Reading Poe in the pandemic
To the list of cliched consolations built according to a similar sentence pattern—the one good thing about the pandemic is...the only silver lining in the pandemic is...if we've learned one thing from the pandemic, it's that...—I will add mine: the only true comfort in the pandemic has been Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe has been a companion since I dropped the needle on Dylan's latest album and heard the singer in I Contain Multitudes confess that he has "a tell-tale heart like Mr. Poe."
I am back to Mr. Poe and reading the short stories and, as strange as it sounds, find in the horror something up to the ordeal we find ourselves in. Yes, I can try to balance out the grimness and the bleakness with good news stories, and I do. But Poe does the trick. The stories are little injections of dread that somehow work to stabilize my fears. Like to like. Literary vaccine.
The Premature Burial tells a story from the point of view of a young man terrified by the prospect of being interred while still alive. It was a thing back in those days in Baltimore, apparently.
"It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and mental distress, as is burial before death," Poe writes before digging in and going full Poe with vivid descriptions of the oppression of being encased in a tomb while still fighting for air.
I read it last night before bed, which may have been a misstep. I seemed to drift in and out of sleep most of the night. Playing on the big screen of dreamland was an episode of the TV series FBI that I watched as a kid alone in the basement. It was the one about a young woman who had been kidnapped and buried alive, a tiny breathing tube poking up to the surface her only supply of oxygen from the vault above. It scared the life out of me. It still does.
Reading The Premature Burial, a new image has, slowly, gradually, tortoise-like, come into focus. Sheltering in place is a kind of burial alive. Our neighbourhoods are now graveyards with neat rows of house-tombs, some decorated and tended, some forgotten and ruined. Inside, we are alive, trapped and oppressed by the knowledge of another kind of life on open streets and in free air that we remember but to which we cannot return. By order of the chief medical officers of health and horror alike, we are sepulchred in our homes.
In Premature Burial, readers the story within a story of Edward Stapleton, who apparently dies of typhus fever and is duly buried under eight feet of soil. His friends, who are students in medicine, disinter him and begin a planned, secret dissection when it happens that the mistake of his return to the earth presents itself in terrifying truth. Here is a helpful passage:
He declares that at no period was he altogether insensible—that, dully and confusedly, he was aware of everything which happened to him, from the moment in which he was pronounced dead by his physician, to that in which he fell swooning to the floor of the hospital. "I am alive," were the uncomprehended words which, upon recognizing the locality of the dissecting-room, he had endeavored, in his extremity, to utter.
The narrator tells three other stories like Stapleton's. There is the account of a woman from Baltimore, she, the wife of a respected politician, who dies of a mystery cause and whose body is laid in the family crypt. It turns out she is alive. There is the story of Mlle. Lafourcade, who is exhumed by a lover who desires a lock of her hair. It turns out she is alive. There is the story of an artillery officer who is dug up after a peasant in the graveyard feels a frantic commotion from the earth below. It turns out the artillery officer is alive.
In only one of the terrifying episodes do we get a direct quotation from one of the disinterred, and that is Stapleton's "I am alive." We can assume Poe wants to direct our attention to those three words.
This faith is rewarded. I am alive becomes the liberating truth accepted by the narrator himself after his own descent into and return from the prison of premature burial.
My soul acquired tone—acquired temper. I went abroad. I took vigorous exercise. I breathed the free air of Heaven. I thought upon other subjects than Death... In short, I became a new man, and lived a man's life.
That is my hope for my eventual migration out of my tomb in Parkview. That I emerge with a soul of tone and temper. And that I again go abroad and see things never seen, including things seen before but then seen anew. Until then, Poe's story is a vital reminder that we who are sheltering in place are only allegorically dead, that our lot is not wholly a despairing lot, that our task is to find new meaning in those three terrifying words: I am alive.
I will start that work as soon as I read The Fall Of The House Of Usher.