The Grave of Lost Stories

“… for the terrible agony which I have so lately endured—an agony known only to my God and to myself—seems to have passed my soul through fire and purified it from all that is weak. Henceforth I am strong:—this those who love me shall see—as well as those who have so relentlessly endeavored to ruin me.”
—Edgar Allen Poe, to Mrs. Helen Whitman (1848)


In the grave of lost stories there is neither day nor night, but a stupendous blackness shot through with corpuscles of fluorescence, like droplets of oil in water—an inalienable fact, of which the vulgar minds around him could not conceive. They were too busy writing anonymous articles about him (he knew that Griswold was behind most of it, but not all; there were so many envious scoundrels!) to ever comprehend that the light and dark of Plato’s cave might, indeed must mingle at the bottom of the universe, as they could see for themselves if they’d but look through a telescope whose power penetrated into the depths of the earth, beyond the graves that honeycombed the clay like the shafts of mines, so far beyond them as to leave them seeming shallow indeed, and the deeper shot the beams of that telescope, the more violently surged the gloom-rays through the eye-piece, staining the world black like bad old memories; but if it were possible to see through these swirling atoms, and the cosmos of Ether under them, then at last the darkness would seem to thicken and narrow into a gorge whose cliffs and stones were darkness coagulated into obsidian. Into this chasm no telescope could pierce. This was the center of the majestic circle of planets and suns—so extreme its gravitational attraction that light was swallowed in it forever. There was a stifling horror about the place, about which hovered the most vile and pestilential fumes; somewhere in this pit was Death itself unfolded. But in what form it revealed itself was unknown, because the gulf was roofed with the foliage of night-trees that leaned toward each other on all sides, gripping each other’s soft and flabby trunks with branches that terminated in claws, so that every tree gashed every tree to the heart, growing deeper and deeper into each other’s wounds until their agony could never end; from their pallid mushroom flesh bled drops of black sap that rained down into the darkness below, and their velvety leaves vibrated in pain, with a sound like a cloud of midges.—A narrow Path of Dead Tales passed through an arch of these leaves and branches, and then spiraled downward into the pit. At first the moistly disagreeable presence of the charnel vegetation polluted every breath, and icy droplets of tree-blood plashed down upon hands and shoulders, but then the descent steepened, so that it was necessary to hug the wall of the pit and feel one’s way sideways, and in the course of many downward revolutions the air became ever cooler and drier, like the stale atmosphere of mummy-caves. Meanwhile, however, the smell of mortality had increased, according to the cube of proximity to that concentrated vortex of corruption, the Grave of Lost Stories.—How pitiably foolish he had been, to imagine that his victims would have been reduced to marble-white skulls, to tibiae as clean as tusk-ivory, to ribs like bleached harps!—No, that would hardly be the Demon’s modus operandi.—So be it. He had looked upon such sights before.—Still, the foulness … which is why he concluded in his final poem that matter was a means, not an end. At that time he was working feverishly by lamplight, intoxicated with the solution of ciphers that unlocked his pages of darkness with great clicks, so that he did not have to think about how everything he had written would disgust him the next morning; and he went out to the dark black garden to walk to and fro, wearing a deep and narrow path in the snow as he worked out precisely how deep the Grave would have to be to hold those millions and millions of Stories whose white souls had risen upward like a snowstorm of dreamy unhappiness; well, of course the volume of the bodies would flatten with decomposition; therefore the required depth must be the quotient, but the full quotient, not the square root of the quotient; as to how tightly they could be packed into that death-house, their structure had to be considered; it was distinctly stated by all the authorities that Stories have skeletons, except for the very early embryos and abortions from those times when you wail in the night knowing that something has just been lost forever but not what, you will never know what because it is gone. Let us conceive these skeletons, then, to be composed of variegated vertebrae the hue and sheen of black crystal. Mrs. Osgood was moved by his white-skinned sadness and said ah, Mr. Poe, this country affords no arena for those who live to dream and he said do you dream? I mean sleeping dream? and she smiled and said oh yes Mr. Poe I am a perfect Joseph at dreaming, except that my dreams are of the Unknown and Spiritual and he said I knew it; I knew it by your eyes and for the first time he embraced her and she held his hand in hers so tenderly but all at once it seemed to him as if something black, steely-cold, cutting, had closed around his wrist and were pinching it to the bone, the frozen ache of it poisoned him, and the veins stood out on his white wrist; as his phalanxes and metacarpi shattered into chessmen he uttered a cry of agony so that she pulled her hand away and said you are ill, are you not, Mr. Poe? at which she became so beautiful to him, and he fell on his knees before her saying is the idea fixed in your head to leave me? as his little wife sat by obediently. Later he was seized with inspiration, and sat down hastily to write, but before he had gotten any farther than that weirdly metallic phrase the Grave of Lost Stories, it had already left him, and he sat groaning. Somewhere the Story was struggling desperately to breathe; she was smothering, and he could do nothing. In his life he had committed so many murders … Maybe he could save her. He wrote very quickly there is no day or night and heard the Story draw in a deep gasp of breath and begin sobbing with hysteria and weariness. 

