When eight-year-old Virginia "Sissy" Clemm meets her handsome cousin, Eddy, she sees the perfect husband she's conjured up in childhood games. Thirteen years her elder, he's soft-spoken, brooding, and handsome. Eddy fails his way through West Point and the army yet each time he returns to Baltimore, their friendship grows. As Sissy trains for a musical career, her childhood crush turns to love. When she's thirteen, Eddy proposes. But as their happy life darkens, Sissy endures Poe's abrupt disappearances, self-destructive moods, and alcoholic binges. When she falls ill, his greatest fear– that he'll lose the woman he loves– drives him both madness, and to his greatest literary achievement.
Part ghost story, part love story, this provocative novel explores the mysterious, shocking relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and young Sissy Clemm, his cousin, muse and great love. Lenore Hart, author of Becky, imagines the beating heart of the woman who inspired American literature's most demonized literary figure– and who ultimately destroyed him.
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About the Author
Lenore Hart is the author of Waterwoman, Ordinary Springs, The Treasure of Savage Island and Becky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher. She teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Wilkes Univesity, and at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Cape Cod. She lives on the eastern shore of Virginia.
Lenore Hart is the author of Ordinary Springs, Waterwoman, and other novels. Her work has been featured on Voice of America, in Poets&Writers Magazine, and on the PBS series Writer to Writer. She teaches creative writing at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania and Old Dominion University in Virginia. She lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with her husband, novelist David Poyer, and their daughter.
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OCTOBER 7, 1849
The city's streets lie dark as catacombs beneath a black ceiling of moonless sky. A low fog unrolls across the harbor like a carpet of frost, pushed by a salt-laden breeze. My thin cotton gown is little protection against the chill, but no matter. The cold can no longer make me cough or shiver. This is the harbor of Baltimore, place of my birth, a city I haven't seen in many years.
I walk east, the blowing fall leaves crisp beneath my bare feet, like crumpled pages torn from an old book. Yet they make no sound as I tread on even the thickest drifts. Pulled on as if by an invisible net, I pass a fish market, a haberdasher's and a newspaper office, the Farmer's Bank, then a tobacco warehouse. But none of these are my destination.
At the corner of Broadway and Fairmount I stop before a five-story brick building with vaulted Gothic windows, and hesitate with one foot on the first step. When I lived in this city, as a child, older playmates sometimes whispered of ghastly doings here, in Washington University Hospital. They said body snatchers opened tombs in the nearby cemetery to disinter the unfortunate corpses within. Then they would smuggle these grisly burdens to the hospital's doctors to be cut apart like sides of mutton, before they'd been in their graves a full day. Silly rumors, no doubt. Still, back then most Baltimore residents preferred to die of their diseases at home, rather than suffer the shining knives and toothed saws of the physicians, who so often killed their patients before illness or injury could.
Suddenly I don't want to go inside. If I turn away now, perhaps I can become one of those earthbound ghosts that children whisper of, after the lamps are turned down and they lie shivering in bed, starting at every creak and groan of the settling house. Shrinking beneath the quilts at each flicker of light and shadow. Perhaps I should instead go to Richmond, back to Capitol Square, to haunt our old boardinghouse, and welcome Mrs. Yarrington's new guests.
The thought makes me smile, and so at last I feel heartened enough to go on up the stairs to the open door.
Inside, the high ceilings and vaulted windows mimic some great church, but with no altar, no pews, no crucifix. Beyond the mullioned glass, above the low-lying harbor fog, the great dark sky curves. Still without a moon, but now sprinkled with stars like grains of salt tipped onto black velvet. Across the street a few buildings glow with orange points, a dim earthbound constellation of gaslights.
The hospital is cool and smells of carbolic. Sparsely furnished with white-painted cabinets and straight-backed wooden chairs, populated with distracted people who do not pause but merely pass through in a great hurry. They all ignore me.
