Affliction From the Poe House

Like any writer worth her salt in literary knowledgeability and therefore talent, Abigail Renton was an avid reader of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. And, to be sure, Poe spoke to the bubbling angst paired with an unexplained and foreboding sadness within any teenager who also listened to The Smiths and Joy Division on repeat. At fifteen, she treated The Fall of the House of Usher and The Murders in the Rue Morgue as biblical texts, quoting at random to her parents in response to their attempt at small talk dinner conversation during most of her high school years. As when her mother, Patricia, a hopelessly pallid woman whose pallidness also accented her loose, forty-eight-year-old skin, asked, “Abigail, have you considered any further going to the prom?” and Abigail, without hesitation, replied, “Yes. And ‘to avoid an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil,’ I won’t be going.”

George, Abigail’s less offput by her obsession father, arched his bushy brown eyebrows and retorted, “Pardon, my interruption of your delight at irritating your mother, but I should think that going to the prom is anything but a bitter lapse into everyday life.”

Abigail, always ready to verbally tango with George’s negation of her wittiness, returned, “Father, what could possibly be more quotidian than a prom? It’s absolutely the most banal descent into precisely what it means to be ordinary and live ordinarily.

George rolled his eyes as a form of concession, stabbed his fork into another piece of undercooked broccoli (Patricia’s strength was in her lawyerdom, not her cooking) and said to Patricia, “Well, our daughter’s combative intelligence has surpassed even mine.”

Patricia, not wanting to broach the subject of how she wasn’t even included as a factor in the reason behind Abigail’s personality, chewed her chicken in silence, avoiding eye contact with Abigail as though looking directly at her might cause Patricia to burst into flames. Ever since her Poe fixation began, the rift between them–seemingly present since Abigail could talk–had only augmented. It was almost like Abigail resented Patricia simply for bringing her into this world–which is why George somehow got a pass for her contempt even though his seed was equally as involved in the creation of her being. Sizing up her parents’ desired reactions to her Poe-tinged rebuffing of an antiquated high school practice, Abigail excused herself to return to her room, monk-like in her rendering of Edgar’s scriptures.

Eventually, of course, she went to New York–specifically to NYU–where she would study literature and continue to fine-tune her passion for the raven-haired writer, while also developing side romances with Henry James, George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) and, in an Italian curveball, Giovanni Boccaccio. With each new short story, novel and beloved author, Abigail could never fully stray from her first literary love. Thus, how it came to be that, for as many times as she had journeyed to Philadelphia from her Massachusetts town of Somerville, she had never visited the famed Poe house on North 7th Street in the Spring Garden neighborhood, instead frequenting his New York City residence near the Bronx (which often made her wish she had applied to Fordham instead). And although Poe was productive enough while living there–he had to be, after all, considering he was essentially the first writer to rely solely on the artistic medium for his income–it was Philadelphia that served as the catalyst for the creation of his most notable works (among them “The Tell-Tale Heart” and The Murders in the Rue Morgue). This upcoming visit to the City of Brotherly Love for her thesis on Poe–entitled “The Damaging Personal (And Sometimes Creative) Effects of Working for Money as A Writer As Based on Edgar Allan Poe”–would, of course, occasion a trip to the house. Poe’s “tour of duty” throughout the town from 1837 to 1844 was most heavily spent in this rather decadent-for-a-writer tableau.

Choosing to visit unaccompanied (not that she had many friends from which to pool an invitation for accompaniment) for optimal spirituality, Abigail departed from her Fishtown Airbnb at 8:30 a.m. to arrive at approximately 9:00, when the museum, of sorts, opened. Everyone she spoke to who had been there forewarned that it wasn’t exactly “comprehensive” in terms of the “displays,” and that it would take her, at most, thirty-five minutes to thoroughly examine. Clearly, they underestimated the extent of her fandom and devotion. She even specifically prepared an ensemble and hairstyle for her inaugural contact with the space. It was, to be expected, black boots, black leggings with a subtle shimmer finish, a form-fitting long sleeve black V-neck, a shoulder padded black wool jacket understatedly thatched with white thread and, to round it all out, she bought a breast-touching black wig parted down the middle. For good measure, she also spent extra time on her smoky eye for a final effect that would decidedly make Poe cum instantly upon the sight of her. Had he been alive, that is.

Yet from the moment she knocked on the door to be let in by Frank, the portly security attendant, it was like the essence of Poe was all around her with its sinister cloak–from the ominous raven sculpture in the backyard to the giant mural portrait of his daguerrotype nearby to the suspect amount of time it took Frank to open the door.