      He threw down his pen and knelt upon the floor, wringing his hands.—I call on you to live! he cried. Are you going to vanish like everything else? I wouldn’t wrong you if I could help it! Please—I—but the shadow is already there on your throat … 

      The Demon came in, chilling his forehead with an ache like ice. He arose at once. The Demon came in smiling. 

      I see that you smiile, he said to this enemy, with quick and bitter sensitivity. Well, everyone is out to ruin me. It really doesn’t matter that you smile. But what delegation sent you? 

      Whoever they are, said the Demon, they are very collected in their resolve. Of that you may be sure. 

      He heard someone struggling for breath. Live! he shouted hoarsely.You beautify the earth—live! Tears streamed down his face. 

      He sat listening, knowing that the Demon smiled behind him. He heard the Story begin gasping for breath again, choking and weeping. Trembling, he wrote lost, Stories, whose shrouds are—are … He scarcely knew what he wrote; one word, one line, might prolong her life a little longer, until he could think, until he could save her … 

      Oh, very few Stories die of their own accord, the Demon said. They are like us; they want to live, no matter how badly they are treated. And yet there are some who know … 

      Help me! she screamed. For a dozen eternities her ragged gasps of breathing tortured him; then he heard her say very faintly oh, there’s someone sitting on my heart … 

      He kept expecting some miracle to happen. He kept expecting her not to come sobbing to him saying I’m dead. 

      He wrote there is neither day nor night and desperately crossed it out and wrote neither night nor day can be found in the country beyond this Vault, which I so call for lack of any better name and crossed it out and wrote in this place, which is hideously exempt from the laws of day and night, the horror of one’s situation can scarcely be described and he heard her sweet breathing (yes! she was breathing still!) and he wrote there they seized me with mildewed hands and held me fast beyond my power to struggle. Then I fell into a darkness that was not yet darkness—oh, would that it were!—for it prickled with globules of magnetism like—like—he would not write the Grave of Lost Stories in this unlucky context; he gnawed at his pen, forgetting the Demon and even her for the moment; he crossed out the last two lines and wrote I fell into a darkness whose teeming shadow-tides rushed over me, whose waves poured down upon me with soundless weight, pressing down upon me with a force as steady and interminable as my own unsought-for return to consciousness. My thoughts were ticking like death-beetles, like antique watches. As yet, I had not opened my eyes. I would not; I would not—and then suddenly terror shot through me like a galvanizing current, for I felt weight and narrowness and stifling compression all around me; l smelled fresh pine- wood ... 

      Too late, laughed the Demon, and departed. 

      Where she had been was silence. As always, the Demon was correct. He knew that there would be circular excoriations about her throat, and the black marks of his own fingers. He had strangled her. The arms would be outstretched as usual, the fingers clenched so tightly that blood was oozing from the palms. Blood must be trickling from the opened mouth; the head thrown back, the protruding tongue ghastly blue. 

      What a young and beautiful Story you were! he screamed. I—I—I— 

      Eddie? his wife called timidly from the other room. 

      Instantly he was beside her.—Are you warm enough, little Sis? he said. 

      She nodded. The cat purred on her breast. He stooped down and kissed her forehead. 

      I was … 

      Yes? he said. 

      I was worried about you. I heard you shouting … 

      You’ve coughed none at all today, he said. I’m really in excellent spirits about that. You can’t imagine how I— 

      He felt the familiar Vulpine Presence behind him, breathing icy stinking breath into his ear. He must not let it get near her.—Good night, Sissy, he said, rushing out and slamming the door behind him. 

