One of My Best Friends: Happy Birthday, The Raven

raven
I have been on quite the mystery kick lately, so more posts will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, today is the 170th anniversary of the publication of Poe’s The Raven. Earlier this month I wrote a piece for the Review Direct newsletter listing some lesser known facts about Edgar Allan Poe in honor of his birthday. To celebrate both, I am going to share eighteen of those facts.

  1. He was born Edgar Poe in Boston. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died, he was unofficially adopted by John Allan of Richmond, VA.

 

  1. He usually went by E.A. Poe or Edgar A. Poe after his estrangement from his adopted father as a young man.

 

  1. His often scathing book reviews in Southern Literary Messenger increased readership in the publication by almost seven fold- and got him fired twice!

 

  1. He coined the term ‘short story’. There is reportedly no record of its definition before Poe used it in 1840.

 

  1. Poe is considered one of the first Americans authors to make his living solely through his writing (which caused many financial problems in his life).

 

  1. Charles Dickens and Poe were pen pals and even met once.

 

  1. He loved cats and often wrote with his cat on his shoulder.

 

  1. The mustachioed Poe most people think of really only represented the last couple years of his life. For most of his forty years he was clean shaven.

 

  1. In 1837, Poe published Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the story of shipwrecked men who were forced to select one of their crew to be eaten. The unlucky sailor in Poe’s story was Richard Parker. The books was largely panned as sensational, though Poe tried to claim it was based on a real story (it wasn’t). Later, a real shipwreck in 1884 eerily mirrored Poe’s story right down to the unfortunate victim, the cabin boy, Richard Parker.

 

  1. Poe originally wanted to write about a parrot in his classic, The Raven.

 

  1. After the success of the The Raven there were stories of kids following him down the street flapping at him. It is reported he would respond good naturedly by turning suddenly to face them uttering, “Nevermore”.

 

  1. Poe was a fan of cryptography and tried to make it mainstream by incorporating ciphers into some of his short stories.

 

  1. Before his death, he left Virginia for Philadelphia and disappeared for days, until he reappeared a week later in a Baltimore tavern ill and wearing clothes that did not belong to him.

 

  1. His cause of death is unknown. At the time newspapers reported different illnesses and all records pertaining to his death, including death certificate, have been lost. Speculation often concludes he died of complications from alcoholism, but theories as far ranging as rabies to cooping (the practice of using booze and force to make someone vote for a particular candidate) have been put forth. The later theory has been given more credence recently as he disappeared on election day in an area of Baltimore known for this practice.

 

  1. His travel trunks were not located for weeks when one was found in Baltimore and another in Richmond.

 

  1. After his death, alleged friend Joseph Snodgrass, a teetotaler, exacerbated claims of Poe’s alcoholism to serve as a morality tale to be shared on the lecture circuit. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had a vendetta against Poe after a bad review, also helped to spread the rumor Poe was a terrible drunk- including writing a fake biography of his rival.

 

  1. Though his credibility has been questioned, Poe’s physician John Moran claimed that Poe was not a heavy drinker and it was unlikely to have been the cause of his death.

 

  1. The NFL Baltimore Ravens were named in tribute to him, which might not be as odd as it seems as Poe was actually an athletic man and even held a swimming record as a young man.
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Haunting Reads: Silence for the Dead

silence

Did I mention I love spooky reads in autumn? After listening to An Inquiry Into Love and Death, I knew it was foolish to believe I wouldn’t listen to another book by Simone St. James before Halloween this year. One night while working on some data entry, I gave into the urge and downloaded Silence for the Dead to make it a little more interesting.

Like St. James’ other novels, Silence for the Dead takes place in post-WWI England. At the start I wasn’t sure what to think of the narration for this one. Mary Jane Wells narrates it with a rather “common” accent, which fits the main character, Kitty Weekes. It is a departure from the other narrations since they usually featured women with some higher education. In the end though, I think it came down to the fact I wasn’t really sure I liked Kitty.