And when he did, Abigail felt the chill of a cold wind paired with the faint sound of a cat purring bombard her senses. She then entered the building with a marked eagerness that perhaps Frank had never seen before, prompting him to comment, “You look like…a fan.” Frank’s cautious intonation indicated he was trying his best to be tactful.

Abigail nodded at him as if in knowing agreement and inquired, “May I proceed?”

Frank blinked at her for a few seconds, committing to memory her goth appearance . “Well, we have an eight-minute film or a handout you can take before you start.”

“I think I’ll just begin my tour without either,” Abigail responded with finality.

“Very well,” Frank said, sitting back down at the front desk. “See you again in a few minutes.”

Abigail did a double take at him, inferring his ETA for completion of the viewing was somehow sacrilegious. “Yeah, sure,” she offered tersely, and began her vision quest.

Taking in the bottom floor was uneventful enough. No one was there because of her well-timed visit on Black Friday. when America’s lack of intelligence and literary zeal is at its most prominent. Roughly after an hour spent on the first floor, Frank caught her just as she was walking up the stairs. “You’re only just now going to the second floor?”

Abigail, unabashed, cocked her head and declared, “Yes.”

And as she turned to start up the narrow staircase, she paused briefly to query, “By the way, is there a cat in the house?”

“Not since Poe lived here.”

Abigail shrugged. “Oh. I keep thinking I hear one.”

Without waiting for Frank to say anything more, she went up. A somewhat sad cardboard imitation of Poe at his writing desk in the first room to the right of the impossibly slender hallway (in the future, how would hormone-infused food enable increasingly enlarged humans to tour this historical landmark?) left a chill up Abigail’s spine. In a good way. For in spite of the low-budget nature of the presentation, this was still the very room that Poe wrote in. Rendered all of his fiction, poetry and criticism to paper. It was awe-inducing and inspiring. And all at once, it felt to Abigail as though someone was siphoning air out of her chest. Careening toward the window, her head practically touching the ceiling, Abigail could hear the whispered sounds of phrases she had long known, including, “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” and “The boundaries which divide Life and Death are at best shadowy and vague.”

A feeling of faintness then seemed to besiege her before she felt subsequently invigorated. And with the sound of a cat purring came the sound of a car horn, a phone ringing, a bird chirping, waves crashing–in short, a barrage of noise pollution like a foley artist was in control of the strange movie that was becoming her life in this instant.

Shaking herself off like a man post-prostitute tryst, Abigail chose to ignore all that seemed to be happening to her, dead set on completing her research. So to the next room she went, where an empty closet on the left side of “Eddy’s” room featured a shelf with a sign on it bearing a quote by one of Poe’s friends that Abigail couldn’t quite make out as she began to feel woozy again, but she reckoned it essentially said something like, “Above all, he was a dreamer.” The quote only further corroborated Abigail’s feeling that Poe was grossly misinterpreted as a gloomy, relisher of depression type à la Winona Ryder/Christina Ricci when in fact he was a spirit too delicate for this world–hence his private life reputation for practically swooning over every joke he was told. Indeed, it is always the saddest of souls that possess the best sense of humor. And Edgar, accordingly, had quite the sense of humor.

Laughing to herself as she thought this, it was almost like the entire thesis came to her at once, and she needed forthwith to spit it out on her “word processor” (that means computer). So she made her way down the stairs, that led to the backyard, practically running as she did so. And just as she was about to leave, Frank reminded her, “Don’t forget to the check out the basement.”

“The basement, of course,” Abigail said absently, being led by some invisible hand back toward it. How could she have failed to take into account that Poe would have a basement? It was only right. It was the setting most likely to have incited him come up with such grisly, buried alive endings. The stairs groaned as she stepped toward the final room, the last piece of the puzzle, as it were. A ringing in her ears became more prominent as she approached the recess in the brick wall with a taxidermied (she hoped) cat in the hair-raised, hissing pose. Staring into its eyes, it seemed to come alive as she suddenly blacked out in the midst of its attack.

She awoke to Frank prodding at her with his index finger, “Miss, are you okay? What happened? Where’s the decorative cat?”

She coughed herself back to coherence, turning to look in annoyance at Frank, “I don’t know. It attacked me.”

Frank regarded her as a parent might when his child tells him she’s brushed her teeth when it’s apparent she hasn’t. “Okay Miss, I think you need to leave now.”

