BALTIMORE – Edgar Allen Poe’s 198th birthday celebration looked more a like a funeral than a party – with a casket, fans dressed in black, and a graveyard conveniently located right outside the door. It was all appropriate, perhaps, for the dark poet, but Poe fans say there’s more to the writer than a fascination with the macabre.
About 300 people came to an eerily-lit Westminster Hall Saturday night (Jan. 27) for the festivities honoring Poe, an adopted son of Baltimore who is buried in the adjacent cemetery.
The tall steeples of the former Westminster Presbyterian Church glowed from an orange light aimed at the entrance for an affect akin to a Halloween party instead of a birthday. The event has been a Baltimore tradition since 1982 and is held on the weekend nearest Poe’s actual birthday on Jan. 19.
Visitors walked around the church peering at exhibits that displayed strands of Poe’s hair and had their pictures taken with a Poe impersonator and two women who came as the Bronte sisters – Emily and Charlotte – in 19th century dresses and bonnets. For the two women dressed as the Brontes – Shelley McPherson and Theda Mayer, both Howard County school teachers – the Poe celebration has become a “family” event. They said they feel adopted by the other Poe aficionados – they get to sit in the front row, and go out to dinner with the cast of the performances.
The celebration included dramatic performances of Poe’s short stories and recitals of his poems.
The opening performance was “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” one of Poe’s less popular short stories. The story was about a dying man’s request to be hypnotized at the point of death. The hypnotism worked and for days, the main character, Monsieur Valdemar, was in a comatose state physically, but lucid mentally.
Monsieur Valdemar dictates the meaning of the universe, and the meaning and nature of God, for most of the piece – a seeming departure from the shock value of a typical Poe work like the “Tell-Tale Heart.” However, the end appeals to the most basic Poe fan. After the main character begs to be awakened from the hypnosis, the two doctors – and the rest of the audience – find that he is a rotting corpse.
The narrator’s voice echoes through the high ceilings of the Gothic church: “Upon the bed there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome – of detestable putridity.” The audience gasped, then gave raucous applause and a standing ovation to the twisted ending of Poe’s version of science-fiction.
But some audience members were surprised by the science-fiction in the piece and not by the rotting corpse.
“From what I’ve been exposed to I thought of Poe as the death poet,” said 22-year-old Marco Brun del Re. “I was impressed by the quantum physical elements of this performance, like what is reality? What comprises death? I liked how he looked at death as a progression rather than an end, it’s mature positivism.”
His older brother, Renzo Brun del Re, a 29-year-old aspiring writer, was also impressed by the performance.
“I thought it was very sophisticated that he was so attuned to what people were thinking about, that they were thinking about death in the 19th century,” he said. “It’s like eroticism in the Victorian era.” A second performance, “Berenice” was based on another short story. It’s about a man named Egaeus’ obsession with the smile of his dying cousin, Berenice. After visiting the body in its coffin, he is left to wallow in his obsessive thoughts about her. He eventually discovers that he is covered in blood. When a servant points this out to him, Egaeus, says, “He pointed to garments – they were muddy and clotted with gore. I spoke not, and he took me gently by the hand: but it was indented with the impress of human nails.” At this point in the story the reader realizes that Egaeus had removed all the teeth from the mouth of Berenice while she was still alive. Jeff Jerome, the curator of the Poe House and Museum, said that Berenice was about obsession and Poe used premature burial – which was a common fear at that time – as a gimmick to end his story with a bang. “He (Poe) wrote about things that could happen to you,” he said. “You could be buried alive, could be murdered, could be tortured.” Jerome said that Poe responded to what the readers wanted to read in his quest for fame and fortune. “Horror stories is what sold, then and now,” he said. “He tried to do other things but it was the public’s demand. Death was a common theme with people, so he incorporated that theme into stories, no other writer did that.” Jerome said he organizes the birthday celebration to honor Poe’s literary contributions and to dispel the myths that Poe was obsessed with death and darkness, that he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. He said that if people are still attracted to Poe because of his “darkness” than that’s good – because it’s a starting point. “Poe is an icon for horror, unfortunately, but the more popular he is the more I like it,” he said. “If people are attracted to Poe because of his horror story that’s great, hopefully they will learn more about his life.”