Lightening brightened the interior of the old log cabin. Rolling thunder rattled the tired windows. The weathered wood cladding shook, and so did I.
I was alone, in a cabin in the woods, in dark sky country on Manitoulin Island. It was unsettling enough, lying on the bed trying to read by the dim light of the kerosene lamp, but the short story I was reading was Ligeia by none other than the master of macabre, Edgar Allan Poe.
My husband wouldn’t be back for hours. I should have stopped reading. CRACK! The flash lit up the trees silhouetted against the window coverings, casting an ominous shadow through the white linen curtain. And there I was in Ligeia’s bed chamber, diving into the unstable mind of Edgar’s narrator.
“The room lay in a high turret of the castellated abbey, was pentagonal in shape, and of capacious size. Occupying the whole southern face of the pentagon was the sole window –an immense sheet of unbroken glass from Venice –a single pane, and tinted of a leaden hue, so that the rays of either the sun or moon, passing through it, fell with a ghastly lustre on the objects within…
The ceiling, of gloomy-looking oak, was excessively lofty, vaulted, and elaborately fretted with the wildest and most grotesque specimens of a semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical device…
To one entering the room, they bore the appearance of simple monstrosities; but upon a farther advance, this appearance gradually departed; and step by step, as the visitor moved his station in the chamber, he saw himself surrounded by an endless succession of the ghastly forms which belong to the superstition of the Norman or arise in the guilty slumbers of the monk…
The phantasmagoric effect was vastly heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of wind behind the draperies –giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the whole.”
A Bit about Poe
Poe’s first horror poem was so terrifying to readers that the magazine, The Southern Literary Messenger, received numerous complaints – so what did the Editor do? Offered Poe a staff job. The poem was called, “Metzengerstein” and was published in 1835. Poe’s hiring helped the magazine become the most popular in the South.
Before he got the job, Poe struggled. His family was not well off financially. He was unable to complete his studies due to lack of money and when his foster father died, he left nothing to Poe.
While at the Messenger, life improved for Poe and his family, but only for a short time. His continuing struggles with drinking and gambling led to even more financial problems. But his writing proliferated and his reputation, as well as his significant contributions to the literary world grew. His published books, short stories, and poems met with critical acclaim.
Poe’s Introduces the First Detective
Altogether, he wrote more than 70 short stories during his 40-years of life. Although well-known for his tales of horror, what is not as well known is Poe’s contribution to the mystery genre. He is considered the inventor of detective fiction and introduced the world’s first eccentric super sleuth – C. Auguste Dupin.
In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, credited Poe’s influence on his own writing, but in pure Holmes style, Conan’s sleuth dismissed Poe’s Dupin as showy and superficial.
Despite what the character Sherlock Holmes thought about Dupin, Conan Doyle once said that Edgar Allan Poe’s (detective) stories were “a model for all time.”
His life story was a series of disappointments — a court martial from the military, estrangement from his foster family, an unstable career, the death of his wife, but his legacy as a literary critic and an accomplished writer cannot be denied. Even the Mystery Writers of America named their awards of Excellence, the “Edgars”.
His death is his biggest mystery. Poe had a bout of cholera and at 4 a.m. on September 27, 1849, he boarded a ship to Baltimore. He went missing until October 3rd, when he was found in a tavern, drunk and wearing someone else’s clothes. During his four-day stay in the hospital he was in and out of consciousness, sometimes alert, sometimes screaming at no one. He died on October 7th, 1849. There have been more than 26 theories published about his death, yet this mystery continues.
The storm was settling, at the least the thunder had moved, but the rain was still beating down hard. Dampness filled the air and I buried myself under the quilt.
Ligeia was a beautiful wife, tall and slender with pale skin and long black hair. She dies. The narrator is deeply broken, but after a time marries Lady Rowena. Soon after, she falls ill and is on her death bed in the chamber so vividly described. Then freaky things start to happen.
She starts to lose consciousness – each time, the narrator revives her. This continues for a time. She dies, he brings her back to life. And just at that moment when all is lost – she awakens, stands up and has turned into Ligeia.
And at that very moment, fresh, rain-filled air billowed out around me. My heart jumped. I was so frightened and so glad at the same time, to see my husband walking in.
“What’s wrong, you’re pale,” he asked.
“Oh”, I said, matter-of-factly. “Just having an Edgar Allan Poe experience.”
If he only knew.
That was 30 years ago — that story of Ligeia, in that cabin, during that storm, well I’ll just say, the body remembers.