      So, he said to himself, bringing pencil to paper:—the skeletons of my lost Stories, being for all practical purposes incompressible, must enforce a minimum volume upon this Tomb (the Vulpine Presence snapped its teeth together in his ear)—but still more so the coffins. Were I the Architect, I would have quarried deep in the slag of subterraneous fires to get those glassy black building-stones, and then I would have laid out the work in very definite proportions.—Which proportions? The question was perplexing, like that of the ratio of infinite lines, and yet not insoluble; for in architecture the Vault, or Cavern, or Cloister with its many tiers of catacombs, must surely obey the primordial law of Grandness. That this did not constitute proof he admitted, of course; he could not be certain of it, but no other possibility could be seriously entertained. Therefore it would be an oblong room of great dimensions—and here once again he wrote let me suggest that, in fact, we have still been speaking of comparative trifles. The distance of the planet Neptune from the sun has been stated; it is 28 hundred millions of miles—no doubt it was carpeted with crimson silk of imperishable virtue, through which meandered blue veins. Because the influence of death would be at its maximum here, he expected it to be as cold in his tomb as the blackness of space. The walls must be of marble, of course. They would rise like cliffs, tunneled through with crypts in as much profusion as the caves where sea swallows make their nests; and indeed the twitterings that came from them were birdlike, but they were tormented cries of the dead Stories in the coffins, and the deep square openings went up the wall as far as could be seen, some glowing with green or yellow light, the rest abandoned to their own blackness; thus the walls rose until they were lost in the luminescence of those sluggish globules that swarm in the air like glowworms. Surely, then, he must take account of the coffins, and the spacing between them … He wrote: Behind this portal I saw with unquiet eye the black arch of darkness that led to the vaults—but it was a most peculiar and uncanny sort of arch, for not only did the edges of the ceiling curve downward, but the edges of the floor sloped upward as well until they too met the marble wall; thus it seemed to me as I hurried ahead of my echoing footsteps into that darkness that I was at the bottom of a vast bowl. My disorientation was increased by the glittering whitish pillars that had been set into both floor and ceiling; these towered above my head, or grew downward like stalactites; they were as close together as the pipes of a church organ, except for a narrow space or channel at the center of the floor, where it was lowest, through which I could barely pass my body. In the margin he wrote: Not only is the foregoing mathematically accurate; but it also rings true to all the harmonies of my soul. He sat at his desk almost until dawn, calculating the dimensions on blue paper. His mother-in-law (or mother as she had really become) sat knitting and dozing beside him, and every now and then he would read out the results of his calculations to her and say: Do you understand, Muddie? Am I correct in this? and she said how youdo read out those figures so cleverly, Eddie! and brought him a mug of fresh hot coffee and pulled in a stitch and her head sank down upon her shoulder; he heard her snoring; he heard his wife coughing in her sleep; the ticking of the clock was almost insufferable to his ears. Thank God for Muddie! She never went to bed before he did, out of consideration for his horror of being alone. 

      Early the following afternoon, as he pretended to sleep, he heard Muddie talking about him in the kitchen with her dear friend Mrs. Phelps, and Mrs. Phelps was saying how could you think such a thing Muddie when I can see the depth of his love for her! and Muddie said with a sad laugh God knows Eddie loves my Virginia that is not what I meant and Mrs. Phelps said in that tone he hated Mrs. Clemm it is certainly not my place to pry and Muddie said oh no no I need to open my heart to someone and he said to himself faugh! and Mrs. Phelps said well then what do you mean? and Muddie said Eddie is a very dear boy, and Virginia idolizes him; since she is so sick I think it is a great mercy for them both that he is not a man in the full sense of the word and as I say he does love her fondly and faithfully as I do and Mrs. Phelps said something in a voice that was drowned out by the beating of his heart and Muddie said I honestly fear for his reason if Virginia should pass away; he is so devoted to her and he heard her crying and Mrs. Phelps was saying sssh dearie sssh. 

      He dressed and went out silently, trying in his mind to gather the Grave of Lost Stories into visibility so that he could go down to it and harrow it of its agonized souls; if this proposition proved tenable, he could even—ah, to the Devil with it! He went to the theater with his friend J.B. Booth, and the usher said gentlemen,where are your tickets? and J.B. Booth took a ticket out of his breast-pocket and the usher bowed and turned to Eddie and said and you, sir? to which he replied for your stupidity I cannot hold you responsible because you were born that way, but your ignorance is an affront: I am a member of the Press. Kindly trouble me no further, do you understand me? 

      You a member of the Press? said the usher scornfully. You—a drunkard in a shabby black suit! Will you leave quietly or shall I be forced to expel you? 

