Write Like Poe
(Something Old, Something New)
Happy Birthday, EA
“By his dead smile I knew that place for Hell.”—Wilfred Owen
How different that place appeared from all that fancy had limned or stern morality foreshadowed! No Dantean warning overarched the door which swung lightly at my touch. Still I crossed that threshold with one hand at stretch behind me to preserve the possibility of my escape, my eyes braced for darkness and my nostrils for sulfur.
Instead I came into the well-lit dining room of a hostelry. The clothing of the diners was elegant, their faces not unhandsome. The babble of their voices drowned the sound of the closing door.
Talk like theirs might be heard at any fashionable watering place; gossip grown slightly stale, and second-hand wit; and they smiled on one another, though with no great warmth. Only when I passed close by a table did the conversation die, and the company turn their eyes on me with a terrible longing. I essayed a smile and asked them if dinner was to be served soon. At this they looked reproachfully on me and turned away. The conversation resumed, halting and hurrying, disjointed as the ticking of a clock gone mad.
There were more tables than I could count, but no food on any, and around all of them the same false laughter. Cold bedewed my brow. I no longer desired understanding or anything but flight. As I passed the last table before the door she spoke to me. “You do not belong here. I can talk to you.” Her figure was shapely and well-nourished, almost beautiful, but her eyes were starving. “He won’t serve us. Oh, there’s food, and he takes our orders, but he’ll never serve us.”
She spoke even lower: “I know why. He believes there’s a famine. Believes no more will come. He told me why, once, when I was new here. Now no one will talk to me. And I won’t talk to them. It’s not safe. You know they’re all waiting.”
As she leaned closer I beheld my face reflected in her eyes, and behind my face the door. But between me and the door a shadow loomed, half-formed, hideous, waiting to engulf the fool who dared try to leave. With horrible clarity I realized that they all had seen this and now waited with desperate hope for someone else to test the door and prove their fear false, or at least to distract that loathly guardian. Not I; surely not I! I could not approach that fearsome shadow. But could I join them? I had disappointed them, and what vengeance might they not take?
Again I met my mirrored eyes, and they were frenzied as hers.
Once upon a noontime dreary,
While I wandered lost and weary,
Searching for that agent most respected,
I came upon my doom,
When I came upon the room
Where my pitch session was expected;
Where I hoped would be selected
Sweet novel now perfected.
With no further hesitation,
I went in with aspiration,
Eager to confirm what I suspected.
When with a flirt and flutter,
The agent moved to utter,
“Sit yer arse down; let’s be ’earin’ yer suggested.”
Though her tone was unexpected
I did as she directed.
I gazed at her breeches velvet,
Leather sash and satin jacket —
Pirate captain? So her clothes suggested.
But what struck my fancy fair
Was the bird upon her chair,
A parrot, by my presence unaffected.
Quoth the parrot, “You’re rejected.”
Still I’d come to make a deal,
So I plunged into my spiel,
Determined that my talent be detected.
“Aargghh,” the agent scritched,
When I’d finished up my pitch.
“That novel should be quartered and dissected.”
“But you’ve not read it yet,” I interjected.
Quoth the parrot, “You’re rejected.”
“Time’s up!” The agent swore,
Pointing cutlass at the door.
I felt trod down, unworthy and dejected,
She’d rammed my life’s boat
And left my dreams afloat,
So from that wretched room I fast defected.
And in my soul it echoes still,
the judgment thus inflected,
That cruel refrain, that oft-heard strain:
“Author, you’re rejected.”
Thus it was that I boarded the train home, ready to plunge into my latest project with renewed energy.
Not long after taking my seat, I chanced to notice, on the floor of the aisle, a quarter dollar. As I pondered whether to simply lean into the aisle and collect the coin, or whether to "accidentally" drop my book, allowing me to surreptitiously snatch the coin as I retrieved the book, I couldn't help but notice a fellow passenger across the aisle also eying the coin. Before I could release my book to the floor, this boor was reaching down and taking possession of what I now considered to be my prize.
I need not impress upon you the rage I felt at this moment. And yet I resisted the urge to claim the quarter as my own, or to lay siege upon the thief. No, instead I calmly befriended the fellow, asking his destination, and his business. So clever was I that when I invited him to dine with me at my home, he readily accepted, having no business in the city until the following day.
How convincing I was as we partook of the venison stew and the wine. I gave no sign of what was to come, and he suspected nothing, even as, after dessert and brandy, I led him down the stairs to my basement and shackled him to the wall under the guise of helping him stretch his tired limbs. Not even after the bricks and mortar had reached his waist did he fully perceive his peril, but when he was at last fully walled in, his muffled screams brought me satisfaction unimagined. Until the moment I realized that I had neglected to remove my quarter from his coat pocket.
The gray-haired grouse toddled in, unannounced, sidling his way up to my booth with nary a look hither or yon. His nerves must have sought out mine in a misguided sense of camaraderie—but mine were the shivery jitterings of first-day employment at Rebekah’s Ped-y-Man; where his were plainly in agony from excessive contact with inferior composition. For yes, I did recognize Evil Editor Himself—and despaired he could smell the failed manuscripts ink-stained on my hands.
I kept my face averted even as he ascended the throne where I would service him.
“Hah,” he cried. “What’s with the sudden shyness? No need to be coy—attend me!”
Too much to hope his ratty eyes and eagle mind would not identify me as a minion. I could not even look up to see the response from my co-workers, so mortified was I.
Arms atremble, head bowed, I grabbed my pumice stone and set forth to remove my frustrations from his feet. Propping his left foot in the stirrup and removing his sandal, though, I saw not dead skin but a shimmery darkness like onyx caked to his feet. He laughed at my sudden hesitation.
“The souls of those I have crushed. No matter, they will soon be gone. Scrub hard.”
And so I did, imagining his foot an unpolished manuscript, and I— I, the editor.
My humble work, the reek of laudanum and ink clinging to the pages still, lay like a sacrifice before this mad editor upon whose word the whole of industry now turned. My breath held bated in my lungs as his eyes, glossed with filmy blue, peered through the thick portals of the pince-nez perched upon his nose. I could scarce hold still as each second ticked away, interminable as sea rock being beaten into grains upon the strand.
At long last the man let out a sigh that rolled through the close chamber like a death knell. He raised a hand that had surely seen too many days wielding a quill, curved as each finger was in the semblance of a tiny scimitar, and flicked that monstrosity of flesh my way in the modern fashion of bored dismissal. “Pass,” he ejaculated, and the word sounded to my ears like nothing so much as a knife’s dull edge drawn across the whetting stone. In that moment, my revulsion knew no bounds. I admit to great imaginings: his large corpus walled behind stone; a bladed pendulum seeking to rend him in two; a cursed companion shadowing his soul till it could nevermore bear this wretched world.
I knew then what my course must be: to see each of these demises carried through. Already I could hear the scritch scritch scritch of nib on parchment as my visions found fulfillment. I would allow, nay welcome, this evil, tortured face to haunt my dreams and guide my writings as no opium flower ever could. What greater punishment for this glorified scrivener than to serve as my poor muse?