Kicked out of the Poe house. She was likely the first in its history to have that distinction other that Poe himself. Thankfully, she was due to take the train back that afternoon, returning to her Airbnb only to pack her things and check out with the host, an attractive by Philadelphia standards 28-year-old man named Trevor who worked at Johnny Brenda’s. “How was the house?” he asked in a thick Philly accent. But she couldn’t process what he was saying over the din of the cat hissing. In her mind, she surmised that she had somehow taken the spirit of Catterina, Poe’s longtime feline friend, with her. It couldn’t have been Virginia, his cousin/wife. No, it had to be the cat, Abigail thought as she put her hand to her forehead in pain. At least the essence of his deceased bride would have made her feel slightly closer to him on a romantic rather than obsequious level.

“Is everything all right?” Trevor asked.

“Fine, I think I’m just getting a headache,” and as she turned back to her suitcase to zip it, she noticed her monogrammed initials at the top. They hadn’t been there before, but suddenly, there they were, spelling EAR (her middle name was Elizabeth). The A was larger than the other two letters and seemingly more grandiose in its cursive than the others. All at once, she was highly unsettled. Was this some trick Trevor liked to play on his guests? Monogramming their luggage when they weren’t looking.

“Are you sure? You seem very agitated.”

“I, uh. It’s just…” she glanced back at her duffel. I don’t remember my initials being on this bag.”

Trevor was now the one who appeared horrified, as though one more second spent with this crazy girl might spread her disease to him. “Okay. Well, I have to get to work, so… Hope you enjoyed your stay!” With that he took the keys from her and guided her out the door.

What was happening to her cochlear perception? It was all she could do not to buy ear plugs at the train station. She thought better of it though, convinced that reading and listening to her headphones would be enough to stave off whatever auditory delusions she was having.

Not so. Within the first twenty minutes of being in motion, Abigail kept turning around to tell the old couple behind her to stop talking so loudly about politics. That that sort of thing ought to be kept to themselves. Regarding her quizzically and with concern, the woman eventually tapped her husband and suggested they move away. When she could still hear the same voices having the same conversation about Donald Trump’s visionariness even after they had switched seats, she started to panic.

Now there were voices in addition to sounds? Was she having a schizophrenic crackup? No, no. Everything’s fine, she insisted to herself as she resumed her reading of “The Gold-Bug.”

Back at her off-campus apartment in the East Village, Abigail thought she was beginning to feel normal again, or maybe the bombardment of noises perpetually assaulting this city was no match for any delusions she had brought back with her. Thus, for the next few days, she went about her business as usual, wrapping up her thesis with ease and completing an application and cover letter for an editorial position at Hachette that needed to be sent over immediately so that her contact there could push the resume through before it was too late and the job blast reached plebeian territory like Media Bistro.

It was from the instant she clicked send that the phenomenon began again, her phone ringing, or so she thought, ad nauseum only for her to pick it up and have no one respond at the other end of the silent line. Later that night, the hissing and purring sound effects commenced anew as well during Abigail’s rigorous teeth brushing session, made all the more rigorous by her paranoia. She suddenly wished she didn’t live alone, hadn’t been so adamant about its benefits for the essential solitude of writing. She could really use a second pair of ears during this period.

The sound medleys–rapings, more like–got to be so bad over the next week that Abigail was feeling desperate enough to go home to her parents’ in Somerville for what she hoped would be a sonic reprieve. That the silence there would either confirm she had gone insane or at least allow her to write in peace.

George was the first to come to the door, wrapping his arms around her in greeting. “Abigail, we’ve missed you.” This sentiment didn’t seem to be shared by Patricia, who cowered in the corner of the hallway as she waited for Abigail to come to her.

“Hi mom,” Abigail initiated as she set her duffel–still possessing the EAR monogram–down on the wood floor.

Patricia smiled faintly. “Abby, it’s been too long.” With that, she gave Abigail a quick hug and disappeared into the kitchen where she had begun her dinner making process. George picked up on Abigail’s wounded expression. “She’s just a bit skittish. She doesn’t think you’re going to stay for very long and she doesn’t want to get used to the idea of you being here again.” Abigail’s eyes were defiant. George continued, “Honey, you haven’t been here since you started school, can you blame your mother for being hurt?”

Abigail sighed. “No. But it’s not like I’ve been fucking off. I’ve been working, studying. By the way, I gave Hachette the number here to call because I can’t trust what I’m hearing lately.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t worry about it. I just need to be in a place that’s quiet,” Abigail assured.

It was then that Patricia re-emerged from the kitchen. “So that’s why you’re here? You want to be ‘somewhere quiet’?”