      He pulled himself rigidly upright. He looked the usher in the eye. He said very quietly: May God have mercy on your soul. 

      Oh, Eddie, don’t be such a character, said J.B. I’ll spring for your ticket, and later we’ll have a glass, eh? Eddie! Where are you going, Eddie? 

      Later that night, it was raining heavily, and somebody saw him standing under an awning in that frock coat of his, glaring at something and muttering to himself, for all the world as if he were repeating the occasion when he wrote “The Bells” with Mrs. Shew and starting talking to unseen white-shrouded girls until he fell into a swoon and when they had laid him on the bed the doctor fished a massive gold watch from the depths of his waistcoat and took the pulse and said to Mrs. Shew this man has heart disease and will die early in life and although the bystander had an umbrella, something other than unkindness, as he later put it, prevented him from offering it to this crazed emperor of disasters, whom, as it proved, he was gazing upon for the last time. The bystander went home and to bed. 

      What a dreary dismal rain! 

      When he felt the familiar breath of corruption in his ear, when he heard the shrill voice of the Vulpine Presence (whose parchment like forehead he could not bear to see), he realized that he had almost been expecting it. How exceedingly it disliked him he measured by the snapping of its jaws. 

      Overhead, the moon was shooting its meteor-stones from every volcano. He could hear the whizzing fires … 

      It was at that time, as he dated it, that the Vulpine Presence began following in his every footstep. When he sat down at his desk to write, it stood behind him, elongating itself and bending over him to whisper odiously in his ear. If he fled into the garden, it pursued him there, striding alongside him with its arm about his waist. Even into Virginia’s room it came with him, aping his every movement, so that when he bent down to kiss her lips it did the same, breathing into her nostrils until she whispered that terrible smell, Eddie and he said I I I and she choked with nausea and began to cough, until he rushed back to his desk and struggled not to hear it clacking its teeth in laughter. Every day it grew more distinct, until he knew its hateful visage better than his own face: that ghastly yellow forehead, whose skin was stretched to drum-like tautness over the bones, the oval pits of the eyes, that sank like twin wells into the skull, the hunched white shoulders, the sunken cheeks, whose deep concavities enhanced the effect of abnormal protrusion in the chin, the shrunken lips that split open like a fissure to display to his gaze every one of those vicious little teeth … just as it had been a decade before, when he was writing “Berenice,” and because he could not write the next wordinstantly Berenice was already clawing at her breast trying to get air and he heard the delicate rustle of her garments as she sank to her knees and her last breath was rattling in her throat when the Vulpine Presence appeared and grinned at him so that he could see nothing but its vicious rows of teeth, like a shark and he exclaimed in horror and closed his eyes but he could not stop thinking about the teeth and he wrote the white and ghastly spectrum of the teeth and he heard Berenice began to sob on the floor as his Stories did, feebly, hysterically, when they had been saved, and he sprang up, forgetting the Vulpine Presence entirely, and shouted to her would to God you had died! 

      The Demon appeared and said to him: No, it is you who should have died. Write it. 

      I will not! he shouted. 

      She lives, does she not? Shall I return with the Black Cat? Shall we wall her up together? 

      Slowly, he set pen to paper and wrote and in a smile of changed meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died! 

      Good, said the Demon behind his shoulder. Very good. 

      The Vulpine Presence worked its mouth into a little “O” and gibbered in delight. 

      But she lives, he thought to himself. At least she lives. 

      Virginia died in the last week of January. Her death-agony was very protracted; in the end she smothered. For a keepsake of her, the ladies painted a watercolor of her dead face to give him; and he knelt sobbing and kissing that cold white forehead until her mother put aside her own grief to comfort him and he said I can’t forget the horror when her eyes closed forever and Muddie rocked him in her arms like a baby and later, shaking and shaking because he still saw how those sad eyes had suddenly become hateful, lusterless, he went to his desk and wrote the vortical in-drawing of the orbs … But after that, though he turned his pen round and round in his fingers, there was nothing to do with the anguish save endure it. (Twenty- eight years later, when he himself was dead and the cemetery was destroyed, her remains were rescued by his biographer Gill and stored in a box under his bed. Sometimes other gentlemen would come to visit Gill and they’d sit on the bed together, talking in low whispers because the landlady was a dragon, and Gill would say how about a spot of sherry? and Gill would say can I refill your glass? and Gill would say it feels rather warm in here and Gill would say so we finished off that d——-d bottle! and Gill would dig the other in the ribs, breathing heavily, and say well I know why you’re here you old rounder you! and Gill would say well do you want to see them or don’t you? and Gill would say all right then! and he’d reach under the bed and set the box on his lap and undo the black ribbon with a flourish and crow yessir, here they are: the bones of Annabel Lee!) 

