My wife and I mounted the steps to the Poe House in the late afternoon; the sun was low in the sky and the light perfect for taking pictures. I had already snapped a picture of the front of the house and was looking forward to photographing the treasures within.
We had driven 300 miles that day, pursuing our dream vacation of touring New England and the eastern seaboard, experiencing the history and atmosphere of the oldest area of our country. I loved everything about it: the architecture, the Yankee accents, the sense of history that one just doesn't find in the Midwest.
The docent met us at the door with a charming smile. An older lady, once beautiful, she was still a very attractive woman. But most striking was her period dress, a long gingham skirt and bodice with frilled lace edging and cuffs. I stepped back and got a shot of my wife standing in the doorway holding the docent's hand in hers as they exchanged pleasantries. I could tell they were taken with each other and this pleased me greatly. My wife is a warm and outgoing person but not often enough was her warmth returned in kind. As the docent led my wife to the door, I framed the old house in my viewfinder and took another shot of the 1830's structure. The incandescent glow of the setting sun lent a mysterious aura to the scene befitting Poe's residence. I slipped the camera strap around my neck and rushed to the entrance not to miss the opening remarks of the docent.
"The house closes to visitors tomorrow," the docent began. "The Society has raised enough money to do the major repairs that the house has needed for so long. The work will entail shoring and reconstruction of some of the foundation so the work may take as long as two years to complete. You will be the last guests I will have the pleasure to guide through this wonderful old structure for many months. Welcome to the Poe house."
I took my wife's hand as we were led inside. The docent began, "I often feel the presence of Poe's dark genius as I walk through the doorway. It is as if he still lives in this house..."
What a creepy thing to say, I thought. But there was an element of truth in it; I did feel a presence in the house. Of course, I have always been sensitive to such things. Or so I have thought. My wife thinks this is nonsense, I am sure, but she abides my peculiarity.
As we followed the docent into the parlor, I was struck by how pleasant the room seemed. Uncrowded with furniture, it looked to be more spacious than it was. The rooms were actually quite small compared to modern dwellings.
"The furniture is from the period," began the docent, "But not the furniture that Poe used. That is long gone." There was only one upholstered piece in the room, a settee covered in a dark tapestry fabric. The chairs were straight backed and without padding. They looked formidably uncomfortable. As we progressed through the house, I got the impression of frugality and even a grim severity. I found myself thanking Providence for our modern creature comforts.
Even the beds looked incommodious, being small and with only thin pads as mattresses. We had progressed to the second level and I stood staring into the bedroom for a few minutes, trying to imagine Poe sleeping therein. A strong vision of a mustached man caressing a dark-haired girl was superimposed on the image of the bed. It lasted but an instant but the vivid image was burned into my brain.
I looked up just as the docent looked away. Her face, I am certain, was flushed. I fumbled with my camera and lifted it to my eye to defuse the moment. I took a picture of the bed and half expected that the print would reveal Poe and his lady friend in the throes of passion. Ridiculous, of course. I pushed the idea out of my head.
The docent adeptly lifted her skirts just enough to clear the steep stairs and followed us to the third level. This was the most interesting room in the house, she allowed, because Poe had written many of his somber tales in this garret. There was only one window at the end of the narrow room and sunlight streamed through the wavy glass. A small lift-top desk stood beneath the window. An iron nibbed pen and glass inkwell was situated in a nook behind the open desk. A few sheets of foolscap had been placed on the ink-stained poplar writing surface for effect. I saw an attractive still-life photograph begging to be taken.
As I composed the photo in the viewfinder, I briefly saw a male hand holding the pen, writing this greeting on the top of a sheet of the paper: My Dearest Sarah. Shocked, I immediately wrenched the camera away from my eye and the scene was as it had been before; no hand, no pen, no writing to be seen.
"Sweetheart, what's the matter?" My wife must have seen my temporary lapse and wondered. "Are you ill?"
"Just a momentary dizziness. It sometimes happens when I move my head while looking through the viewfinder. It can be disorienting." I smiled my reassurance and she turned back to the docent who was explaining that the desk, pens and other implements displayed were in fact used by Poe and probably saw the creation of many of his dark tales. I looked down at the oiled pine floor and tried to steady myself.
I brought the camera gingerly up to my eye and again peered through the viewfinder. Nothing out of the ordinary. I proceeded to compose the picture and snapped the shutter, feeling the light and arrangement was perfect for a classic still life. While bracketing the exposures to insure the best print, I became aware that the two women were speaking in hushed tones.
The docent was saying, "Yes, Edgar had a reputation for boozing and carousing but I think it was blown way out of proportion. He was a constant man and faithful... by all accounts." I recall thinking it odd that the docent referred to Poe in such a familiar fashion. I recall thinking that my spinster high school Latin teacher had been in love with Julius Caesar. It was apparent in every word she spoke about him. Reading the Gallic Wars like love poetry, she practically swooned when she spoke his name. Perhaps the docent had a crush on Poe. Poe was long dead, of course, but his charisma, like Caesar's, certainly had survived.
