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Haunting Poe: An interview with author Chris Semtner Part 2
One of the most popular poems in the English language, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" has thrilled generations of readers. In 1882, the Anglo-American artist James Carling decided to produce the definitive series of illustrations for the poem. Carling's bizarre images explore the darkest recesses of Poe's masterpiece, its hidden symbolism and its strange beauty. Although the series remained unpublished at the time of the artist's early death in 1887, the drawings reemerged fifty years later, when they entered the collection of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. There they lined the blood-red walls of a Raven Room dedicated to their display. For the first time, author and Poe historian Christopher P. Semtner reproduces the entire series and tells the story behind these haunting works.
The curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, Christopher Semtner has served as author, co-author or editor of several books including the History Press title Edgar Allan Poe's Richmond: The Raven in the River City." He has created museum exhibits on Poe in the Comics, Poe's Mysterious Death and Poe in the Movies. The New York Times called the exhibit he curated for the Library of Virginia, Poe: Man, Myth, or Monster, "provocative" and "a playful, robust exhibit."
it was such a widespread pursuit in those years. I mean, some of it was pure quackery, and I think other aspects of it were at least sincere hearted. People who were genuinely mourning, people who were genuinely in grief over the death of a loved one or sort of desperate to reach out and to try anything they could to assuage the pain that they felt.
Benjamin Morris (30:13):
It's hard not to feel a little sympathetic to some of the folks that were gathering who had no other means of mourning their lost relatives or whatever it might be. I mean, I think we can absolutely look with some derision upon those who profited off of the enterprise.
Benjamin Morris (30:30):
And you write about that, of course, in your book as a major feature of the spiritualist scene in the 1830s and 40s. But there is this kind of interesting tension. People will believe what they want to believe. And if in that context, believing that they have reached out to the other side, provides them some measure of comfort, who are we to deny them that comfort if they have no other recourse?
Chris Semtner (31:00):
Hell yeah. And just about 12 years after Poe died, the U.S. entered into American Civil War, and that saw death on an unimaginable scale. People, say from New York would send their loved ones down to the South, never see them again. What happened to them? How can we find out? And sometimes they had to call on spiritualists to try to help them through those tough times.
Chris Semtner (31:23):
And then, gosh, not too long after that, we had World War I, and again, people traveling off to Europe never to be seen again. And what if there are a way that we could say that last thing we wanted to say to them and maybe make contact? And there were lots of spiritualists who were willing to try to look for those answers. There are also a lot of hoaxsters there. In Poe’s day, they started out by just making knocking noises.
Chris Semtner (31:51):
That's all you needed. If you heard this knocking noise, then maybe you could get a spiritualist to help you interpret the knocks and help you communicate with Poe's ghost. And the famous Fox sisters who really blew up, they were superstars of the spiritualism world.
Chris Semtner (32:05):
They heard these knocking noises, and they would ask it questions. They were just little girls. So, all these adults who were prominent members of the community would come to these young girls and ask them, well, what advice can you give me about this or that? And how do I invest? And can you ask a question to my loved one?
Chris Semtner (32:25):
And they would just hear these knocking noises and they interpret the knocking noises. And later one of the Fox sisters admitted, "Oh, we were just cracking our toes. We tricked everybody, tricked all the adults by cracking our toes."
Chris Semtner (32:36):
But by then it was too late. It had already taken off. And then you had mediums who would lift up a table, although it might just be because their foot's underneath the table lifting it up, or maybe during the seance they would have a spiritual form who looked an awful, like the medium's assistant walk into the room and then disappear.
Chris Semtner (33:00):
And when we talk about a medium, it's really the medium of communication between this row and the other. Back then they were called them the spiritual telegraph. That's the medium of communicating with somebody on the other side.
Chris Semtner (33:11):
Now we would call it the spiritual cell phone. You can use the cell phone to communicate with somebody far away that you can't see. So, the medium is your cell phone. And you would ask her, usually a young woman, and you'd ask her to help you reach out to these people.
Chris Semtner (33:29):
And beyond that, there was also spiritualist photographers, William Mumbler, who his whole shtick was, you would come to his studio and get your photo taken, and then you got the picture back, you'd see a ghostly forearm sitting over your shoulder. Sometimes it looked a lot like somebody they'd known during their lifetime.
Chris Semtner (33:48):
His most famous subject is Sally Todd Lincoln, who he swore up and down he did not know who she was, but when she had her picture taken, there was a bearded man standing behind her that looked a little bit like Abraham Lincoln.