      It was a dark and snowy afternoon, and he sat listlessly at his desk turning over the leaves of his books. Muddie had gone out with her begging basket again; there was nothing to eat. In the margin of his Livy he penciled I believe that Hannibal passed into Italy over the Pennine Alps; and if Livy were living now, I could demonstrate this fact even to him. In his Bridgewater he wrote The plots of God are perfect. The universe is a Plot of God. 

      What if Virginia had not been dead when he bore her to the tomb? What is she had only swooned, and were coming to life at this very moment in the nailed coffin, shrieking inside her shroud, struggling for life and breath …? He groaned. 

      On his first interview with Mrs. Whitman in the cemetery, he professed his love, and when it came out that their birthdays were the same, she was sure that the Stars had called them together; later he held her hand; he would have fallen at her feet but for fear of wounding her, as he wrote to her, telling her how he felt the touch of her hand even when she laid it on the back of his chair; she for her part thinking what a chalky clammy forehead that gentlemen has! 

      Helen, he said, my Helen. 

      But later that night, when he returned to the tombs alone to see them by moonlight, he saw a marble vault incised with the name MORELLA and he fell to his knees in the snow, weeping as he remembered the panicked scratching of his pen twelve years before as the word-tails grew down below the ruled lines like the alphabet-roots of those night-trees in the cleft where the dead Stories went; and she had shimmered in the air like milk in water and then slowly took shape; and now he could hear nothing but her anguished panting as his pen raced to save her and the Vulpine Presence pursed its black lips and blew upon the paper so that it fluttered like an ocean and he could scarcely see the words and lines; and Morella was gasping with asphyxia; and the sweat of terror for her leaped in beads upon his forehead and he felt his heart curdle in him even as he wrote frantically fate bound us together at the altar; and I never spoke of passion, nor thought of love and he heard her desperate rasping breaths and he wrote the notion of that identity which at death is or is not lost forever, was to me—at all times, a consideration of intense interest and Morella made a little clicking noise in her throat and thrust back her neck until the skin was unbearably taut and sank to the floor as the triumphant Demon appeared with the shroud, but he wrote a consideration of intense interest; not more from the perplexing and exciting nature of its consequences and Morella opened her eyes than from the marked and agitated manner in which Morella mentioned them and she sought to rise but the Demon seized her shoulders and thrust her back down upon the floor, hissing you may not be dead yet, child, but you are dying; then Morella gazed at him with her melancholy eyes and replied: I am dying, yet I shall live. 

      Yes! he shouted joyously, writing I am dying, yet I shall live on the blue sheet of paper that Virginia would later attach to the others in the roll, using the almost negligible proportion of gum tragacanth powder that he had taught her, so that when Mrs. Osgood accepted her invitation to visit she could laughingly unroll the pasted sheets across the floor as he behaved shyly and sweetly and waywardly in front of these two women whom he loved; but for now he was suddenly cast into a well of bitter grief when Morella arose and caressed his cheek with her icy fingers, asking him: But why did you make me live, when you feel nothing for me? 

      and he said I I I 

      and she said does the Demon love me? 

      He does not! Poe shouted. The oppression of his soul now stifled him so much at these words of hers that he wanted nothing more than that the black and sluggish waters should close over his eyes and mouth.—But Morella only srniled faintly and with one pale hand brushed back the lush, blue-black ringlets from her forehead. Her eyes gleamed; her little white teeth glittered.—Tell me, husband, have I sisters? 

      Yes, he said in a low voice. 

      And whom ought I to love best? 

      Well, he said, Berenice was born just before you, so she is the nearest to you in age, but you must be careful when you play with her, as she is sickly and not likely to live long. 

      And when she dies, where will she go? 

      To the Grave of Lost Stories. 

      Oh, that will be the day of days for her, said Morella. Does the Demon live there? 

      I cannot say. I do not know where he lives. I have never been down to that place. 

      And Virginia—how about her? she said to him, singing the name like a bitter mockingbird. 

      He flew into a rage and said: You have no right—you—to mention herto me! You are never to mention her, or I shall throw these pages into the fire—do you hear me? 

      She said nothing. 

