Edgar Allan Poe – spinner of spine-tinglers and tales of hearts that won’t stay still – immediately springs to mind when Halloween approaches. Few other horror stories in literature have quite the bone-chilling, heart-stopping quality of Poe’s, peopled with devious killers and strange, haunting manifestations of guilt. I’ve never quite been able to forget the initial effect that his story “The Black Cat” had on me (for those who haven’t read it, I won’t elaborate on the plot – suffice to say it’s difficult to look at cats in quite the same way immediately after reading it), nor that of “The Cask of Amontillado“, which should probably be avoided by those with severe claustrophobia.
We know Poe best for these stories, and for the rhythmic, chilling account in his poem “The Raven“, which I vividly recall my 11th grade English teacher reading to the class on Halloween. The darkness of most of Poe’s work mirrored that of his personal life – impoverished and driven to alcoholism, he died under cloudy circumstances, found unconscious on the streets of Baltimore in October, 1849. Throughout his life, he resided in a number of different cities, from Richmond to Boston to Philadelphia to Baltimore to the Bronx, New York.
On a trip to Philadelphia earlier this year, I made a pilgrimage to Poe’s house on North Seventh Street, a modest-looking brick building now designated as a national historic site by the U.S. National Park Service. Poe lived in Philadelphia from 1838 to 1844 and spent his last year in city at this site. It took me two visits to the spot to get inside; the first time I located the house, after a long walk, I arrived just after it closed and had to content myself with gazing at the red brick walls and pretty garden. The door, I was somewhat amused to note, bears a sign “Please knock once” – perhaps to discourage visitors from “gently rapping, rapping” like the famous raven (incidentally, a statue of said raven dominates the garden).
The interior of the house is stark and empty, since, as one park ranger explained, none of Poe’s furniture from the time period remains. It might have been the stillness of the vacant rooms, or simply my overactive imagination, but there’s something of the eerie spirit that inhabits his stories lingering in his house. The muffled footfalls of other visitors echo and thud on the stairs, the wide floorboards groan loudly underfoot, light reflects strangely on the blank, mottled walls and the door to the cellar, when I descended the stairs, creaked as if pushed by phantom hands, a ghostly gleam pouring from behind it.
Just my imagination, I’m sure.
It was this cellar, though, that inspired Poe while writing ‘The Black Cat” – knowledge which is not entirely reassuring when one is standing in the damp darkness of its depths. It contains a “false chimney” very like the one described in the grisly last paragraphs of the story, made of red bricks and white plaster (I dare any visitor to read the story and not imagine that one-eyed cat). Poe wrote a number of his most famous stories in Philadelphia, including “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Gold Bug” and “‘The Purloined Letter.”
Poe’s legacy remains in the popular images of Halloween – black cats with arched backs and fiery eyes, hoarse ravens with spiky wings – and his stories are the perfect thing to read on the holiday, with a flashlight and a bowl of candy.
Happy Halloween. Watch out for those black cats.