The still-beating heart of darkness…

Photo by Tyler Malone

Being an author from the Bronx, the only thing I thought I had in common with Edgar Allan Poe was that he had a place up on the Grand Concourse a few blocks away from George Barbera’s house. But Halloween reminds me that he was also a poet, editor, as well as an author of some of the darkest literature ever created. On Halloween, we dress up and look forward to safe terror. We can get the thrill and giggle, without the danger. We can assume other identities, some random others secretly desired, by merely dressing the part. By the way, this is what authors do every day. But for Poe, he was deemed guilty of darkness by association – to his characters.  

Here’s something that he could have written…

Imagine if you dressed up as Jack the Ripper for October 31st. But on November 1st, you woke up in a dank and stinking, horse manure redolent alleyway in Victorian England. A knife – bloody to the hilt in your left hand, a woman of night lay sprawled out beside you on the cobblestones as the blood from her cold, lifeless body congealed at the precipice of the sewer grate. And try as you might, you could not remove the costume. You had become your Halloween avatar.

That’s a pretty good premise for a Poe nightmare, if I say so myself. But it’s not too far from the reality of writing crime, mystery, or thrillers. I get many readers who look at me with a sly smirk, coaxing me to admit that I have lured women to their deaths by seducing them on tropical atolls. Or bludgeoned a fake priest to death on a staircase or one of a hundred other dastardly devices and plot points of my novels. Me! Scared of my own shadow, faint at the sight of blood, a wimp that catches and releases house flies, me! I used to object (and sales went down). Now, I smile like the cat next to the empty canary cage, leaving them to their fantasies, which I created within them. (Sales went back up.) 

“Supreme rationalism” is a term associated with Poe. Yet, if you think about it, Poe was saying that there was darkness in every human heart and that it was rational. That darkness was as much a part of our existence as the flowery literary stuff coming out of mid-1800s England and France. As one critic, Herbert Marshall McLuhan, put it, “creating a parochial fog for the English mind to relax in.” In my humble opinion, not many readers relaxed while reading Poe’s detective fiction and horror. 

Poe was at once reviled and revered by his literary contemporaries. There are actually psychoanalytical studies made of his work. So supreme was his rationalistic exploration of the darkness that beats within the breasts of man, that (as I occasionally am), he was painted as having been as vile and evil as the characters he created and capable of the horrors he detailed, just like the way I have been imagined by some readers. I see that as a testimonial to his ability to affect the heart of the reader, dark or otherwise. And in that, I take some comfort for being accused of the same thing. 

Unlike me at this point in my career, his work was bigger than he was, and it eclipsed his life and forever shadowed him with the darkness he so brilliantly related to readers for generations. 

It wasn’t until the 1940’s that a biography by A.H. Quinn finally emerged that balanced this lazy and sloppy “pop” analysis of Poe. For anyone who cared to look, he did not identify, nor was he the reprobate that his madmen and murderers, those that populated and advanced the plots of his most famous pieces, as he so skillfully drew them. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind people having Halloween-type fantasies of how I dress up at night and wonder if the darkness I write about exists within me. It’s all part of the process of reaching into a person’s psyche and messing with their suspension of belief.  

My ‘moll’ tells me that I am dressing as a gangster for Halloween, spats and all. She’s going as a flapper. I hope the next day I don’t wake up in Al Capone’s gang, Tommy gun in my mitts, in prohibition-era Chicaga!