      He bowed his head over the blue paper and wrote But thy days shall be days of sorrow. A moment later, his heart softened, and he wanted to call her to him, but she was gone. How to write it? She was gone like narrowing passages of dead stories dwindling into hollow veins in which silence beat instead of blood. 

      And now, here was her tomb. 

      Then he saw her pallid figure hurrying toward him in the darkness, and he was chilled with dread. What if she touched him and the droplets of brightness came oozing out of her fingers …? (He had thought that he wanted to go down deeper, but now he knew himself to be as paltry as a shallow grave.) 

      He found himself at his desk, writing “Sepuleth,” writing a terrible disorder beat in my veins, writing I shrieked aloud, but the Demon said this time, you drunkard, you won’t be able to pull it off and the Vulpine Presence blew a whistling wind from its mouth that swept the papers off his desk, and in a twinkling he heard Sepuleth’s heart-rending catchings of breath, the lovely Lady Sepuleth with whom, he bent down to write, I would have dwelled in happiness, among all the flowers and brooks of Arnheim … but it was too late; he knew that it was too late; he covered his ears so as not to hear her awful expiring sounds and Muddie said Poor Eddie do you have a headache? and he said yes, Muddie and she said shall I rub your forehead for you? and he said I was thinking of—of—and she said I know, Eddie; and he closed his eyes for weariness and instantly saw Sepuleth’s head lolled against her shoulder, with her long blonde locks streaming down her black dress like rays of the sun, and her elbow was drawn in against her breast, like the wing of a sleeping bird;—it was only the extreme angle of the neck that appeared unnatural. 

      He had proven in his tale “Of One Hans Pfaall” that some sort of atmosphere must extend from the sun to the orbit of Venus and perhaps indefinitely beyond; if not, as he had written there, I can see no reason, therefore, why life could not be sustained even in a vacuum … But now he admitted that he had deceived himself. 

      I cannot bear this anymore, he said. Berenice, Morella, Ligeia, Lenore, Ulalume, I call on you to mourn for her and for me. I am going to the Antarctic moon. 

      Are you going out, Eddie? Muddie said. 

      Just to her grave, he said. 

      A fine rain was falling. The air was very thick and impure. The river was blackish-grey, the reflections of lights gleamed in it like eyes. He wandered through the streets of the city, where the Conqueror Worm reigned in all the theaters, performing its terrible deeds behind stage-curtains the color of puddled blood, and the senile old Man of the Crowd rushed by him like a whirligig and vanished in the fog beyond the gaslights and then appeared again to wink at him knowingly because they shared the same panic and the same bottle and his breath was the same as that of the Vulpine Presence and then he was gone. Dark-windowed houses of palish brick walled the fog in. He saw a woman running into a narrow lighted archway and the door closed behind her. He saw white pillars glittering in the dark porticoes of building- fronts; grand white sepulchers shone against the blackness of the river. A literary lady called to him from her carriage good evening to you, my Raven! and he lifted his hat unthinkingly; his eyes had already fixed themselves in the glare of death. His doubles bowed ironically to him from every alley, wearing the gentlemen’s suits that he had never had the funds to wear since his guardian cast him off. They said Mr. Poe, Mr. Poe, whooh-whoosh! He trembled to look at them, but when they greeted him with condescension he was filled with rage, and quoted himself to these selves, shouting: For the love of God, Montressor! at which they blanched and fled, knowing that if he but had them in his power he would wall them up alive, and the Demon and the Black Cat would help him.—The streets were slimy with rain. He felt a swelling ache in his chest, and knew that the Red Death was already inside him, speckling his blackened organs with carmine and scarlet. It was unbearable; he needed a drink. His hands searched eagerly in his pocket and found a penny; he went into a tavern and had a glass of wine, and his face flushed and he determined to seek out the Grave of Lost Stories and set those poor souls free; for he knew where it was, and though the task scarcely be safe or easy, he thought that he had sufficient boldness to undertake it. 

      Undoubtedly this Tomb lay in a difficult and eccentric direction. The foolish and superficial cosmographers (to whom he had to confess a glacial coolness, in respect of the unwarranted praise that they had received), would surely choose to locate it at the center of the earth, as if it were the cavern of Avernus—a distance precisely equal to the earth’s radius. But this said nothing about where the actual vortex was. To repeat: he knew where it was. His prospects now seemed unbounded.—In other words, the attraction of the Vault must be increasing in an exponential ratio. 