I turn in a slow circle to track the progress of a woman clad in the white shirtwaist of a nursing sister. "Excuse me," I whisper, keeping my voice low out of respect for the sick, the injured, the dying. "I'm seeking Mr. Edgar Poe. Could you please —"
She rushes past without turning her head.
From nearby, terrible noises erupt: screaming, curses, shrieks, pleading. The guttural threats of a maniac which rise to fever pitch, warped with madness and pain.
After so long a time spent in solitude, this hellish clamor pierces my head like steel shards. I flee up a wide staircase to the second floor. On the landing I nearly collide with a gray-bearded gentleman. He wears the white coat of a doctor, its material spotted with rusty red and crusted yellow, mementos of former patients. He's accompanied by several young men whose eyes are red rimmed, who are clearly struggling to feign interest in his muttered lecture. One tall, gangly fellow turns away to stifle a yawn in his sleeve.
I suddenly realize I'm blocking their passage down. "Pardon me." Twitching my skirts aside, I wait for them to let me pass. Yet not one man looks up, or smiles, or even nods to acknowledge me.
I fall back in astonishment at this blatant rudeness. Glancing around in consternation I see, in the window on the landing, that the chair and cabinet beside me are reflected in its glass panes. Yet I, alas, am not.
Ah. I had forgotten for a moment this one sure truth: Not everyone can see the dead as we move among you.
Two harried-looking nurses at the head of the stairs exchange brief, knowing nods as they sidle past the lecture group. They brush by as if I'm less substantial than a moonbeam. The red-haired, Irish-looking one does rub her arms, though, and glances back as if struck with a sudden chill. Yet to them I am little more than a draft of cool air through a cracked pane, a faint shadow cast by a flickering lamp.
Actually, this is a freeing thought, and I step off more confidently, no longer bothering to move aside or apologize when a nurse or orderly passes by or even through me.
Washington University is a teaching hospital. The sort of place I might've been well acquainted with, had I not done all my dying at home. I drift onward through its cacophony of ceaseless sound, the sweet scent of opiates, the sour stench of ailing bodies and soiled bandages, the steamy starch of boiling potatoes, because the time is right for one last journey.
As I reach the second-floor landing more screams erupt, shouted curses and pleas, the broken cries louder, even more desperate now. A man is calling my name; he has been calling it all along. The voice is deeper, though, and hoarser than I remember. Coarsened by shouting, illness, and age. And drink, no doubt — far too much drink.
I feel again the old sinking, the vague dread and pity I once knew so well. And love, of course. That too. "Coming!" I say. "I'm coming to you, my dear."
And if no one can see or hear me — well then, why worry? I move out boldly and call again, louder, "I'm coming to you, dear! Peace, Eddy, peace."
At the end of the corridor, in a small private room, the pale dark-haired man I seek is lying on a hospital cot. His limbs tremble and jerk. "Where's my trunk?" he shouts. And then, "I must board the train to Richmond!"
I stop beside the bed, but he does not look up at me.
"For the love of God," he mutters, throwing his lank wet hair from side to side on a sweat-sodden pillow.
They've tied him onto the cot with lengths of stained canvas, but he does not smell of spirits. So the madness comes from within now, not from a bottle.
He shrieks, "Someone find a pistol and blow my brains out!" I hold out one hand. "Eddy, my dear."
He squeezes his eyes shut. "You aren't there," he whispers fiercely. "It's the fever working on my brain. I told them I have a wife in Richmond, but they said —"
I lean to stroke his pale damp brow. He shudders under my touch like a poor mistreated horse. "I am here, Eddy. You can see me. They can't, that's all."
He opens his eyes again. The wild hope in them is heartbreaking. "Virginia? My own dear Sissy. It is you!"
"Yes, it's me." I clasp the poor twitching hand to stop its pointless agitations, and we both flinch. His clutching fingers are very hot, while mine — well, to him they must feel quite icy.
The hope slowly fades. His face contorts into an expression of abject fear, of pale staring horror. "My God, my God," he whispers. "We have put her living in the tomb!"