From the start, Kitty presents herself (the book is first person narration) as a tough girl who has exhausted all her options for work in London and is now on her way to Portis House, a remote convalescence home, for an open nursing position. After a rough interview, she takes the job, but constantly seems rankled by everyone and everything. Despite the harrowing working conditions, her deep anger and distrust was so grating, I almost couldn’t feel sympathy for her.

The home is a private hospital for shell shocked soldiers of the Great War. They range from men with violent rages to seemingly normal guys who are just sensitive to noise and surprise. World War I has been the setting for quite a few books and TV shows in recent years, but it really cannot be stressed enough how little sympathy there was for the “cowards” who came back from war unable to fully deal with the horror they witnessed. The men of Portis House are sent there by their families for this reason. Most of them are trying very hard, no matter what the circumstance, to maintain a normal facade in front of the staff in the hopes they will be given a good review and allowed, maybe, the chance to go home again. It soon becomes obvious to Kitty though, that some very unnatural, supernatural even, things are happening that are not the product of her patients’ disturbed minds. She tries to get the men to open up, but with so much on the line they are reluctant. When she meets a former war hero hidden away in a ward who also seems to be affected by whatever is agitated in the house, Kitty knows she must get to the heart of it.

As the story allows you to meet more of the residents, Kitty doesn’t really soften, but she does fit in more with her surroundings. These are damaged men and she is a damaged woman. In the end it is the “cowards” and the unemployable nurse who face off against pure evil. St. James has done a much better job with character development here than previous novels. These are not just angsty, lonely people who bond over their outsider status, they are people who work to understand one another and build trust. All the elements worked well together and I have to say it is my favorite of her books. Sure, it is not a perfect novel, but it is a great, suspenseful read for a person like me who will take a ghost story over a gruesome horror any day.

Haunting Reads: An Inquiry Into Love and Death

inquiry

Autumn is my favorite season. While I miss the long days, I do love the excuse to curl up earlier in the evening with a good book. Summer here has lasted well into September in recent years and winter has started pretty early in November, making for a very short fall. This summer has been quite cool, so once the calendar rolled to September I jumped into seasonal reads with abandon.

Last year around this time, my book club read Simone St. James’ The Haunting of Maddy Clare. While I really liked the suspenseful ghost story featured, the main characters were really flat and not very appealing. Despite a lackluster first read, I decided to give St. James’ ghost stories another try with An Inquiry Into Love and Death. This time I was not disappointed.

Jillian Leigh is an usual woman for the 1920s- a dedicated female student at Oxford. One day she is called out of class and informed her estranged Uncle Toby, a professional ghost hunter, has died unexpectedly. Jillian is more put out than grief stricken when the solicitor explains she needs to go identify his body and collect his belongings from the small, coastal town of Rothewell.

Upon arrival, Jillian begins to suspect her uncle’s death might not have been an accidental fall and makes inquiries into what he was working on before he died. She is not the only one. Scotland Yard Inspector Drew Merriken is also in town with suspicions of his own about Toby’s death. Soon after her arrival, Jillian has reason to believe Walking John, the ghost her uncle was hunting, might be more than the imaginings of an eccentric man. Inspector Merriken most certainly thinks whatever is not right in Rothewell has a logical explanation. They both are about to be tested.

Lovecraft she is not, but St. James knows how to set a creepy scene and build suspense. More than a few times I stopped what I was doing and sat on edge waiting to find out what would happen next. The romance between Jillian and Drew had just the right amount of chemistry. It is part of the plot, but does not detract in any way from the eerie feeling of the tale. An Inquiry Into Love and Death is very much in the vein of dimestore novels, suspense movies, and radio programs (especially thanks to Rosalyn Landor’s narration) of the ’20s and ’30s- a ghost, buried secrets, and a budding romance. Pick this up for a fun, spooky read.