Some years ago, I visited a small house at 203 North Amity Street in Baltimore, unremarkable were it not for the fact that Edgar Allan Poe once lived and worked there.
Built in 1830, the house - then 3 Amity St – was rented in late 1832 or early 1833 by Maria Clemm, the widowed sister of Edgar’s father, the actor David Poe, who had abandoned the 3 year old Edgar, his mother, older brother and younger sister. Poe was now just turning 24 and – expelled from university, court-martialled from the United States army and disowned by his foster father, John Allan – he had turned to Maria, always known to Poe as Muddy, for help and support, though she herself had no money apart from a military pension which had been awarded to her father, Major David Poe, as a reward for his distinguished service in the Revolutionary War. On Major Poe’s death, that pension had devolved to his widow, Elizabeth Poe, who now moved into Amity Street with Maria and Edgar, along with Maria’s children, 14 year old Henry and 10 year old Virginia, always Sissy or Sis to Edgar. Threatened with demolition in the 1940s, the house was saved by the Poe Society of Baltimore and is now preserved as an atmospheric and evocative museum.
In fact, Edgar spent very little time – barely two years – living in the house and produced none of his most well-known stories there – of the tales recorded for Spinechillers, only Ms Found In A Bottle is believed to have been written during this period – but that did nothing to diminish the impact of visiting the house for me. In particular, I vividly recall the narrow, winding stairs up into the claustrophobic attic room generally assumed to have been Poe's. On a warm, humid day in August, it was easy to imagine him at work at the small table in front of the attic window: baking in the summer heat and freezing in winter.
He left the house in 1835 when he moved to Richmond, Virginia, to edit the Southern Literary Messenger. At almost the same time, Maria’s mother died and without Major Poe’s pension, Muddy was unable to pay the rent. Edgar suggested she and Sissy join him in Richmond (Henry seems to have departed for the sea and exits the narrative of Poe’s life completely). This was more than mere pragmatism. Not only had Muddy effectively adopted Edgar, but in the short time they had shared the house in Amity Street, he had fallen in love with Sissy and although his cousin had barely passed her thirteenth birthday, Edgar now made a successful proposal of marriage to her.
If you're expecting a happy ending to follow from there, you really are not familiar with the details of Poe's life. Barely ten years later, his beloved Sissy was dead of tuberculosis, his professional life - and in particular his lifetime ambition to found and edit the definitive American literary magazine - met with constant failure and disappointment, and his life passed in near perpetual poverty until his death - shrouded in mystery and conjecture – on the streets of Baltimore at the age of just 40 in 1849.
From the house in North Amity Street, it’s a short journey to Westminster Hall and Burying Ground on Fayette Street in downtown Baltimore, Poe’s final resting place. Kind of. Even in death, Poe was surrounded by humiliation and confusion with a touch of black farce.
He was buried in the simplest of coffins after a service lasting no more than a few minutes with only a handful of mourners in attendance on a dismal, raw day. A white marble headstone paid for by his cousin Neilson was destroyed in an accident, so he had to make do with a sandstone marker bearing the legend No. 80. In the 1870s, a campaign to mark his burial site more appropriately raised $1500 for the memorial which stands near the cemetery entrance to this day. It was also decided to rebury Edgar’s remains at the new site, but all the headstones had been turned round since his death, which resulted in the wrong grave being opened. Indeed, there are still doubts expressed as to whether Edgar reposes under his memorial at all, though one witness of the reburial process commented on the distinctive shape of the skull that was exhumed from the original grave. Not an inappropriate way to identify him, you might think. His second funeral in 1875 was attended by Walt Whitman, and a poem written for the occasion by Alfred Lord Tennyson was read. Sissy and Muddy were reburied with him.
When I was a boy, there was a small bookcase in one of the downstairs rooms that contained my father’s books. Here, I first encountered Dickens and excitedly reached for a play called Ghosts only to be disappointed that Ibsen’s play was a domestic drama and not about shades of the ghoulish kind. Here also nestled a slim volume with one of those titles that you can’t pass by: Tales Of Mystery And Imagination.
Edgar Allan Poe sidled into my life.
Later, I came into possession of another copy of the same book, inscribed To Harry, From Andrew. Xmas 1922: a gift from one of my great-uncles to his brother. The impossible had happened. These extraordinary stories, with no parallel before them and without equal after them, had crossed an ocean and passed into the mainstream barely seventy years after his ignominious, penniless death. Reviled and rejected in his lifetime, Edgar Allan Poe was recognised as what he was: one of the most original, powerful and disturbing voices in all of literature, not just in what we now call the 'horror genre'.
For a directly personal appreciation of Poe, I turned to Renegade's logo and tee-shirt designer, Steph Sciullo, who happened across a collection of Poe’s work in her early teenage years and has been a devoted fan ever since. I asked her to write some thoughts about what Edgar means to her. I include what she wrote here because, quite frankly, I couldn't have put it better myself.
'I have always regarded Poe, not for what he was, but rather what he was NOT. Commonplace. Predictable. Mad. Insane. These were things that Poe was NOT. Many think the latter to be romantic terms of endearment for poets authors, and artists.
A madman does not know he is mad after all, and an insane mind would not have the resourcefulness to craft from words, the imagined worlds and circumstances that exist on no plane other than their own mind.
Only a true genius could put into words comprehensible to the average person, scenes of terror and dread and insanity, the likes of which the world had never known, simply by writing words. His words. To craft words in such a way, in such an order, to make one experience perceptible feelings of fright and madness. Love and loss. Pain and terror. Poe was a genius. A brilliant mind overflowing with scenarios, inventions, successions of events, worlds, landscapes and sounds. Sounds never heard by most human ears and possibly not even his own, but yet making those ears actually hear the sounds through his written words.
Poe did not simply touch on subjects as uncomfortable as a human mind becoming unhinged, he tore into these subjects with an unabashed and unapologetic quill in hand. Leaving us frightened, appalled, and uneasy, yet completely exhilarated.Poe set the standard, well before the standard could be realized, and his works still stand untouched as the exemplar for all others, that may hope to attain even a fraction of his genius.'
It has been my great pleasure to allow Mr Poe to put words in my mouth, I hope you will enjoy hearing them. We have included one of his stories on each volume of the Spinechillers series, and for good measure, we have also added one of his brilliant poems to most volumes.