It was hard for me to separate Poe the man from Poe the writer. How could the master of the macabre be a man that a woman could love? I had read that he had been married so it seemed that a woman must found something attractive in his personality. What kind of woman, I wondered? Perhaps as strange as Poe himself?
It finally came time to leave. The house tours closed at 5:00 PM and it was long past that hour. The docent had been loath to let her final visitors depart. And we were having such a good time we were complicit in her delaying scheme. When we exited the house, the docent led us to the side yard where there was a small garden.
"Just a moment, before you leave," she said. "A bouquet of flowers from the Poe garden for your lovely wife," she looked at me and smiled. She cut a generous nosegay along with a few baby's breath and presented the flowers to my wife. I saw tears brimming in the eyes of both women and realized that they had, in the space of an hour or so, found a rapport most people never achieve in a lifetime.
As we returned to our car, I remarked to my wife, "Wonderful lady. And so well informed about Poe. Almost as if she knew him personally."
"I know. This was the highlight of our trip, of that I have no doubt. I wish I had gotten her name and address. I would love to correspond with her. I asked her before we left the house and she agreed but never carried it further. I did not push the matter because I did not wish to invade her privacy. I do believe she is a private person."
"I believe so too. But I saw how you two hit it off and I would have bet that you would be writing to her." My statement brought no response but a faint sniffle, perhaps of regret.
We drove through Vermont and up the coast of Maine, eating our fill of lobster as we went. And we discovered Acadia National Park, which is surely one of the most beautiful spots on this planet. The Poe house was forgotten for the moment. The vacation was winding down with only a few days left and we decided to spend some quality time observing and photographing the tide pools along the rocky Maine coast. We found a reasonable motel near Bar Harbor and fell asleep at night to the sound of the Atlantic surf. The days we spent roaming the rocks along the shore appreciating the bounty Nature has given us as well as appreciating each other.
Three days later, we pulled into our driveway and we knew our dream vacation was over. But we had some beautiful memories. The workaday world reclaimed my spirit and I was immediately caught up in business matters. My wife returned to school and the pursuit of her master's degree.
It is true that I sometimes thought of the odd experiences I had in the Poe house but the shock and strangeness were soon diluted with the passage of time and real world concerns. I made a pact with myself to read more of Poe's stories and discover more about the man.
The next day I stopped by the library and found a biography of Poe that looked promising. When I got it home it turned out to be a real tome, written in a dry and scholarly style. I placed the book at my bedside and, sure as anything, it never failed to put me to sleep.
* * *
A few weeks passed and my wife was heavily involved with library research for her thesis. I was spending most evenings home alone. I thought of the rolls of film that languished in my darkroom, waiting to be developed and printed. I had time on my hands for the moment and the time seemed ripe to spend a few hours in the darkroom.
I soon had the developer mixed and the film in the tanks. In a few minutes, the wet negatives were hung up to dry. I looked at them cursorily and they seemed eminently printable. It was late and I heard my wife come in so I left the printing for another night.
* * *
Days went by and I did not return to the darkroom. Finally, on a weekend, I decided to print the pictures I had taken on vacation. I was eager to see the prints of the tidepool pictures. I was certain that I had taken some good shots. In looking over the negatives, I was suddenly overcome with the fervor that photographers get when they fire up their enlargers. There is nothing like the thrill of seeing the image come up on a sheet of photographic paper just immersed in developer.
I worked for hours and the tidepool prints in fact were very good. I ferrotyped several of the better prints and, though the hour was late, I held some unprinted negatives up to the light to inspect them. As chance would have it, the roll I had chosen to look at was the film from the Poe house visit. I picked up the magnifier and looked at the shots of the house exterior and the docent in the doorway. Pretty bland stuff, I decided. A nice record of our visit but nothing exciting. They would make nice prints for our album.
Then the shot of the bedroom fell under the magnifier. Something was strange. There were figures on the bed... or so I thought. I looked closer and it was true, there were shadowy figures on the negative. I recalled the figures I thought I had seen which turned out to be figments of my imagination. Or so I had afterward decided.
My heart was racing. I put the frame in the enlarger carrier and projected the negative onto the baseboard. I could not see the figures clearly anymore. I quickly estimated the exposure and threw a sheet of 8" x 10" photo paper on the enlarger. Focusing quickly on the grain, I set the timer and switched on the enlarger lamp. The twenty seconds seemed like hours.
With tongs, I immersed the exposed paper in the developer tray and nervously agitated it. The image began to appear. The safelight was too dim to reveal any detail. I could see no figures. Into the stop bath and then to the fixer. After a few moments I risked spoiling the print and turned on the lights. The bed in the photograph was clearly unoccupied. Suddenly tired and drained of all my excitement, I shut off the equipment and threw the wet print into the trash. I went to bed and mentioned none of this to my wife.
