Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.--W.B. Yeats
The news swept through the city with the rush of a gale. Delivery men told housemaids at the back doors, and businessmen discussed it over their morning tea. Children sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Maryland, My Maryland” while playing stickball in the cobblestone streets, and dock workers grumbled about the implications for their jobs. For the poets arriving for their annual poetry conference, however, it was unimportant compared to the event scheduled the next evening.
Rufus Griswold entered the crowded Fells Point pub, certain that he would be hailed before he could reach the counter. Sure enough, pushing through the masses of excited and tipsy patrons toward the overworked bartender, he heard his name.
"Griswold! Over here, old man!” A wave of laughter welled up as Griswold approached the table, his friends welcoming him with raised glasses.
“Join us, won’t you? You’re the man of the hour, after all." William Davis clapped Griswold on the back, who took the mug thrust into his hand.
"You'd allow a lawyer into your ranks?" Griswold said, smiling.
"As long as our manuscripts are safely stored in our rooms." Davis winked, and the others chuckled. “Heard about Pennsylvania?”
“Of course. Bloody fools, like the rest of them. Secession’s not the answer.”
“Can’t blame them, though, what with the jobs they’ve lost.” Frederick Lee nodded sagely, lifting his ale and stroking his side whiskers. “The tariff's just about crippled New England. And the embargo back in ’14—”
“Oh, come on, Fred, you always side with the underdog. They’re splitting up the country over economic issues.” Dean Faulkner, the youngest of the group and one of the best living Southern poets, gestured impatiently, his eyes following a waitress nearby. “It’s the Allied States of America, after all—”
“All I know is that Douglas has his hands full,” Lee interrupted, glaring at Faulkner. “He pledged to keep the peace when he was elected, and he owes it to the people to do it.”
“Personally, I don’t give a damn about the I.S.N.E., except that it’s keeping Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes from attending. Thank God Shelley was interested, and for your little gem.” Davis took another drink, smiling and raising an eyebrow at Griswold. “Care to give us a preview before the grand presentation tomorrow?”
“I don’t have the poem memorized, William.” Griswold forced a smile. “You’ll have to wait like everyone else.”
“Ah, well. Pity Poe couldn’t be here to read it himself. Bad luck, him dying two months before the conference.” Davis signaled the waitress. “Good luck, though, you finding it.”
“Yes.” Griswold didn’t care to elaborate, although he knew they were on tenterhooks. As Poe’s closest friend, he'd been his executor. When he’d traveled to Baltimore six weeks prior to sort out the estate, he’d never expected to find any unpublished works in Poe’s papers. Nevertheless, he had, and he’d felt it his duty to his friend's fellow poets to share the piece with them before publication. Poe had been so popular when he’d died of consumption that the news was greeted with huzzahs, particularly in light of the unfortunate political situation.
Griswold knew the truth about the poem, though he’d never tell Davis. Poe would never have shared it with anyone. In fact, he’d burned it twice.
Night rolled in over the city, dark clouds blotting out the stars. The air grew clammy and heavy with the impending storm.
Griswold awoke in the middle of the night, sweating through his nightshirt, panting as his heart raced in the wake of an unremembered nightmare. Rising, he went to the desk by the window, turning on the gas lamp. He opened his leather portfolio, stuffed fat with papers. He’d brought them with him to share after the reading.
He untied the ribbon holding the case shut and took out the papers, arranging them on the desktop. Pausing, he mused. Edgar Alan Poe. One of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century, recognized as a genius by his peers. His stories and poems were famous through the States and Europe. "The Tell-Tale Heart." “Cristabel Lee.” “The Raven.” "The Fall of the House of Escher." All brilliant and penetrating works of horror.
None of them, however, compared to the poem he’d found six weeks ago. “House of Wax.” The most incredible and astounding work he’d read by his friend. One that Poe had never referred to in all their years of correspondence. Why?
When Griswold had found his friend’s journal, it became clearer.
He opened the cardboard-bound book, adjusted his bifocals and began to read, although he’d nearly committed the entries to memory by now.
September 13, 1861. Tonight was a strange experience, one of the strangest in my years of writing. I awoke from a nightmare, one more horrible and frightening than any I can remember, and yet upon awakening, nothing of its content remained to me. I rose and lit the fire, and a poem began reciting in my head. It was the first I've been able to compose in several weeks.