“Mom, no. I’m here because–”

“You’re here for reasons that have nothing to do with me or your father. But likely they’ve got something to do with Edgar fucking Allan Poe.” She wiped a tear from her eye with the back of her index finger. “You do whatever it is you need here, Abby. Just don’t pretend it’s doing any favors for me. I can’t speak for you, George.”

With that, she went upstairs and slammed the door to her room shut, evidently no longer interested in preparing dinner for a thankless guest.

George ran his hand through his hair and promised, “She’ll get over it.”

In her childhood room, the posters–the shrines–to Poe had remained untouched. It was up there that she started to hear the whispers of his words, the ones she once treasured but now only plagued her. She put her hands over her ears in intense frustration, wanting to scream but resisting the urge, lest she invoke the curiosity of her parents. This had been a mistake. She couldn’t escape what was happening to her, and Somerville was the last place she felt at ease.

The next morning, a Monday, the phone rang and Abigail rotely went to pick it up as her mother watched her do so while pouring a cup of coffee. As usual, no one was there. Abigail appeared shamed as she put it back in its cradle.

“Not that you deserve to be asked, but is everything okay?”

Abigail’s face went ashen. “I think I’m just going to go upstairs and study some more.”

Patricia shook her head in vexation. “You do that. Go back to your Poe.”

She didn’t bother to combat her mother’s derisive remark, wanting only to re-attempt sanctuary by sticking cotton balls in her ears and wrapping her head in gauze. She curled in her fetal position on her bed and placed a pillow over her face for good measure. Still, the sound medley persisted. And when she heard the phone ring downstairs knowing both of her parents had now gone to work, she didn’t bother to answer it. There was no point. It wasn’t real. She couldn’t say for sure anymore what was.

That night, when George was the first to return, he played the answering machine to find several messages from Hachette urging her to call back as soon as possible or they would have to give the position to someone else. Concerned over Abigail’s lack of interest in answering the phone all day when she had specifically given the publishing house this number, he ran upstairs to find her sobbing and in the same fetal position she had been in all day with her head covered in those various accoutrements.

Shocked, George demanded, “Abigail, tell me right now what’s going on. You’ve missed all the calls from that publisher and probably lost the job!”

Abigail began bawling. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on. I wish I could explain it. I’m…I’m…hearing things that aren’t really there.”

Before George could process this terrifying information, Patricia sauntered in with a mug of hot tea and a cold compress. “George, let me handle this.”

“But, I–”

“George! Get out!”

He obeyed, leaving Patricia to Abigail’s bedside. Tsking at Abigail’s state, she removed the gauze and cotton balls and placed the rag on her forehead. “Oh, poor Abigail. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.”

Somewhat surprised by the nature of the comment, Abigail asked, “What do you mean?”

“You loved–love–Poe more than you ever did us. So I was upset. I wanted to teach you a lesson about obsession with false idols. I did it a long time ago, but I suppose it’s only just now taken to you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I cursed you Abigail. Have you done anything recently that might make you especially attuned to Poe’s life and energy?”

Abigail, eyes wide, nodded.

“Then you have to return to the place or the source that started this and, well, you’re not going to like this, but you’re going to have to burn all of the Poe literature you own there.”

“What?”

“I told you. I was upset. And the harshness of the spell reversal mirrors that.”

“Since when are you a witch?”

“Longer than you’ve been a selfish bitch. How do you think it is that your father’s never cheated on me?”

“I’m not guilty of anything except being a passionate person.”

“It’s not passion when it blinds you to all other people and things around you,” Patricia insisted. “Do as I say, and you’ll stop hearing things. Sorry you had to lose that job to learn your lesson.”

That was all Patricia would say, not feeling an apology was warranted before walking out of the room.

The next day, Abigail got a ride from George to the Boston bus station where she would catch one back to Philadelphia.

“I still don’t understand why you have to leave so abruptly. We thought you’d stay a whole week.”

“I know, Dad. But something’s come up. Mom comprehends better than anyone why I have to leave.”

“I have no idea what’s going on.”

“Then you’re a true American dad,” Abigail said as she pecked him on the cheek and practically jumped out of the car and grabbed her EAR duffel bag out of the backseat, heaving it with some difficulty over her shoulder as it was now filled with every piece of Poe literature she had in her room.

Hours later, the Poe house was ablaze. She hadn’t intended to let the fire get out of control in the basement, but it happened. She smashed  one of the windows to get out, fleeing the scene in the hope of never getting caught and as a means to not look on the ultimate destruction she had caused to her idol. It would have been too painful to see. But then, it was only her hearing she was preoccupied with now.

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