Saturday, January 3, 2009

Poe's Room at the University of Virginia

This is a wonderful photo of Poe's room by someone named JoshBerglund19 on Flickr. (I'm using it under a Creative Commons license, with some rights reserved.)

I went to the University of Virginia, and I am even a member of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, which Poe also joined while at school. The room is located on what is called the Range, which is the line of rooms facing away from the lawn in front of the Rotunda. The doorway is open, but sealed off with a thick sheet of glass. So at any time of day or night, you can walk by and peer into Poe's lair. I didn't fit in at UVa. Though I made a few friends there, I spent quite a few late-night hours wandering around by myself. I suspect Poe did the same, and it's probably one of the reasons I like him so much. Sometimes I'd walk by this place on my way home, and give the door a quick knock.

"Nevermore," I'd say, and hustle home before anyone answered.

Real-Life Red Death (Part 2)

If you're not scared enough by my previous post about the "real Red Death," here's a description from The Hot Zone by Richard Preston:

His eyes are the color of rubies, and his face is an expressionless mass of bruises. The red spots, which a few days before had started out as starlike speckles, have expanded and merged into huge, spontaneous purple shadows: his whole head is turning black-and-blue. The muscles of his face droop. The connective tissue in his face is dissolving, and his face appears to hang from the underlying bone, as if the face is detaching itself from the skull. He opens his mouth and gasps into the bag, and the vomiting goes on endlessly. It will not stop, and he keeps bringing up liquid, long after his stomach should have been empty. The airsickness bag fills up to the brim with a substance know as the vomito negro, or the black vomit. The black vomit is not really black; it is a speckled liquid of two colors, black and red, a stew of tarry granules mixed with fresh red arterial blood. It is hemorrhage, and it smells like a slaughterhouse.

Wait, it gets better:

He doesn’t seem to be fully aware of pain any longer because the blood clots lodged in his brain are cutting off blood flow. His personality is being wiped away by brain damage. This is called depersonalization, in which the liveliness and details of character seem to vanish. He is becoming an automaton. Tiny spots in his brain are liquefying. The higher functions of consciousness are winking out first, leaving the deeper parts of the brain stem (the primitive rat brain, the lizard brain) still alive and functioning. It could be said that the who of Charles Monet has already died while the what of Charles Monet continues to live.

Buy the book here. Isn't "real scary" so much worse than "story scary"? Wheee!

Real-Life Red Death (Part 1)

In a 2002 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases published by the Centers for Disease Control and Preventon, two doctors suggest naming a new strain of disease "Ebola-Poe." (The article is short and fascinating. Read it here). Dr. Setu Vora and Dr. Sundaram Ramanan start with the Red Death itself, pointing out an irony in the story which you may have missed:

High death rates leave Prospero’s dominions “half depopulated.” Poe gives a graphic description of the clinical features and outlines the course of the disease, from the earliest symptoms to the fatal outcome. The red death indiscriminately attacks all segments of the population, including healthy, immunocompetent hosts. Transmission, which seems to be accelerated by overcrowding, is from person-to-person contact and possibly aerosol inhalation. The death rate is highest in the abbey—all those confined inside die, while only half of those left outside do. Outside the abbey, once an infected person exhibits symptoms, others “shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.”

It was the act of trying to seal themselves off from the disease that doomed Prospero and his comrades. But then the good doctors tick off the diseases Poe may have learned about in one way or another:

Some have speculated that Poe’s family history of tuberculosis (his mother, his adoptive mother, his wife, and possibly his brother died of the disease) may have prompted him to write about a similar disease in Life in Death—a story about a painter and his dying wife, who incidentally resembled Poe’s wife. Along the same lines, Poe’s experience of nursing his wife through her bouts of exsanguinating hemoptysis, cradling her head for hours, and wiping away the blood from her face may well have been on his mind when he mused about “the scarlet stains upon the face” of the afflicted in Masque of the Red Death.

Yellow fever could also be an inspiration, the doctors write, since epidemics of the disease killed tens of thousands of people in US history up to 1905. And port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore -- where Poe lived, as they point out -- were affected until 1822. But Poe bumped up the death rate and speed the disease spreads. He also gave it a name that would invoke memories of the black plague mingled with that horrific blood loss. But in doing so, he happened to predict a much more frightening group of diseases which hadn't been discovered yet: "the filovirus hemorrhagic fevers, which include Ebola and Marburg." Naturally we should credit the guy:

Whether inspired by tuberculosis or yellow fever, the red death is clearly a concoction of Poe’s imagination. In honor of the creative genius that imagined Ebola fever long before the infection was recognized, the particular strain that causes red death might be named Ebola-Poe.

The Masque of the Red Death

An excellent animation of this tale, though edited down into a three minute clip. For the full text along with an audio reading, check out Wikisource.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The History Behind Hop-Frog

(Note: Spoilers Ahead! If you haven't read Poe's "Hop-Frog," drop what you're doing and plow through it now. It's a short, deliciously nasty piece of work.)

Poe's classic revenge tale, "Hop-Frog" may have been inspired by the gruesome death of several nobles in 14th century France. Here is the account from Paris Kiosque:

Be that as it may, in all likelihood the manor belonged to the royal family and was the site of the tragic scene of the Bal des Ardents, a fancy-dress ball held here on 28 January 1393. The feeble-minded Charles VI and five of his friends turned up dressed as savages. The Duc d'Orléans, purportedly curious to identify his brother the King, held a torch close to the faces of the `savages' and (accidentally?) set their costumes aflame. Four of the unfortunate party perished in the fire...
The King was saved by the presence of mind of his aunt, the Duchesse de Berry, who rolled him in her coat, yet, while he did not lose his life, he lost the last remnants of his sanity after this traumatic experience.

Barbara Tuchman's book on the period, A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, describes the costumes as being made of linen cloth sewn onto the bodies of the partygoers, and "soaked in resinous wax or pitch to hold a covering of frazzled hemp, so that they appeared shaggy & hairy from head to foot." Needless to say, when one of them touched a flame, "stop, drop, and roll" probably didn't cut it.

In Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, Arthur H. Quinn points out that the story of a jester's vengeance was nowhere to be found in the historical account. However, the horror of the tale isn't just the terrible death. It's the specific form of cruelty the king inflicts on the jester, which sets the revenge in motion:

He knew that Hop-Frog was not fond of wine, for it excited the poor cripple almost to madness; and madness is no comfortable feeling. But the king loved his practical jokes, and took pleasure in forcing Hop-Frog to drink and (as the king called it) 'to be merry.'

The effect is not good:

"Ah! ha! ha!" roared the latter, as the dwarf reluctantly drained the beaker.—"See what a glass of good wine can do! Why, your eyes are shining already!" Poor fellow! his large eyes gleamed, rather than shone; for the effect of wine on his excitable brain was not more powerful than instantaneous. He placed the goblet nervously on the table, and looked round upon the company with a half—insane stare. They all seemed highly amused at the success of the king's 'joke.'

This is a common Poe theme, and Quinn suggests something I find very interesting, and a little creepy:

Perhaps Poe's own reaction to those who urged him, against his will, to drink the one glass that took away his self-control, was the model for the behavior of the dwarf.

Think about it for a second. You're an addict. You're always a single drink away from an ugly and potentially lethal spiral. And the people who help you to that glass? The ones you hate and fear most, the ones who inspire you to write this murderous tale in which you kill them all off? They're probably your friends.

UPDATE: I have found a wonderful movie version of this story featuring puppets and live actors, including an actor from "Twin Peaks" as the jester. Watch Part 1 here. And here are Parts 2, 3, and 4. Enjoy!
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