      He followed the Auber River past the red cliffs of Circassy, and sunset came, and he descended into the Valley of Unrest where the lilies bowed over a grave—he did not know whose; he refused to know; and now it was dark at last, and he was in the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir; and the water of the Auber was a mottled silver that showed him his own reflection. Psyche met him at the bank and he was glad to see her, but as he wrote Our talk had been serious and sober, but our thoughts they were palsied and sere and truthfully her unfocused eyes with the glittering whites and the pupils like green marbles disturbed him far more than the barkings of the ghoul-packs who ravaged the churchyards in the misty darkness behind them; and suddenly a star-ball of blowing gases descended through the trees and Psyche said I fear the pallor of that Star but he showed his teeth in a laugh and said don’t be afraid Sis I assure you that a star as bright as that can only light our way but she said no Eddie I don’t want to.—Then certainly he pacified his sweet Psyche; he had to; I am entitled as a reader to say that he kissed her, still thinking of the crystalline light of that Star that maddened and exalted him; but Psyche still snivelled and trailed her little wings in the dust, so to distract her from her scruples and gloom he asked her what do you think happens to the dead Stories? and she said oh Eddie they’re not as unhappy as you think because I see them all around me so brittle and sparkling, blowing everywhere like dandelion seeds, so many of them, even here in this horrid dark place that they’re around me in constellations of stars! but saying this, she remembered the evil Star that drew them both on, and her happy face fell again, so to keep her from dwelling on her fear he said but aren’t these dead Stories restless? and she said yes, but they try to be patient because someday someone will write them again and they’ll be reborn as new living girls and brides so healthy and happy and she also said Eddie you should not destroy the paper of the dead Stories because that hurts them as they walked deeper down the cypress ways in the direction that the Star was pulling them, and the ghouls had fallen silent, and Psyche said please Eddie don’t make me go on with you anymore and her plumes were dragging in the dust again but he put his arm around her and said what makes your dead Stories happiest? and she said when a child thinks of them have you ever heard children tell each other Stories? and he said no and she said poor Eddie and he said but you do grant that they remain bound to their bodies? and she said yes and he said triumphantly well then that’s why we go to the graves of our dead women, because their skeletons are lying there for us to love and treasure beneath the marble slabs! Don’t you admit that a grave and corpse are more real than a memory and a lock of hair? and she said I never thought you such a materialist, Eddie and he laughed and they went on into the suffocating gloom and the Star set slowly over the black valley which his reasoning powers in combination with his accurate knowledge had enabled him to predict in bold relief, and as the Star set it cast a last beam down through the night-trees that occluded the gull, and tenderly brushed the pure darkness below, like the hem of a skirt brushing his lips; and Psyche said let’s go home now Eddie please! but he kissed her so many times and fell on his knees and entreated her and made her laugh by telling her how her cat Catarina had chased her tail and how Muddie had been so astounded, until again he quenched her tears; and so hand in hand they walked among the sad-scented night-trees and descended into that gorge of coagulated darkness, and on the opposite wall he saw that a face had been carved—a titanic face, whose mouth could have swallowed armies; and he stiffened like a galvanized corpse to see that it was the face of the Vulpine Presence! Its jaws champed and it ground its black stone teeth together. Its eyeballs were the size of millstones, and they rolled to and fro with a sullen thundering sound. But he would not let poor little Sissy see it. So he talked and talked to her ever more rapidly and gaily like his pen speeding so desperately across the paper to save the dying Stories; and Psyche was smiling again through her tears and saying oh you’re so funny Eddie and so they descended hand in hand into that sweet-sulphur stench of concentrated mortality. They were in a narrow valley of bones and smoldering fumes, made still narrower by the ledges that projected overhead, comprised of a pinkish mineral such as chalcedony, into which were set white nodules of a cuspid shape; from these little drops of moisture unpleasantly dripped. She continued to grasp his hand, and he was so happy to be with her even though her face was so ghastly pale and there was black mold around her eyes and lips; and the yellowish greenish smoke that swirled around her made her hair smell singed and he felt the mold growing cold and clammy on his eyebrows and the taste of death was in his mouth and so they came to a gigantic door of tarnished iron. He said Sissy what does it say on the door? And she leaned forward to spell out the letters with her fingers (for in truth the dark air was so thick that despite the globules of light that writhed in the atmosphere like maggots it was very difficult to see); and she said U and she said L and a sudden agony of terror made his heart beat so loudly that he could not hear what she said and he cried yes? yes? with his haunted face uplifted and she said ULALUME! and his heart became as ashen and brittle and brown as a dead leaf.—I killed her, he said in a kind of choked wonder. He remembered now how the suffocation had been consummated.—Psyche had begun to walk away. A chilly and rigid magnificence issued from her. She called back over her shoulder:—Yes, she is dead, but she is waiting for you inside! 

