Adventures of a Book Hunter: Poe’s Last TaleJanuary 12th, 2009 by Gabrielle Faust received 3 Comments »
Adventures of a Book Hunter: Poe’s Last Tale
by L.P. Van Ness
Originally published in ‘Outer Darkness’
Poe: Poetry and Tales from the Library of America (ISBN 0-940450-18-6) is set in 10 point Linotron Gilliard print with acid-free Ecusta Nyalite paper and Brillianta binding. This scarlet volume is but one in a series of American authors and an excellent addition to any personal library. Its high quality construction should allow it to easily endure the rigors of vigorous reading and study for generations. It is in this fine collection that we find a classic case of Art imitating Life, for Poe’s last tale, “The Light-House,” is filled with the same high anxiety and mystery that surrounded the events of his own final days.
Composed in the format of a journal, this brief 750 word tale is told by a literary man who has taken on the solitary vigil of a lighthouse keeper in order to finish a book. On the first day of his watch, the narrator expresses an unexplainable feeling of dread, “– there is no telling what may happen to a man all alone as I am– I may get sick, or worse.” How many times during the last month of Poe’s life had Elmira Shelton heard this plea? On the evening of September 26th, 1849, she related that Poe was “very sad” and “complained of being very sick.” Poe could neither create or survive without a supernal muse in his life; he had been begging for her hand in marriage. She latter recalled that “it was distressing to see how he implored me– he was the most distressed man when he parted with me I ever saw.” The morning after her rejection of his marriage proposal, Poe mysteriously disappeared!
The seriousness of Poe’s need for companionship is illustrated quite aptly by his lighthouse keeper who laments, “how dreary a sound that word has– ‘alone’!” The protagonist fancies this is due to “some peculiarity in the echo of [the] cylindrical walls,” yet Poe was a master of utilizing sound to create mood in his tales. If one places oneself in solitude of either place or mind and begins to slowly chant the word, “alone,” one will discover that the sustained bass quality of the central vowel literally howls at you; the rising first syllable then drops a full tone to the second forming the perfect imitation of a mantra of terror!
On the second day of his isolation, the lighthouse keeper experiences a strange “ecstasy– [his] passion for solitude could scarcely have been more thoroughly gratified.” Here lies another clue to Poe’s state of mind during the lost days of the final week of his life. In his youth, Poe loved to wander off into the tempest of a storm and rally at the wild elements. Such unannounced disappearances would often serve as a touchstone for his creative genius. Yet, as the narrator of Poe’s last tale complains, he is not “satisfied– [for he could] never really be satisfied with such delight as [he] had experienced [that] day.” Here we have the unhappy paradox of creative temperament: an endless continuum of passionate longing for communion with others, the outside world, juxtaposed with bouts of intense brooding and self examination, the inner world, whose release of tension usually results in the creation of Art.
By the third day in the lighthouse, the keeper is bored by the sameness of a glass sea and cloudless sky. He decides to explore the rest of his perch. Anxiety returns again when he discovers the floor is twenty feet below the surface of the sea. He feels this space should have been filled in to make the whole more solid and safe. Yet he regains some comfort from the “iron-riveted wall,” which is four feet thick. Poe often referred to the states of the human mind in terms of structures (the most famous example being that of the house of Usher). Here, the message is unmistakable; it offers the best glimpse into the state of Poe’s own Psyche during his final days. While the wall or outward appearance with which one greets the world seems secure, their is doubt regarding the foundation or the deeper, creative nature of the inner man. The final horror arises when the lighthouse keeper realizes that “the basis on which the entire structure rests seems to [him] to be chalk–” This last journal entry is followed by merely the heading of a dated page and nothing more. The lighthouse keeper had disappeared!
The parallels between Poe’s last tale and the last week of his life are undeniable– eerily so. Poe and his lighthouse keeper are frightened of being alone, and both men disappear under mysterious circumstances. Scholars have been unable to trace with reliability what happened to Poe between his last meeting with Elmira and the third of October, a week latter, when he reappeared in Gunner’s Hall, a Baltimore Tavern, strangely dressed and semiconscious– four days from death’s door. He was immediately taken to the hospital of Washington Medical College, where he remained in a stupor, complaining that “the best thing his friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol.” He finally expired a three o’clock on the morning of the seventh of October.
Sadly, one can only imagine what might have happened if Elmira Shelton had agreed to be Poe’s soul mate rather than rejecting him. No one knows how he spent his last, lost week. But in the tale of the isolated lighthouse keeper, Poe left us one hell of a clue regarding his lonely state of mind. Clearly, a mysterious disappearance was central to the horror of the plot of Poe’s final tale. Though defeated by loneliness, it is Poe who gets the last laugh; he jeers at us through the words of yet another character from one of his last tales, “I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester– and this is my last jest.”
Thank you to LP Van Ness for submitting this article for the Eternal Vigilance website! If you are interested in submitting original fiction or blog posts about anything horror, writing, or science fiction related, please drop me a line!