Benjamin Morris (34:03):
Imagine that. The levels to which these folks would go to. I think my favorite of all of the ones that you describe in the book, Chris, is the scene in which you have some folks gathered around a seance table. And it's the knocking.
Benjamin Morris (34:21):
And the idea, the question that is raised of the ethereal presence in the room is how many years ago was this person killed? And the sort of correct answer is supposed to be 50. And then they get a bunch of these knocks. And later as people are kind of recounting the event, the seance, nobody can agree on how many times they heard knocks.
Benjamin Morris (34:50):
Was it 24? Was it 48? Was it 51? And this sort of finally that you get this sort of consensus arrived at later. But as I was reading that passage, I was just thinking, was nobody sitting there with a notepad and a pen like they do in the House of Representatives, or any other place where you count things one at a time. And it's like, no, let us make sure this is absolutely as confusing as possible, because that's the only way to sustain the mystery. And it's fantastic. It's wonderful stuff.
Chris Semtner (35:22):
Yeah. That was the seance at the home of Poe's literary executor, Rufus Griswold and Poe had just recently died. Griswold was working on the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe compiling all the different Poe poems and stories.
Chris Semtner (35:36):
And they had this seance at his house with the famous Fox sisters. And Horace Greeley is the one who brought them to town, the guy from the New York Tribune. So, they had all the literati of New York City stopping by this seance.
Chris Semtner (35:50):
You had people who were forgotten today, like John Francis or Nathaniel Parker Willis. But you also had people that are still known today, like James Fenimore Cooper was one of the people. And because it was a bunch of writers there, there were newspaper accounts of it the next few days. So, you got these firsthand accounts of people saying, yeah, we just sat in the dark and we asked questions, and we heard these random knocking noises.
Chris Semtner (36:15):
And some people seemed like they were just bored. Other people thought it was ridiculous. A few people were just true believers. But that's just how it is. That number of knocking, I guess it depends on if you really wanted to believe it was 50 knocks, you'd believe it was 50 knocks.
Chris Semtner (36:29):
Otherwise, you say, well, maybe it was 48, maybe it was 51. And the knocking at first was so rapid, they couldn't really count them all. And part of the deal is you have to be sitting in a dark room. The ghosts don't like to show up if you're not in darkness.
Benjamin Morris (36:42):
Of course not. Yeah. No. Right. I mean, why would you ever get a clear picture of something which may or may not exist? It's marvelous.
Benjamin Morris (36:51):
Now, your book, I have to say, Chris, it is beautifully written. And I mean, you're writing about in some ways a macabre topic, but not completely, but you do so in a manner that befits your subject. And as I was sort of going chapter by chapter, I was really struck by the care that you took to describe, to set certain scenes and the sort of the shadowy light which permeates these halls of seance, you kind of captured that mood and atmosphere very well.
Benjamin Morris (37:27):
And I was just wondering, this is spooky season and we do love a bit of gristle and gore. I was wondering if you would be so kind as to read for us, there's the opening of your eighth chapter, which is just a great example of how you set the scene for the discussion that is to follow.
Benjamin Morris (37:48):
But you really put us in the mood first. I mean, I'm envisioning goblets of dark red wine and candles dripping wax slowly and creeks in the floorboards. Marvelous. Would you just read those first couple paragraphs for us?
Chris Semtner (38:01):
Chris Semtner (38:03):
"Philadelphia's immaculate street grid, glisten under the cerulean sky. Long at the forefront of science, medicine, the arts, the Athens of America had nurtured Poe’s creativity during the six years he lived there. And he still had plenty of friends in the area, but now everybody was gone.
Chris Semtner (38:22):
Those who could afford to leave had fled. And those with nowhere else to go were huddled indoors. A miasma had settled in the city, seeping through the shuttered windows and bolted doors. The cholera was back.
Chris Semtner (38:36):
Not quite a generation ago, it had ravaged the globe sweeping away millions from India to Mexico. Its victims suffered fever, abdominal pain, and such incessant diarrhea that they poured out gallons of fluids until their skin turned bluish gray. Their fingers and toes shriveled, their faces sunk as if reverting to skeletal form and their organs failed.
Chris Semtner (38:59):
The causes were unclear. Doctors speculated it could be divine justice for low living and heavy drinking. Broad sides urged citizens to avoid alcohol and drink more water.