      Please don’t leave me, he said in a very small voice, as if to himself. 

      Remember, laughed Psyche from far away (she was almost out of sight), they’re all waiting for you! 

      A key was in the lock, high above that name carved in weeping letters. The lock as thickly overgrown with fungi, and condensation from the reeking mists all about him had scored the iron with a thousand little channels like tear-trails, now choked with rusts and lichens. From the crack where that massive block of iron had been fitted into the doorway of the tomb, a sickening exhalation issued, and he thought to himself it wasthus in the place where we buried Madame Usher!—Immediately there came to him a vision of those thousands of wives and daughters of his who waited within, their white bodies puffing outward with the gases of decomposition; which convinced him, by right of the Grave’s position as universal vortex, that these horrible vapors might indeed become thevaporous rings of the outer planets.—He rose from his desk and rushed outside to look for Saturn. It was a clear night; Mrs. Shew had very kindly lent him her pocket telescope.—Yes, yes!—Indeed, since all the planets were no more than globular condensations of these ring forms, the conclusion was inescapable (despite the laughable ignorance of the astronomers), that the universe was composed of nothing other than this miasma. And in consequence, since the law of gravitation was nothing but the fact of inexorable collapse, one could expect, after untold millions of epochs, all matter to congeal into that jet-black, obsidianlike form of which the Valley of the Grave was comprised! Some might call this rash speculation; as for him, he could not but smile at the numbskulls who thought to confute him. 

      Standing on tiptoe, he was just barely able to get the tips of his fingers around the key. It would not move. He leaped up and hung from the key with all his weight; he raised his body halfway above it and locked his elbows; he braced his feet against the door; his face glowed with the fiercely radiant joy of self-destruction. He strained and strained to turn the key in the lock, but it would not move. In his anxiety and frustration he began kicking the door, which resounded with sullen hollow boomings like an immense drum; at last he placed one hand over the other, and then, squeez ing until the veins stood out on his forehead, he wrenched the key clockwise with all his strength. There came a great squeaking and grinding. Flakes of rust showered him like bloody sparks. Now the key turned with ease. He let himself down to the ground and took hold of it again; the revolution of the circle was completed, and he heard a click. The massive door swung slowly inward. A foul wind rushed out from that dark place. Now he would discover the corpses. Now the tomb would open for him like a vagina. With a cry of joy, he ran inside. Too late, he saw that the interior was a wedge-shaped cul-de-sac lined with spikes. In horror and dismay, he wheeled around to escape, but long before he reached it, the door had slammed shut with a malignant boom; an instant later, the wall-jaws closed upon him.

Poe’s “final poem” is, of course, Eureka (1848). While 1 have breathed deeply of its dreamily logical atmosphere, I have also felt free to distort or ignore its arguments. Poe himself would not agree with the hypotheses that I attribute to him. The conversation between Poe and Mrs. Osgood is excerpted from an entry in the diary of Elizabeth Oakes Smith for 1845. Poe’s hopeless cries to the first of the dying stories are partly based on a letter of his (I believe the last) to Mrs. Shew. The sentence in italics about the planet Neptune comes from Eureka. (The phrase “the vortical in-drawing of the orbs” also comes from Eureka in an astronomical context.) The conversation between Mrs. Clenam and Mrs. Phelps is reconstructed from a brief mention by Mrs. Phelps’s daughter. The anecdote about Poe’s biographer keeping Virginia’s remains under his bed is given in Hervey Allen’s Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Farrar and Rhinehart, 1934, p.581 fn). The marginal note on Livy is given in Poe’s “Marginalia” (November 1844). The lines in italics attributed to “Berenice” do in fact come from that story (1835). Ditto for “Morella” (1835). Ditto for “Hans Pfaal” (1835). Ditto for “Ulalume” (“Our talk had been serious and sober …”) (I have slightly abridged some of the excerpts.) “Sepuleth,” however, being one of the Lost Stories, is of course imaginary. For some of the Psyche’s views on dead stories I am indebted to Miss Moira Brown, who lost her life-work of paintings in a fire.

William T. Vollmann’s books include Rising Up and Rising Down (McSweeney’s) and Europe Central (Viking).