I found pen and paper and wrote it down, and now, as I reread it, it seems perfect. I can’t envision making a single change or emendation. Strange, for I've never felt this way about anything else I've written.
It seems to capture the very spirit and sustenance of that forgotten nightmare, though how I can be sure of this, I do not know. I shall lay it aside for later publication.
October 23. I still have been unable to publish “House of Wax.” When I reread it, it fills my heart with dread and terror. I have tried putting it away, but find myself taking it out and rereading it at odd intervals. Even now, as I contemplate the work, icy fingers lay themselves along my spine and a cold sweat moistens my brow.
Still, this is nonsense. It’s only a poem. Mere words, nothing more.
Strange, though, how it came to me so easily, without a single correction. Almost…as if it came from without, rather than from my imagination.
Griswold, the most hard-headed and practical of men, shuddered. Doubtless the breeze from the window. He got up, closed it and sat back down, reading on in the flicker of the gaslight.
December 5. I have burned “House of Wax.” I could stand it no more. Tonight, at last, I shall sleep with ease.
December 6. No good! I awoke in the grip of another forgotten nightmare, panting with shortened breath and pounding heart. I got out of bed and sat at my desk, trying to regain control of myself…and found myself scribbling madly, filling the page with words, with never a pause to think. When I had done, I read the result. To a syllable, it is “House of Wax.”
How could I have done this? I can’t even remember what I wrote as I wrote it.
I shall burn it again. There is something ominous about this piece which has convinced me it should not be published.
Griswold stopped and took a breath, shaking his head and glancing around the room. All seemed quiet. Then he heard a pattering, and looked outside to see streaks of rain striking the window. He turned back to Poe’s journal.
February 10. I had thought I was free. I burned the poem without incident two months ago.
Then, last night, once again I woke with an unvoiced scream on my lips. Once again I leapt from my bed and sat at my writing desk. Once more, “House of Wax” was the result.
I cannot rid myself of this horror. I believe it was sent from Lucifer.
I must hide it. I know the very place.
There the journal ended save for one final line: Below a thousand layers lies the riddle's answer.
Griswold frowned again, rereading the last cryptic words. “I must hide it.” Why had Poe written that? He’d not hidden the poem; Griswold had found it in his desk, very near the top of a pile of papers, above his journal.
He shook his head, putting the journal back into his folio and retying it, then dousing the lamps and climbing back into bed. Although he wanted to honor his dead friend's wishes, he couldn't bring himself to do so. It seemed clear that Edgar had suffered from dementia shortly before his death. The content of the poem certainly indicated a delusional frame of mind, even more so than most of Poe’s work.
He owed it to the world to share such an incredible piece of art. Even more, he knew how much money it would bring him, Poe’s sole beneficiary. Talk of Lucifer and malignant forces was nothing but talk.
Still, as he dropped off to sleep, vague dread lurked in the depths of his consciousness.
Morning dawned dry but dark. Clouds hung low in the sky black with the promise of more rain. Sweat broke out on Griswold's brow as he dressed. He’d promised to meet Davis for lunch down at the harbor.
Davis awaited him at the inn, a dingy place that appeared even gloomier in the half-light of the stormy skies. “Did you rest well?” he asked as Griswold sat.
“Moderately. The rain didn’t help much with the heat.”
“No. We’re in for a hell of a storm.” Davis sipped his ale, his eyes sparkling as he regarded Griswold. “Do you have it?”
“Of course. Here.” He reached into his pocket and handed over the folded pages, which Davis took eagerly, opening them and scanning the words. His face blanched.
“My God, Rufus, this is incredible. The imagery…Is this the final draft?”
“First and final. He said it came to him all at once, perfect.”
“Amazing.” Davis came to the end, shuddered and turned back to the beginning, pursing his lips. “I think I can give it an exemplary reading.”
“I’m sure you will.” Griswold knew that his voice wouldn’t be able to do the poem justice. “Give me five or ten minutes to give the background. Then I’ll turn the podium over to you.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Davis put the papers away and leaned forward, grinning. “They’ll be talking about this one for weeks. The basilica should be full."
"Glad you're reading it there. That was Poe's favorite place." His friend had spent hours there, sitting on the low wall beneath a maple tree at the edge of the grounds, composing.
"It seemed quite suitable." Davis paused to order from the waitress. "So what's the latest from New England?” he continued when she'd left.