I almost laugh at that, but it would be cruel, or seem even more horrible to him, perhaps. For the tomb, I know now, is far from the final resting place I once believed it to be. "That was only a story, my dear. One of your stories. I'm not ... not living, merely —"
But who can explain a mystery, the nature of which they too are not altogether certain? So to soothe him, I suggest the one helpful thing that comes to mind. "I have a tale," I say, smiling down into his wide staring gaze.
He laughs bitterly, as if I've told a mean joke at his expense. Clenches his hands into hard, trembling fists, straining against the canvas bonds as if he'd strike me down, if only the brass buckles were weaker. "You're not her, but some fiend come to torment me! Who sent you — Longfellow? The Knickerbocker? My esteemed cousin Neilson? Bastards, thieving bastards all!"
"None of them, Eddy. Please — let me tell the story this time, won't you? If it's worthy, perhaps you'll commend me to your editor."
He rolls his eyes up at the ceiling. His dry, cracked lips twitch into a grimace that's almost a smile. "My editor."
"Yes, I made a joke. Why not? So much in our lives together was not pleasant or amusing, so when the opportunity arises —"
"All right," he whispers, subsiding onto the thin, damp pillow. "All right." He closes his eyes again, and gestures weakly with those long, pale, trembling fingers: Go on, then. Go on.
So that is what I do. I sit at the foot of his narrow sickbed, still holding his hand, and prepare to tell a story — of life, of death, and of life-in-death. So that when my dying husband is calm, and finally believes in the message I bring, we may leave here. Depart the flawed, cold, uncaring world of living men once and for all, together.
Still, I hesitate. Only because — for one dizzy, sickening moment — I want to flee back to that calm and solitary peace I was so suddenly called from. Would I stay here, in this loud, bright, hurried world, if I could? To do it all, our lives, over again?
I am not certain.
In any case I can't leave without him, for Eddy needs me still. Even more than he did back then, if that's possible, through all the joys and tragedies and even the most ordinary of our days. So I'll try to recall to him how we came to be here together, and what lies ahead when we leave this place. Together, I hope — but in the end, he is the one who must choose.
I must content myself with simply recounting those twelve years we knew together. That brief span in our lives when I was first simply young Virginia Eliza Clemm — and then, quite suddenly, Mrs. Edgar Allan Poe.
I met the man of my dreams when I was eight years old.
Oh dear. I can already hear how that must sound. Like the opening line in a sordid tale of depraved men and helpless children. The kind of cheap pamphlet they used to print on rough yellow paper, and no doubt still do, to sell down certain alleyways in New York City and Philadelphia and Baltimore. When my story is not really that sort at all.
Shall we begin again?
When I was eight, my family had a small house on Wilks Street, on Mechanic's Row in Baltimore. My mother, Maria Clemm, my older brother Henry Clemm, and I lived there. So did my older first cousin, Henry Poe. That repetition, the fact of two Henrys in one house, used to confuse me when I was very small: one name, with two faces? Also living with us was our grandmother. Granny Poe had long been a widow, and was so old by then that our mother, who was her daughter, had to care for the old lady as yet another child.
On this particular cool April afternoon I was out playing with my little neighbor friends Juliette and Claudine, sisters who lived on the street behind ours. We were skipping rope and acting out all the game songs we knew. We sang first in English and then in French, for the pretty young mother of my two friends had been born in Paris. And her grandfather had been a soldier in our Revolution. But we were small and cared nothing about all that. It was merely history.
I was getting hungry, so I brushed the dirt and powdery coal dust from the knees of my black stockings, said good-bye to the other girls, and headed back to my house. Still singing, still making the sweeping hand motions that went along with our last shared song:
When I was a young girl, a young girl, a young girl When I was a young girl, how happy was I And this way and that way, and this way and that way And this way and that way, and this way went I.
I began the second verse as I came through the front door and skipped down the hall:
When I had a sweetheart, a sweetheart, a sweetheart When I had a sweetheart, how happy was I ...
