Poe's 200th anniversary: Jonathan Hayes
To start our final day of Poe tributes, here's Jonathan Hayes, an author and a senior New York City medical examiner. His first novel, Precious Blood, will be followed this year by A Hard Death. (For more Poe, including all guest posts, click here.) His topic is "Now That You've Gone":
For the record, I'd like to state that neither Poe's detective stories nor his horror stories had anything to do with my becoming a forensic pathologist (the blame falls squarely on Conan Doyle and Donald J. "Encyclopedia Brown" Sobol). Moreover, while I recognize Poe's mysteries as the foundation on which the genre has built, I feel they've become lessened over time, both from familiarity and from the dilutional effect of so many minor – and major – works which bear their mark.
No, as a kid, and even now as a medical examiner and crime fiction writer, it's always been the creepy stuff that got to me, Poe's luxuriantly over-the-top sense of horror. His great gift is his uncanny ability to take a straightforward story and, with a couple of deftly revolting twists, reinvent it as something nightmarish and visceral.
Those twists stem from Poe's obsession with the perverse: his characters are compelled to do things they fully know are wrong, to do them just because they are wrong, even though their actions fly in the face of their own professed beliefs and personal interest. The traditional struggle between Wrong and Right is largely foreign to Poe's protagonists – they will murder and mutilate, and they will do it because they are perverse.
This resonates with my professional experience. In the real world, most murders are pathetically trite, the fall-out from miserable little squabbles over money, "love", pride. If Poe read the Sun today, I don't see him particularly intrigued by the murder of a drug dealer, for example: the killing of a dealer is too tragically legible, too prosaic. I suspect that Poe would be drawn instead to the bestial lyricism of the serial killing, as much for the opacity of motive as for the macabre obsession with details.
When I wrote Precious Blood, my first novel, I created a serial killer who was similarly opaque. I felt this was more realistic - you can't explain or justify a serial murder. We may identify common childhood contexts and behavior patterns among serial killers (the "classic" progression from bedwetting to animal mutilation to fire-setting to voyeurism to rape and finally to serial murder), and often discern distinctive signatures to their killings, but at the end of the day, their motives are inexplicable. Serial killers are not rational, they just are.
The killer in Precious Blood discloses his past, and the meaning of his killings becomes increasingly clear as the story unfolds, but no excuse is made for his behavior, no explanation advanced. He is diseased, and this is what he does: he commits acts that are symbolic but in truth almost arbitrary. He just is.
In Poe, too, motive is often trivial, a mere shadow of the killing itself – in "A Cask of Amontillado", Fortunato is bricked up because of the vaguest of perceived "injuries", Montresor referring to him as "my friend" even as he leads him deeper through the vaults to meet his fate. The murderer in "The Tell-tale Heart" dismisses all reasonable motive, stating about his victim, "I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I felt no desire." In "The Black Cat", the protagonist progresses from battering his wife, to mutilating and killing his cat, and on to murder; of course, the murder is what the killer is compelled to do right from the start, the alcoholic "intemperance" he invokes the most gossamer of excuses.
"The Black Cat" is macabre Poe par excellence. Even beyond its careful disquisition on the nature of the perverse, the story is a cornucopia of key Poe themes: the narrator's questionable sanity, doppelgangers, a revealing sexual subtext, and most appealing of all (well, for me) Poe's curious focus on how the corpse is handled after death, a pattern repeated over and over in his work. In "The Black Cat", the narrator spends three paragraphs proudly detailing how he'd disposed of his wife's body, including alternate methods considered (pitching her down a well, chopping her up, etc.), a description of the layout of his cellar, even a recipe for the plaster he used when he walled her up (mortar, sand, hair). Yet while living, she'd merited barely a sentence or two.
For Poe, death isn't a discrete event, but a greasy continuum. His protagonists can't tear themselves away from the newly departed, variously concealing, dismembering or pathologically mourning them, even using Mesmerism to keep a dead man in suspended animation for months ("The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar"). The body stays with its murderer, resulting in climactic scenes where the killer, no longer able to contain himself, either manages to taunt the police until they find the body or erupts in confession (in "The Imp of the Perverse", Poe actually sets up confession as an act of perversion). These sequences propel the reveal of the corpses, which nobody does better than Poe.
The killer in Precious Blood poses his victims (serial killers are often very conscious of what the person who comes across the victim will see, and may take great pains to arrange the body and its surroundings for maximum effect, even considering the perspective from which a likely discoverer will approach). Poe's handling of his bodies really informed the way I presented these tableaux in my book. I particularly relish Poe's habit of entombing his victims in a standing position, so that when the "dozen stout arms" tear down the wall at the end of "The Black Cat", the policemen – and killer – are face to face with the dead wife – maximum drama achieved!
It seems fitting that, given Poe's love for the prolonged and degraded farewell, in death he himself was not allowed to rest peacefully. The physician who treated him in his terminal delirium capitalized on the attendant celebrity, happily misrepresenting the circumstances of his death in print and on the lecture circuit. Worse, on the day Poe was buried, the New York Tribune ran an obituary that began "Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it." Signed "Ludwig", the obituary was written by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, a long-standing rival and enemy of Poe, who managed to become the literary executor of Poe's estate, and promptly (and effectively) set about destroying Poe's reputation.
Poe's body hardly had an easier time. His funeral was a bust, chopped down to three minutes because of the sparse crowd. He was buried in an unlined wooden box, unadorned by handles or nameplate; there wasn't even a cushion for his head. He was lodged first towards the back of the churchyard; the marble headstone his family attempted to provide was destroyed when a derailed train crashed through the stonecutter's yard, so his initial resting place bore only a numerical marker. It took another quarter century before concern over his grave mounted; after a false start in which the wrong body was exhumed, Poe's remains were finally moved to a more prominent spot in 1875. The body of his child bride (it seems one must always speak of Virginia Clemm as his "child bride" – ideally tossing in the fact that she was his first cousin) was orphaned when her cemetery was destroyed; in a note worthy of Poe himself, one of his biographers collected her bones, and kept them in a box under his bed. The two were finally reunited when Virginia was buried next to Poe on what would have been his 76th birthday – an adequately romantic ending, I think, for a Poe story.