I read my first Poe story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in 1974. I was thirteen years old. I read that story, then another, working my way through an old hardback anthology while sitting on a hard plastic chair in the most miserable place in the world.
That place was Highland Junior High School, in Highland, Michigan. Nobody is supposed to like junior high school, I know, but seriously, HJH was a two-year prison sentence. The worst part was wintertime, when the sun didn’t even start coming up until the end of first period. As a bonus, sometimes a few of the worst kids would escape outside, push open the windows, and then pelt everyone with ice balls. If you weren’t quick enough, you were a goner.
That first class of the day, the world outside still pitch-black, was seventh-grade English. The teacher was a man named Vincent Lucius. I still remember him because at the time I thought he was probably insane. First of all, he was always in an unnaturally cheerful mood, even on Monday mornings in January. And even worse, he actually seemed to enjoy his job. He loved teaching. He loved being around seventh-graders, if you can even imagine that. More than anything, he loved good writing.
The first time he made us all write something, I came up with some strange story about me and my best friend catching a burglar. Mr. Lucius stood up in front of the class and read it out loud. Having a teacher single you out in seventh grade was a seriously uncool thing in 1974, and I don’t imagine that’s changed much since. But he made me keep writing. I ended up giving him more crime stories, always me and my friend catching grown-up bad guys. I was reading a lot of Hardy Boys then, along with Encyclopedia Brown and the Three Investigators. That’s what I thought a mystery should be. A little bit of danger to keep things interesting, but everything turning out right in the end. One day Mr. Lucius gave me the collected stories of Edgar Allan Poe and told me to give it a try. “I think you’re ready for something a little ‘darker,’ ” he said to me. “Just leave this on my desk at the end of class. You can read some more tomorrow.”
He must have known what those stories would do to me. The nineteenth-century language was a little tough to get through at first, but once I got the hang of it… damn. This was a little darker, all right. This was the real thing. This was what it looked like when things didn’t turn out right in the end. And Poe wasn’t just standing on the outside of it, looking in. He lived there.
“The Pit and the Pendulum.” “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Every time I go back to these stories, I’m right back there in junior high school again, dodging ice balls. I’m back to that one hour when I could lose myself in this other world, as dark and mysterious as anything I’d ever imagined, created whole by a man who died 112 years before I was born. Back to that feeling I had when I first started reading the real thing. And wondering if there was any way I’d ever be able to write that way myself. It was in that seventh-grade class, in 1974, when I decided exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.
So thanks, Mr. Vincent Lucius, wherever you are. And thanks to you, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.