Chris Semtner (39:12):
The cures, however, were plenty, the experts prescribed drinks containing ground deer, antler, manure, turpentine, or mercury. But everyone knew the only real cure was to run as far away as possible."
Benjamin Morris (39:29):
Marvelous. Thank you so much. I get chills just thinking of it. And let me ask you before we turn to our final topic, did you have any kind of, I don't know, a personal literary ritual that you sort of conducted to get yourself into that frame of mind to write this book? I mean, some folks, they light a candle, some folks ... you never know, but did you have anything like that?
Chris Semtner (40:03):
No. The one thing I'd like to do is only write about things that interest me. If there's a chapter that I'm losing interest in, stop that chapter, work on a different chapter.
Chris Semtner (40:14):
So, I often write my books out of order so I can always be interested in whatever I'm writing. I don't want to have to slug through a chapter if that's one's boring me, or maybe I'll just eliminate that altogether, if it's boring to me. I want to always be interested and always feel like I'm just writing the first chapter.
Chris Semtner (40:33):
So, I bounce around and then afterwards you have to put the whole thing back together and go back and edit it to make sure that there's continuity. But that's sort of my ritual, if there is one. And also, it's helpful to have a cat with you.
Benjamin Morris (40:48):
Always, always. That goes without saying. That's the sine qua non. And there's no other way about it, to trust your intuition as a matter of principle. Who knows? Maybe you've got another career as a spiritualist ahead of you after your work at the museum takes its shape.
Chris Semtner (41:12):
Well, that I could just let Poe write the books. Apparently, he kept writing poetry after he died.
Benjamin Morris (41:17):
That's true. That's absolutely true. And that is a beautiful illustration of what exactly I want to ask you now, which is, your book is called Haunting Poe. And what I love about it is it is not just about the things that haunted Poe throughout his life and the traumas, the diseases, the deaths, the mesmerizings.
Benjamin Morris (41:43):
But it's also about the things that Poe haunted. Or that Poe is still said to haunt. And so, the last half of your book is about the places in the many different American cities where Poe lived that he is still said to appear or visit from time to time.
Benjamin Morris (42:06):
And I wanted to ask you about one of them because it is productive, I think, and it's useful and maybe some of our listeners have even been there because it is such a landmark. And that is the Poe House in Baltimore. So, first of all, tell us the significance of this particular property, and then tell us about its curious lifespan. It was nearly destroyed.
Chris Semtner (42:33):
Well, this is where Poe lived in his early 20s. It was after he left Richmond. He'd been in the military. He dropped out of college. He'd been expelled from West Point. And he moved in with his biological father's sister. He never knew his biological father. He ran out of the family early.
Chris Semtner (42:51):
But Mariah Poe Clemm, his aunt, took him in and she was living hand to mouth with her mother, Edgar's grandmother, who was getting a small pension from the government. And that small pension was enough to get all the poor Poes with nowhere else to go to flock to her house.
Chris Semtner (43:06):
You had Edgar, his brother Henry, his cousin Henry, Mariah, and Mariah's daughter Virginia, all huddled together in a tiny house. And in quick succession, it looks like Poe's brother died about six months after he moved to Baltimore.
Chris Semtner (43:20):
Then his cousin Henry just sort of drops off the face of the earth and we've got no record of winter where he ended up dying.
Chris Semtner (43:29):
So, you got Mariah Clemm and her daughter Virginia and their grandmother, and eventually the grandmother passed away. So, it's a rough time. And Poe's published three books of poetry. By the time he was 22-years-old, he published three books of poetry and they didn't sell, they weren't making his mark in the world, but it was in that Baltimore house that he decided to turn to writing fiction.
Chris Semtner (43:54):
He said the market for me is fiction. So, he made that turn. He ended up writing about 70 short stories, only about 45 poems. And it said that half the poems he'd ever written, would ever write were written by the time he was 22. So really, he focused on short stories and that's how he made his name until, of course, The Raven came out a decade later.
Chris Semtner (44:16):
But while Poe was living there, he had some great lows. He entered a literary contest, submitted a bunch of his short stories, he lost the contest, but they still printed all his stories without paying him. He also had a spectacular high when he entered another literary contest and won for the story manuscript Found in a Bottle.
Chris Semtner (44:35):
So, lots of ups and downs, but this is really years when he was struggling. There's even stories that he might've gotten a job as a brick mason. I don't know if that's a fanciful tale, just because of all the brick masons in, say the The Cask of Amontillado or The Black Cat.