* * *
Two nights later, I was lazing on the couch by the fire. It was a cool late autumn evening. I had opened the biography of Poe and was reading passages at random having given up trying to read the book chapter by chapter. I recall dozing and waking several times in the way that makes it difficult to separate dreams from reality. Leafing through the book, I came upon a facsimile of a letter written by Poe. It began "My Dearest Sarah..." I had seen this before. It was the same fine script that I saw in my camera viewfinder in the Poe house attic.
I read on. "Since Ginny died these many months ago, I am inconsolable. I think of nothing but her untimely and sudden passing..." The text of the biography pointed out that this was the time that Annabel Lee, Poe's dark, some would say morbid, love poem was written.
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
* * *
I returned to the darkroom the next evening to print the still life photographs of Poe's desk. I don't know what I expected to see but I needed to get a grip on what was happening. Spirit photography... an overactive imagination? I couldn't help but feel strongly that there was something about the house, the moment in time, the presence of my wife and myself, or the combination of these factors, that was producing these strange phenomena. Whether in my mind or in reality, I needed to sort it all out. Odd that the factor that turned out to be the most important never occurred to me then.
Inspecting the negatives revealed nothing except the image I expected to see. When the bracketed negatives were printed, the one with the least exposure yielded a moody, atmospheric still life that struck me as one of the best photographs I had ever taken. The slanting rays of the sun through the old glass window produced a beautiful rim lighting effect. I made an 11 by 14 inch print of this negative on a paper with a satin texture and warm coloration and hung it up to dry. Good luck plays an important role in art photography and I had been lucky indeed to have happened to be in Poe's garret at the moment when the lighting was perfect for this shot.
A few hours later, I took down the dried print and looked it over in the strong overhead lights of my kitchen, admiring the composition and lighting. Then I noticed something. There appeared to be script, handwriting, on the topmost sheet of paper on Poe's inkstained desk. I could not make the writing out but the paper was not the blank sheet that I recalled seeing on the desk at the time. It was too late in the evening for another darkroom session so I resolved to make the sharpest glossy print of which my equipment was capable on the next day. A sharper, higher contrast print, would reveal the presence of any writing and even enable me to read the text. Perhaps.
It was close to midnight when I lay down on the couch and picked up the Poe biography. It fell open to this page:
"The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends and where the other begins?" This quotation from Poe's Premature Burial clearly demonstrates how the subject of death haunted Poe for the remainder of his life. After the demise of his wife, Virginia Clemm Poe, he sought solace in the arms of his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster. Poe was affianced to Sarah Royster for only a few short weeks before he suffered an attack of an unknown illness on the streets of Baltimore. He died in Washington College Hospital on October 7, 1849.
My eyes drifted to the photograph entitled Sarah Elmira Royster on the page opposite this text. In my half-asleep head, bells rang and adrenaline surged. I was instantly and completely awake. I sat up on the couch, my heart pounding. I was astonished. Then I was scared out of my wits. For I recognized this woman. The picture of the woman in 1840's dress, Poe's lover and fiancée Sarah Elmira Royster, was the image of the docent at the Poe house whose bouquet was pressed in my wife's album. The room was suddenly cold. I looked more closely at the photograph in the book. There was no doubt in my mind.
* * *
The next day, I telephoned the Poe Society in Baltimore and inquired about the identity of the docent on the day that we had visited the Poe house. The woman on the other end of the line asked me to hold and was away for several minutes. When she returned I was not surprised at her response:
"I'm sorry, sir, but I am afraid you are mistaken about the date. The Poe House was closed to visitors the week before and is closed for two years to perform extensive repairs. There were no tours on the date you quoted. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Poe's poetry speaks of the timelessness of love. I now saw that this was more than an illusory vision. I laid the telephone down with a lump in my throat and my eyes welling.
Richard has long been fascinated with the exotic, from ancient mysteries to present day developments in astrophysics and space exploration. Born in Indianapolis, he grew up with a keen appreciaton for the powerful machinery of racing automobiles and steam locomotives. Pursuing diverse interests, he majored in chemistry in college, won accolades in architectural and auto racing photography, and found a niche as an insurance claims executive for property losses ranging from fine arts to space satellite systems. But writing has been his passion from college days to the present.
Now retired, he is finally pursuing the talent for writing that was evident from his earliest days, but was relegated to a back burner for many years. His first novel, Seven Dreams of Inanna, written in collaboration with a Czech novelist, Jitka Saniova, was published in March 2007. Jitka and Richard have recently completed a novel for young readers called Zodiac Kids. Richard lives in Sonoma County, California and is presently working on a historical novel he calls The Alchymist.
For more info, visit Richard's web site.
Published by permission of the author.