Griswold shook his head. “Not good. The state militia in Boston fired on the Federal troops Douglas sent.”
“So it’s war?”
“Not officially, yet. He’s trying to negotiate with Seward to ‘resolve our differences.’”
“Let’s hope they can resolve them. Otherwise we’ll have a bloody mess on our hands.”
Night fell on the city with the storm yet unbroken. The air was thick with the humidity, and the street lamps were lit early, but failed to dispel the growing blackness.
The basilica was full despite the weather. Men filled the pews, their voices echoing in the vast cathedral illuminated only by the lit candles. Griswold glanced at his watch for the fourth time; its hands seemed to be glued to the dial. He wished that it was all over. Since arriving, a strong sense of dread had been gnawing at him, despite his attempts to dismiss it.
Eight o’clock. Frederick Lee cleared his throat, rose and ascended the steps to the pulpit. The crowd quieted, fixing their collective eyes on him. Outside, a low rumble of thunder sounded.
“Fellow poets and distinguished guests. On behalf of Mr. Davis, Mr. Faulkner, and myself, I welcome you to our annual Poetic Conference. To commence this glorious occasion, we have a special reading which I’m sure is of interest to you all. As you all know, one of the greatest poets of today, Edgar Alan Poe, passed away two months ago…”
Couldn’t he get to the point? Griswold thought. The stuffiness of the atmosphere was overwhelming. Perspiration ran in rivers down his neck and back. Another low echo sounded, closer now. The trembling in the pit of his stomach increased.
“…May I present the executor of Mr. Poe’s estate, Mr. Rufus Griswold.” Applause and a few whistles filled the church as Griswold stepped up to the pulpit. The people were dim shadows in the pews. Taking a breath, he began.
“Thank you, Mr. Lee. I merely wish to give a bit of background to the poem before Mr. Davis gives us the honor of reading it. It is perhaps the most unsettling poem by Mr. Poe hitherto discovered, containing vivid and violent imagery. Perhaps the most significant point is that Poe used the title as a metaphor for the collapse of society, one we can appreciate all the more in the wake of today’s news.” A flash of white illuminated the windows for an instant, followed in the next second by a loud clap of thunder. Griswold fumbled his notes, disconcerted. Abruptly, he decided to leave the rest and go on to the poem.
“Thank you. Now, gentlemen, may I present Mr. William Davis.” The applause this time was louder, going on for several minutes. Davis nodded and smiled. Griswold found his chair and sank into it, his heart pounding. Davis waited until the noise had died down before speaking.
“Thank you, my esteemed collegues. Without further ado, here is Mr. Poe’s poem, entitled ‘House of Wax.’”
Immediately, all sounds ceased except Davis’s smoothing the pages before beginning to recite, drama filling his voice. He was a true orator.
“A flash of fire strikes the house of wax…”
Light flashed brightly through the windows with a crash of thunder almost simultaneously. Davis paused, and a murmur rushed through the crowd. Griswold's stomach turned over, and he pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his brow.
“Well, that was certainly fitting,” Davis said, trying to smile as a hesitant laugh rippled through the audience. “Let me begin again.” Once more, he began to recite, his voice strengthening as the lines began rolling out. Thunder boomed and rain drove against the windows. Griswold winced, and Davis raised his voice to be heard over the din.
“…Thunder drowns the blast of horns…”
Again, lightning sounded with a crack of thunder, and as Davis stopped, a high piercing scream sounded outside. Before Griswold could speak, Davis continued, even as the shadows in the pews began to rise and exclaim to each other.
“…Hidden deep within the ground, underneath the garden wall…”
Griswold started at the words, which he’d forgotten until now. I know the perfect place. Was that what Poe had meant? The church wall outside?
Davis shouted the poem's final line above the growing din of the storm.
“..…and the house of wax comes tumbling down!”
The doors flew open and a man ran in, gesturing frantically. “Get out! The roof’s on fire!” The sharp scent of smoke tinged the air as a beam cracked in the ceiling. People screamed, jumping up and stampeding for the exit, shoving each other aside as the aisles filled.
“Keep calm, everyone!” Davis shouted, clutching the pulpit. “Remain calm!”
