walls of his castellated abbey, a prince and the privileged hold their bizarre and magnificent revel, while pestilence ravages the populace without. But Death will not be denied. Tall, gaunt and wearing the ghastly face of a stiffened corpse, he enters as a guest, with inescapable consequences: 

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

What an image!

On October 07, 1849, Poe took a final walk with Death. He was only 40 years old. Four days earlier, he’d been found outside a Baltimore, Maryland, tavern, disheveled, delirious, and in dire need of medical help. Though theories abound, the actual cause of his condition and subsequent demise remains a mystery. Equally uncertain are the days leading up to his mortal illness. Here are some of the puzzling details:

·         Poe leaves Richmond, VA, on September 27, arriving in Baltimore on September 28.
·         His movements and whereabouts over the next few days are shrouded in mystery, even for his Baltimore cousin, Neilson Poe.
·         Separate reports claim that Poe was carrying a sum of money ranging from a small amount to as much as $1,500. As no money was found on him, some people speculate that he was mugged.
·         When Poe was found by Joseph W. Walker on October 3rd, 1849, outside of Gunner’s Hall, his clothing had been changed. In place of his customary, tasteful suit of black wool was one of cheap gabardine, faded and stained. He was also wearing an uncharacteristic and decrepit palm leaf hat.
·         Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he lapsed in and out of consciousness, unable to reveal the cause of his condition.
·         His last words, according to John J. Moran (author of A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe, 1885), were “Lord help my poor soul.”
·         Poe died on October 7th.
·         The Baltimore Clipper reports Poe’s death rather oddly, stating cause of death as “congestion of the brain.” No one is certain what that means specifically.
·         No death certificate seems to have been filed.
·         Poe was buried in the Old Western Burial Ground in Baltimore, next to his young wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe.
Poe's beloved wife, Virginia, dead at age 24

Whatever the cause, Poe’s death was tragic, pointless, and a loss to the world.

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."
As an author, Edgar Allan Poe profoundly influenced literature. His genius transformed the short story from simple anecdote into works of skill and imagination. He’s credited with inventing the detective story and modern mystery with such tales as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” As an early pioneer of science fiction, he often threaded his writing with the scientific theories of the day. He was also a poet, weaving hauntingly romantic elegies such as “Annabel Lee” and conjuring unforgettable scenes of terror in works like “The Raven.”

But, of course, above all, Poe was a horror writer, drawing the reader into gothic realms where the rational mind encounters its most irrational, atavistic fears. Here the dead return and the living die grotesquely or, worse, are entombed alive. Death stalks the land, animate, dreadful, and merciless. Madness and despair among the living often follow in his wake. Surely, to craft such tales, Poe had to draw on his own wild and desperate fears, personal tragedies, and private demons.

So, here’s to a literary great who lives on through his work. R.I.P. Mr. Poe. I hope you’ve found the answers and rest that you seemed to seek. 

The Pit and the Pendulum by Clarke
"And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave." The Pit and the Pendulum

For more fascinating insights about Poe, be sure to visit the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore www.eapoe.org

If you happen to be in Baltimore, check out the society’s “Halloween at the Poe Grave” on October 31st. Who knows who you’ll encounter. As Poe said, “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”

"A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment--I trembled." The Cask of Amontillado

Happy Hauntings, eveyone!

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