On April 17, 2012 I had the pleasure of seeing my short story “Married to a Murderer” produced on stage at the Carlsbad Library. That same night I was asked to give a talk on Edgar Allan Poe in conjunction with Write Out Loud and their Big Read. Below you’ll find what I said.
Every year the Mystery Writers of America remember Edgar Allan Poe during our annual dinner when awards are given out in a number of categories such as best mystery novel and best mystery short story. The awards are called Edgars, and the winner receives a little statuette of Poe. To date I have not won an Edgar, but I am still reserving a place on my mantelpiece.
Despite not having won an Edgar, I hold great affection for Poe’s writing. When he wrote “The Murders of Rue Morgue” he created the first detective story. His protagonist August Dupin was an analytical Frenchman. Before Sherlock Holmes there was Dupin.
It has never been easy to make a living as a writer, and yet when I think of my own struggles they pale in comparison to Poe’s. His life was fraught with tragedies, and it seemed as if he was always teetering on the precipice of disaster. It is no wonder that he wrote the stories that he did.
I thought it appropriate to offer a short Poe biography. It is amazing to think that he lived only 40 years – he was born in 1809 and died in 1849 – but had an amazing impact on the arts.
Poe was the son of actors. His father deserted the family when he was a newborn, and his mother died of tuberculosis – known then as consumption – when Poe was only three. It would be the first of many deaths that plagued Poe throughout his short life.
John and Frances Allan took Poe in as a boy. Poe loved his foster mother but had a rocky relationship with his tobacco merchant foster father. When he was 15 Poe’s first love, Jane Stannard, died of brain cancer. Shortly after that Frances Allan came down with consumption. Poe’s relationship with his foster father deteriorated even more when John Allan carried out a series of affairs in his own house while his wife was very sick.
John Allan sent Poe to the University of Virginia, but he paid only for his tuition. Poe tried to make up that difference by gambling, and as you might expect that didn’t work out well for him. He fled the university and enrolled in the army under an assumed name. At first he seemed to thrive in the army, and even briefly attended West Point for a time – until he was court-martialed. The evidence suggests he was deliberately disobedient knowing that would get him dismissed from the army.
In 1829 Frances Allan died of consumption; in 20 years of life the three women that Poe had loved had all died.
In 1834 John Allan called Poe to his sickbed. Poe’s foster father was not seeking out a reconciliation; indeed, he waved his cudgel at him and threatened to beat him. Not long afterwards John Allan died; he left substantial sums to his illegitimate children, but nothing to Poe.
If you read Poe’s stories it doesn’t take much of stretch in imagination to picture the evil and wealthy John Allan as the antagonist.
For many years Poe had been writing poetry, and criticism, and short stories. His efforts earned him a literary reputation, but he was unable to make a living. As a sometimes book reviewer for the North County Times, there are occasions when I point out the shortcomings of books. I try to do that in a nice way. Poe did not bother with those niceties. He had an acid pen and savaged books. On one occasion he even called Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a plagiarist.
When he was in his twenties Poe moved in with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm and his cousin Virginia Clemm. A few years after that, he married his first cousin Virginia. At the time he was 26, and Virginia was not quite 13.
Despite what sounds like a Jerry Springer episode, Edgar and Virginia were very happy together. Even with Poe’s financial problems their home was a happy one with much laughter and singing. As might be expected, that didn’t last for long. In January, 1842 Virginia was singing for him. She paused in her singing, coughed, and that is when Poe saw a drop of blood appear on her lips.
For five years Virginia fought her consumption. It was hell for Poe. Despite his tireless literary efforts he couldn’t provide properly for them. In the midst of Virginia’s sickness, though, Poe became famous. In 1845 The Raven was published, but Poe’s newfound fame didn’t much change their financial circumstances. He was paid $14 for The Raven.
The Raven, of course, was very biographical. Lenore was Virginia. Poe was looking ahead to his wife’s death. When he was writing the poem he knew his wife was dying.
After Virginia’s death Poe went on a downhill spiral. He was frequently sick, or drunk, or both. He was depressed, and had bouts with insanity.
In 1849 he was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore. In typical Poe fashion, mystery surrounds the circumstances of his death. He was found not wearing his own clothes, but that of a much shorter man.
He was taken to a Baltimore hospital, and purportedly his last words were, “God help my poor soul.”
Given his own life, how could Poe not have written stories with protagonists that were troubled?
I know all of us have our favorite Poe story. I think mine is “The Cask of Amontillado.” I believe I read that story when I was 10-years-old. It was unlike anything else I had ever read. The narrator and his voice were unique. Here he was, plotting coldblooded murder, and he made it sound so logical. The opening line set the stage for the story:
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.
I was hooked from that first line. How was this man to get revenge? Well, as Poe wrote, Fortunato prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. And as we all know, pride goeth before a fall. Our narrator Montressor dangles the bait of Amontillado.
I’ll read a little:
“Fortunato, I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain.”
“I have my doubts.”
“And I must satisfy them.”
“As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi. If anyone has a critical turn, it is he. He will tell me – ”
“Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.”
“And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own.”
“Come, let us go.”
“To your vaults.”
On the way to those vaults Montressor has only to bring up the name of Luchesi to keep Fortunato going. And when they get in those damp and sulfurous vaults, he gives Fortunato drink to keep him moving forward.
“These vaults,” he said, “are extensive.”
“The Montressors,” I replied, “were a great and numerous family.”
“I forget your arms.”
“A huge human foot in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.”
“And the motto?”
“Nemo me impune lacessit.”
For those of you not versed in Latin, that means, “No one attacks me with impunity.”
I love it as the two venture further in, and Fortunato gestures at the narrator, who looks at him with surprise. Fortunato gestures again, and when the narrator still doesn’t comprehend he says, “You are not in the brotherhood. You are not a mason.” And the narrator says that he is a mason, to which Fortunato asks for a sign. Instead of a gesture, the narrator produces a trowel.
Now that’s foreshadowing.
There, at the end of the Montressor crypt, our narrator fetters Fortunato, and with that trowel applies stone and mortar, building tier after tier.
In the words of Poe: “I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!”
And to you also, Edgar Allan Poe, may you rest in peace.
- Alan Russell 4/17/2012