In the parlor Granny Poe was propped up on her settee by the fire, a sight which I'd expected. But a dark-haired young man, in a black sack coat and tie, was there as well. The stranger sat very straight in the chair across from hers. He was frowning, perhaps annoyed by my loud, silly song. Seeing him raise his head to look at me, I felt embarrassed and turned away, to run back outside.
But then he said, in the most pleasant voice I'd ever yet heard come from a man, "My mother used to sing that song to me." He had a soft, drawling Virginia accent — different from the harder, quicker speech I heard every day in town.
Granny put out a hand to beckon me closer. "Come in, Virginia. Your cousin Edgar Poe is here to see us. He's Henry's little brother. And he's just come back from the army."
When she said that, Cousin Edgar made a funny, sour face that made me giggle. But when Granny Poe glanced over, his expression went bland and agreeable again.
"Were you a soldier?" I asked, curious, thinking of my friend Juliette's grandfather. Until that moment I had assumed all soldiers were very old men.
"Was and still should be," Granny muttered. "Imagine what your grandfather, General Poe, would say if he knew of this! It would surely kill him, were he not already dead and gone."
Edgar Poe closed his eyes and pressed his fingertips to either side of his forehead — the palest, highest, broadest one I'd ever seen — as if a terrible pain pulsed there. "Oh, I can imagine the words very well," he murmured. "But no, Virginia," he said, opening his eyes to look at me again. "I am not a soldier. Not at all. And that's why I'm out of the army."
I bit my lip and nodded. Clearly I'd walked in on an argument. And when Granny shook her head and sighed as deeply as if my grandfather Poe had indeed just died all over again, I felt swift sympathy for my older cousin. How well I knew that guilt-making sound! I heard it when I tore my dress at play, or failed to braid my hair properly, or was too slow to set the table for dinner.
But why was she being so mean to my big cousin, who was a man? Many years from now, when I was a grown woman, would Granny still be nagging me about shirked duties and sagging stockings and proper comportment?
"Well, girl, don't just stand there," she said, turning her sharp, narrow gaze on me again. "Go give your dear cousin a kiss!"
But I felt shy, for he was no little-boy cousin, but all grown up. His brother Henry Poe, who already lived with us, must be even older. But neither of the Henrys — Eddy's brother or mine — ever paid much attention to me. They certainly never asked for kisses. So I lowered my head and hung back.
"You don't have to," he told me in a low voice. "We hardly know each other. But please, do call me 'Eddy.'" Then he rose and bowed as one grownup would to another.
No one had ever saved me from one of Granny Poe's relentless calls to duty before. I began to look on him more kindly. "All right then," I mumbled, and bobbed a quick, wobbly curtsy to his low, elegant bow.
"Your black hair is very nice," he said as he sat again. "I've always liked long dark curls, and beautiful, dancing black eyes."
I snorted at that remark, but inched a little closer. He looked like an adult, but he didn't talk like one. "Eyes are not black," I protested. "Even on cows. Even on dogs. And they don't dance."
"Virginia Eliza Clemm!" scolded Granny. "For shame. Never talk back to your elders, girl."
"I think you're horrible," I whispered, at a pitch calculated not to be heard by her.
But Cousin Eddy must've heard, for he suddenly grinned. "No, no, Virginia's quite right. It is not possible for eyes to dance. And hers are actually flecked with violet. Like the little wildflower that grows in the wood." He leaned over, reached out, and tilted my chin up to look right into my face.
When his warm fingertips touched the soft skin under my chin, a chill or a spark ran from the back of my neck and shoulders all the way down my spine. Eddy started, as if he'd felt it too. Like the tingling jolt you get on cold winter days after scuffing your shoes over a wool carpet, then touching a brass doorknob.
"My! Are you a girl, or an electrical automaton?" he joked. "I am shocked!"
Excerpted from "The Raven's Bride"
Copyright © 2011 Lenore Hart.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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