With a storm raging outside and a good conversationalist in the opposite wingback, I had no desire to leave my comfortable chair in the library on a recent evening.
Laura Griffin had sought refuge in the club shortly after the storm started brewing and was now draining a glass of the cosmopolitan it contained. A Birmingham-area blogger and authority on beauty and glamour, she also has an affinity for historical mysteries, which somehow became the substance of our discussion.
It was a fitting night for such a chat, and having considered the problem of the Highgate Vampire and the even more singular business of the hidden room at Glamis Castle, the topic drifted to a more domestic puzzle.
“You’ve heard by now, I suppose, that the mystery of the Poe Toaster has been laid to rest unsolved, right?”
“No, I hadn’t,” Laura said. “That would be the man who leaves flowers at Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, right?”
“Every year on his birthday, right.”
It’s an intriguing tradition that’s gone on for three-quarters of a century. Each Jan. 19 since sometime in the 1940s, an unidentified man dressed in black with a white scarf and wide-brimmed hat has placed three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac at the author’s grave in Baltimore.
Except for the past three years. The mysterious mourner who has come to be known as the Poe Toaster hasn’t shown since 2009, prompting the Poe Society of Baltimore to officially call an end to the tradition.
“That’s a shame,” Laura said. “It was such a touching tribute, but, considering it’s Poe, maybe there’s something fitting about it remaining a mystery.”
“He is the father of the modern mystery story,” I agreed, “and even if he’d written nothing more than The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter, and The Mystery of Marie Roget, that’s no small legacy.”
A server appeared with another cosmopolitan for Laura. “Do you need another?” she asked, indicating my glass of rum and Dr Pepper.
“No, thanks, Sarah, I’m fine.”
“Okay,” she said, taking in both of us with a wide smile. “I’ll check on you later.”
“She’s new here, isn’t she?” Laura asked as the raven-tressed server vanished.
I nodded. “Sarah Miller. She’s in marketing for a local company and is an exceptionally talented artist. She thought it might be fun to work here on the side. This is her third night, but if Baxter has his way, she’ll be gone by the weekend.”
“Well, let’s see. Her first night here, she bumped into Currie, causing him to drop a plate of beef stroganoff into Scott Wilson’s lap. Two nights ago, she wiped out a tray of martini glasses on the bar with a sweeping gesture while giving Sherri Ross directions to the ladies’ room. Then last night, she accidentally knocked a bottle of 27-year-old Glenfarclas out of Baxter’s hand. He threw his back out diving to catch it.”
“Oh, no. Poor Sarah.”
“Baxter might choose a different adjective at the moment. And since I gave her a recommendation when he hired her, he’s no happier with me. But back to Poe. Do you remember the first time you read him?”
“I memorized Annabel Lee in sixth grade, not for a school assignment, but because the structure of the poem is so beautiful. For me, it was like learning the words to a song. I simply had to know it. Although I knew who Poe was from pop culture references, that was probably his first actual work I read. Mr. Poe, pouring out his grieving and tortured declarations of love despite death, was already immensely appealing to me even at age 12. When did you first read him?”
“At about the same age, oddly enough.”
Rodney White introduced me to Poe when I was a student in his seventh grade literature class. The famous author looked down on us every day, the first in a line of posters that decorated almost the entire length of one wall in Mr. White’s classroom.
An ascot at his neck, his eyes melancholy, and his hair slightly unkempt, Poe was with us as we read about the old man with the pale blue eye in The Tell-Tale Heart and listened to Mr. White read to us from Poe’s melodious poem about the black bird with a penchant for repeating itself.
Poe was a fascinating study. A brilliant writer who was haunted by personal demons, misfortune, and ill health. Orphaned before he was three, he was educated in England and at the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy. While finding small success as a writer of poetry and short stories, he went through a series of jobs as an editor and critic for literary magazines. His work was popular, but it didn’t make him rich.
When he was 27, he married his cousin (she was 14), but he was a widower 11 years later. Two years after his wife’s death from an exhaustive illness, the 40-year-old Poe was found unconscious on a back street in Baltimore. He died a few days after being admitted to Washington College Hospital, apparently the victim of alcoholism and his own bleak perception of life.
“That bleakness may be why I’ve often refrained from openly admiring Poe’s work,” I told Laura. “There is some of it I definitely don’t like, but he was a gifted writer.”
“I know,” she said, taking a sip of her drink. “Take The Pit and the Pendulum. We never learn exactly what unspeakable horror lurks in the pit, do we? You’re left to your own devices and imagination, crafting your very own worst nightmare. Alfred Hitchcock once said, ‘There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.’ I read this story and physically start to panic. Is there anything more horrifying than the walls beginning to close in around you? I re-read this tale, and while I admit to forgetting a few details, I’ll never forget how it made me feel.”
Still apparently feeling the effects of literary terror, Laura was startled by the reappearance of Sarah — which timely coincided with a thunderclap and flash of lighting at the window — with another cosmopolitan. “Thank you, Sarah, but I’ve barely touched the one you brought me earlier.”
“No, this is for me,” Sarah said as she settled into a nearby plush bergere. “I don’t work here any more, so I thought I’d join you.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I spilled a beer all over a guy in the bar.”
“Oh, no,” Laura said commiseratively.
Sarah sipped her drink. “Yeah. It was quite a scene. I mean, I don’t blame him for being upset, but he kept going on and on about how would he ever be able to replace so magnificent a garment. It was just a t-shirt.”
“Did it say anything?” I asked.
“Have Okra, Will Travel.”
“That’d be Wade Smith. Serves him right. According to house rules, they’re not even supposed to let him in the door wearing that thing.”
“Anyway, my career as a cocktail waitress is over now.”
“But that leaves you free to help us talk about Edgar Allan Poe,” Laura said brightly.
“Well, I’m sure I’ve read some of his work, but I don’t claim to be a Poe fan. My friend Tripp loves him, especially one of his stories called The Cask of…”
“Amontillado,” Laura supplied. “That’s definitely my favorite, too. The story is so chilling. Poe is a master at getting inside the mind of a murderer.”
“Do you have a favorite Poe quotation?” I asked.
“That’s beautiful,” Sarah said.
“Oh, it is. You’ve got to read that poem. What’s your favorite quote, Buddy?”
“The opening line of The Fall of the House of Usher: ‘During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung ominously low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.’”
There was another thunderclap and a slight pause before Sarah said, “That has to be one of the finest sentences ever written by a human being.”
“And it’s never sounded better than the first time Mr. White read it to us in class 30 years ago.”
Note: No martini glasses or t-shirts were actually harmed during the writing of this post.