Griswold knew he had only one chance. He seized his chair and ran to the window, summoning all his strength and flinging it at the glass. It shattered, and the wind and rain blew in. Around him was chaos; people yelling and crying out as plaster fell from the ceiling and the air grew hazy with smoke. He coughed, sweeping the shards aside, hardly feeling the stabbing pain when one embedded itself in his palm.
"Griswold! Wait for me!” Davis scrambled down, but Griswold climbed through the window, leaping several feet to the yard below. Not looking back to see if his friend had made it, he yanked the glass from his hand, wrapping his handkerchief around the wound. He ran from the building through the driving rain.
The world outside was almost as frightening as that within. Soldiers galloped on horseback through the streets, firing shots which popped faintly at the people running recklessly to and fro, without any apparent purpose, blinded by panic. Poets spilled out from the basilica onto the street, scattering hither and yon into the night, illuminated by lightning flashes and the blaze of fire from the dome above them.
Women screamed, darting back and forth like wild horses. Griswold saw one drop to the ground, a dark stain spreading on her bosom. A calvary officer leapt over her and sped away toward the harbor.
“They’ve invaded!” someone shouted. “It’s the end!”
Griswold tried to control his growing panic and dismay. Surely, there had to be a clue to all this. Somehow, the poem had unleashed this anarchy; he knew it. But he felt it also held the answer. “Hidden deep within the ground, underneath the garden wall…” And that last line in his diary: Below a thousand layers lies the riddle's answer. That was it! Poe must have meant the basilica. He'd spent so much time there.
He groped toward the low wall at the back of the church’s grounds, ignoring the cries and shots dimly heard through the booming thunder. The fire, which had engulfed the dome, illuminated the night. Rain soaked his clothes and drove into Griswold's face.
He found the spot beneath the maple where his friend had loved to sit. Falling to his knees, he scrabbled frantically at the earth, knowing the answer must be somewhere below layer upon layer of dirt. If he could only dig deep enough...
Chaos swirled around him as he tunneled deeper into the mud. The air seemed charged with electricity, and not just from the storm. Griswold wrenched handfuls of earth and grass loose, going down, further down. Screams and shouts filled the air, and the flames from the basilica singed his back.
Then his fingers struck wood, and he dug around the corner of the box frantically, desperate to pull it out. He coughed on the smoke and yanked it free, grasping at the lid. At last he got it open and peered into its depths.
There was nothing there. Griswold thrust his fingers in, feeling for a scrap of paper. Nothing.
He must've put the poem here, Griswold thought. And then...something...took it out again. Made sure I'd find it.
He looked back into the box. Nothing except blackness. Even the light from the fire didn't illuminate it. He stared into its depths, and to his horror the blackness began to grow, spreading out from the box into the night, blotting out the stars. People screamed, staring up at the sky into the hole growing there. Griswold's last thought was: It's swallowing everything--
Thursday, January 12, 2006
"So how's the new album coming?"
He shrugged, taking another bite of his salad. "All right. I've got most of the songs, but I need just one or two more."
"No ideas?" His friend looked stunned. "I thought you could write songs about anything."
He laughed. "Not this time. Nothing's coming to me."
"Well, it will. And if not, you could always record a couple of oldies."
"Yeah." But the idea didn't appeal to him. He changed the subject, outwardly unconcerned, but inside disturbed at his inability to come up with a tune or lyrics. It was usually effortless.
As he got into bed that night, he heard pouring rain begin to fall. He turned out the light and yawned, turning on his side. Driving rain. No good....
Hours later, he awoke, clutching at the bedclothes, his pulse racing in terror. He rolled over and turned on the light, sitting up and catching his breath, trying to remember what had frightened him so badly. Try though he might, nothing came to mind.
As his fear faded, lyrics began drifting through his thoughts, out of nowhere. He rose, pulled on a robe and went down the hall to his studio, switching on the lights and sitting at the piano. He gingerly flexed his fingers, still stiff, then played a chord. C sharp minor. That was good. He followed it with F sharp minor, then an A. The chords seemed to come from outside him, just like the lyrics. Perfect. He began singing, softly at first, then with greater assurance. This was going to be his biggest hit ever. He could premiere it on his U.S. tour.
“A flash of fire strikes the house of wax…”
The lights flickered, and outside, the wind and rain blew in a howl.
This story was inspired by the song "House of Wax" by Paul McCartney from the album Memory Almost Full. The events within were directly inspired by the lyrical content. I hope that Paul would approve of the final result.