The plan was simple: I would write a book about a cross-country killer who leaves obscure phrases from the work of Edgar Allan Poe as his calling card. I would borrow some of the gloomy menace of the master and infect my own book with it. It would amount to a perfect crime. A clever literary theft disguised as homage. And I would get away with it.
I packed a suitcase for the road trip I would take to research the locations where the killer would strike and made sure to include a two-volume set of Poe’s collected works as well. By day I picked killing scenes for my novel- Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, Sarasota, and Baltimore. By night I sat in hotel rooms and re-immersed myself in the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe. For the most part I had been a short-story man when it came to Poe. I knew the poetry was well regarded and substantial-what high school graduate was unfamiliar with “The Raven”-but I had never been much interested in rhyming. I liked the blood and guts thrills of the stories. But now, on the road, I was reading the poetry because the short, tightly drawn lines, steeped in metaphors for death and loneliness, were what I needed for my book. All these years later I remember one stanza by heart.
I dwelt alone in the land of moan
and my soul was a stagnant tide
Has there ever been a more beautiful and concise summation of an existence at the bottom of the dark abyss? Could there possibly be a better line to self-describe a killer who roams the country in 1997? I didn’t think so. So I decided my killer would use the line.
My research travels took me to Washington, D.C., where I spent a day walking around government buildings and trying to talk my way into a tour of the FBI headquarters. (Access denied.) Late in the day I checked into the Hilton near Dupont Circle. I wanted to stay specifically in the Hilton because the place had its own creep factor-about fifteen years earlier President Ronald Reagan stepped out of a side entrance after giving a speech and was shot by a wouldbe assassin seeking notoriety to feed his fixation on a movie star. I planned to include a reference to this in my book.
I checked out the spot of the assassination attempt, took some notes, and then went up to my room to order dinner in and spend the rest of the evening reading Poe. After eating and calling home, I stretched out on the bed and cracked open the volume containing the poetry. The work was morose and haunting. Death lurks in almost every stanza that Poe wrote. To say I was spooking myself would be an understatement. I kept all the lights on in the room and double-locked the door.
As the night wore on I became aware of voices out in the hallway. Fellow travelers talking in a muffled cacophony as they headed to or from the elevator. I could hear their footsteps as they trod past my door. It was late and I was somewhere in that gray area between wakefulness and sleep. But I read on and soon came across the poem “The Haunted Palace.” The poem rang eerily familiar to me, yet I knew I was not aware of any of Poe’s poetry outside of “The Raven.” I checked the notes section and learned it was a ballad that had originally been contained in one of Poe’s signature short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
“Usher” was a story I had read somewhere long before, as a school assignment or during a voluntary immersion in Poe’s work. I now took up the first volume, which contained the short stories, and began to read it once again. The story quickly enveloped me in its claustrophobic dread. I think there is no story of Poe’s, or perhaps from any other writer, that so forcefully and completely ensures the reader’s descent into the unexpected. It is a story steeped in mystery and fear and the unexpected twist. It is a story that rolls inexorably deeper into darkness from the very first word.
Deeply submerged in the story of Roderick Usher and the haunting malady of his head and home, I lost track of where I was until a loud SHOT rang out in the hallway. I leaped up in my bed, book flying to the floor, and stifled a scream. I stood stock-still and waited, my ears waiting for any further report. I then heard a peal of female laughter, a murmur of conversation, and the polite chime of an arriving elevator. I sat back on the bed shaken but realizing I had heard no shot. I had heard the slamming of the door across the hall. I had simply fallen under the spell of Edgar Allan Poe. I’d let him take me to a world of dark imagination, where common things become uncommon, where the routine becomes the ghastly unexpected, where a slamming door becomes a shot in the night.
I called my book The Poet, the name bestowed on my killer by the media when they attribute the lines left behind at the crime scenes to him rather than their true author, Poe. I put the Hilton Hotel scene in the book. I re-created it in as much detail as I could, placing my fictitious alter ego in the bed where I had been. It’s one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite books. I am glad to have made a record of it. But the truth is that it wasn’t necessary. For me there will be no forgetting that midnight dreary when Edgar Allan Poe reached across nearly two centuries to seek justice for what I had thought would be a perfect literary crime.