Mansion of Gloom: Growing up with Poe

on Sep 15 in Essays & Reviews by

Poe was the first writer to take me seriously as a reader. Before him, it was the Hardy Boys, a predictable series about pre-adolescent brothers who helped their parents and local officials solve crimes; books about sports – The Lucky Baseball Bat, my favorite for an entire school year; and a succession of large-type biographies of people like Abe Lincoln, Babe Ruth, and Marie Curie, canaries in the coal mine of what I thought was fast-approaching adulthood. My first exposure to Poe was likely his last poem, which my father read me one night before bed.

Annabel Lee was especially poignant to me because the event that punctured and then ended my childhood was the passing of my grandmother and my mother’s subsequent depression. After her first operation, my grandmother lived with us, on and off, as cancer ravaged her. The summer before she died, she slept on a bed in our basement, surrounded by plastic sheeting inflated by oxygen. On the night of her passing — November 4th, 1963 — I saw a tiny angel in the sky ascending in the distance. Two weeks later, I turned seven. Ten days after that, President Kennedy was shot.

That winter, our suburban split-level, dark and untended, became a mansion of gloom. After school, as the sun set, I would let myself in, take a snack and wander upstairs to find my mother up in her room, still in her bathrobe, face streaked from crying, staring at the television. Now that I think of it, she seemed sick in the same way Roderick Usher’s sister was, with a settled apathy, a gradual wasting away and frequent although transient affections (for my sister and me) of a partially cataleptical character. I kept myself busy, playing cards, reading stories and listening to records, imagining I could hear dust motes settle over the furniture. Some days, I opened the front door for large women bearing casserole dishes who smelled like the outside. Mostly, I’d watch the clock, waiting for my father to step into the breach, heat up dinner, bathe us, help us with homework and put us to bed.

Early on, I had a fondness for Poe’s first person narratives about the supernatural — The Telltale Heart, where the narrator patiently explains his compulsion to murder and dismember an old man; âThe Black Cat, where the writer wrestles with his animal nature, his addiction to perverseness, and loses; and The Pit and the Pendulum, a nearly flawless piece of short fiction describing a man’s torture so realistically, it is nearly impossible, even if one tries, to put out of one’s mind.

Almost forty years later, I still love Poe’s formality, the strange musicality of his prose, and his muscular vocabulary. His sentences are like scaffolding on which words like pertinacity and collocation hang, clear enough from their context to make unnecessary frequent trips to the dictionary. In The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe describes fog by telling us that “the under surfaces of the huge masses of agitated vapor, as well as all terrestrial objects immediately around us, were glowing in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion.”

I love Poe’s verbosity and stylized language; how it contrasts with his characters’ desires to be understood and accepted. Who has not, a hundred times found himself committing a vile or a stupid action, for no other reason than he should not? Poe asks the reader in The Black Cat, after carving out the eye of his pet.

In The Masque of the Red Death, a head of state responds to a deadly plague spreading through his kingdom by welding the gates of his castle shut, and throwing a party for his rich friends. All goes well until the Prince notices an imposing figure dressed as Death. By midnight, the masked figure is oozing blood in the manner of a plague victim, and he lures the angry Prince into a room painted black. It’s a masterful yarn — short, over-the-top — harrowing.

In the story, Poe marks the inexorable march of time by describing a giant ebony clock. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock, a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert [Poe, the punster!] of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.

He draws us into the horror of the plague, his rationality and clear expository style in contrast to the spiraling madness of the revelers. There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion, Poe tells us, and we realize we are in the company of a narrator who is both sensitive and self-aware, as unhinged by the horrors he is describing as we are reading about them. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made. I picture the most brazen of our public officials –the ones charged with securing our safety from just such a disaster — Karl Rove, Tom DeLay and Scooter Libby — their faces dissolving into hideous grimaces after realizing the gravity of the situation.

Eventually, my mother got better. When I was ten, we moved to a new neighborhood where every Saturday, boys my age piled into somebody’s dad’s station wagon to see Vincent Price creeping around dark castles inhabited by disfigured shut-ins and vampires sucking the life out of children. Price was the screen version of Poe’s narrators, the ones who populated the stories I laid awake in bed reading with a flashlight, scurrying into my parent’s room when necessary, pretending to have awoken thirsty. Poe acknowledged my dark moods and roiling emotions at a time when I carried my awareness of the emotional field that surrounds us and fuels our behavior like a shameful secret.

Lately, I’ve been checking the World Health Organization website and CNN for the latest news about the Avian flu. I have no trouble imagining the virus passing from birds to farmers, from farmers to health care professionals, from health care professionals to their families, then to business people returning home in airplanes from Thailand, Vietnam, and China, setting off the chain of events that would result in schools closing, sports events being cancelled and eventually, utilities severely modified or shut down. It is not a huge leap to imagine hysteria, a half-hearted response by our Federal governments, quarantines, flight of the rich, and the institution of martial law.

Occasionally, almost against my own will, I picture my family huddled together in my little twin, wrapped in blankets to stay warm, trying to conserve water, knowing that one of us might fall ill and either contaminate the rest, or be carried away to die in some field hospital. There’s a knock on the door. It’s my old friend, P., coughing into a handkerchief, begging for help.

“I have no abhorrence of danger,” one of Poe’s narrators tells us. “But the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason altogether, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.”

“True wretchedness, indeed, ultimate woe is particular not diffuse,” Poe writes in The Premature Burial. “The ghastly extremes of agony are endured by man the unit, and not by man the mass.” We hear about earthquakes, tsunamis, and torture of and by terrorists, yet we keep death and suffering at bay by thinking about them in the abstract. I picture the worst-case scenario with the imagination of a seven-year-old whose mother doesn’t care whether she lives or dies. For me, Poe’s world is this world; his narrators, my inner voices.

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