Chris Semtner (44:55):
But it seems to tie together. So, this was a time when this small family had to huddle together and Poe really formed a strong bond with his aunt and her daughter who became his mother-in-law and his wife.
Benjamin Morris (45:11):
Right, right. Eventually they all ended up in different properties in different cities and moved. And Virginia, as we know, passed away very young, which was very painful for Poe. But later the property was nearly torn down, but for a kind of last-minute effort to save it.
Chris Semtner (45:35):
Oh yeah. They were going to tear down all the houses and build up a new housing development. But Poe's admirers in Baltimore stuck it out. They did the research. They wanted to find out, well, which of these houses was Poe’s, because over the years the addresses on houses change, the names of streets change.
Chris Semtner (45:51):
And they had to determine there these two houses, there's a double house, which of these two houses of the double houses, which one was Poe's. And they were able to figure out, well, this is the one, let's save this one. So, if you visit it today, it's just the half of the house that Poe lived in. And the rest of it's all gone replaced with modern buildings, but it was just Poe's admirers looking out for him.
Benjamin Morris (46:18):
Which is a great story. And I wish we had more like that. Now you write that that particular property has been the site of some alleged hauntings or visitations. I have to say Chris, that when you describe the appearances of shadowy figures, seated at writing desks, faces obscured by the smoky panes of glass. That's a pretty good example of your everyday living poet. And I say that as one.
Benjamin Morris (46:56):
So, I'm not sure how we really distinguish between the dead and the alive in that particular instance. No offense. But I do have to ask you, there's this one interesting account by an actor who had some sort of experience in the upstairs room of the Poe House. And you tell this story in your book.
Chris Semtner (47:20):
Oh yeah. They were having a performance in the house. It's not a very big house. So, imagine this cramp little corner, maybe one room deep with a windy staircase going up the back. So, they had to go upstairs to get dressed and ready for the performance.
Chris Semtner (47:38):
And while she was upstairs, a piece of the window just came out, moved towards her, and dropped on the ground. And she just said, no way I'm performing there. And just took off. And the curator there had to make do without her.
Benjamin Morris (47:55):
Yeah. I mean, look I get it. I mean, she's a performing artist. She has maybe a slight vested interest in putting on a good show for all of us, but it's kind of interesting when she flees the scene and doesn't come back. I mean, that's not part of the show.
Chris Semtner (48:12):
Yeah. And it's not like the ghost tried to kill you. It just wanted to scare you a little bit. She could have come back, I guess she didn't have much of a sense of humor.
Benjamin Morris (48:23):
Yeah. Well, I mean, I guess if you have shards of broken glass hanging in the air, dangerously close to your neck-
Chris Semtner (48:29):
Yeah. If they're actually trying to kill you, but just trying to scare you a little bit.
Benjamin Morris (48:33):
Yeah. Well, that's true. I probably would've hung around for at least a few more minutes before boogieing on out of there
Chris Semtner (48:40):
Yeah. You could've just asked, well, what about my performance did you not like, do you have any notes for me? And maybe the ghost would just given her a few notes and say, oh yeah, you need to touch up this part of it.
Benjamin Morris (48:52):
Yep. My concern would be that the ghost would scribble those notes on the wall in my own blood using that same shard of glass. It would be a fitting kind of form of feedback. But I understand her not willing to find out.
Benjamin Morris (49:08):
Let me ask you about one more, because it is fun. There's this great sequence that you have in your book, and it, it is by far and away just one of the — it brings it all together. It brings the fragments of lost memory. It brings together the surly old grave digger. It brings together an actual corpse, and not just a random corpse, but Poe's corpse and the moment of his re-exhumation and the folks sort of coming in trying to relocate him and remove him to a new location and so forth, a new cemetery.
Benjamin Morris (49:51):
What I'm getting at is you have this amazing sequence where you describe grave robbers at Poe's own grave. And they take chunks of the coffin, like the ones you have in the museum. And they take those as souvenirs and then they fashion the chunks of his wooden coffin that had laying mirror inches from his mortal remains. That sort of thing. It's beautiful. And they make pens out of them and pen holders and they make writing instruments out of them. What on earth were they thinking?
Chris Semtner (50:25):
Well, that's just the way people were. I mean, they want all things Poe, say if your loved one died in that era, you might save their hair and you might make hair art of it, or it might make a hair cross that you wear on your neck.
Chris Semtner (50:38):
So, they had different ideas about what was kind of gross. But the scene happened. It was 1875, so it was 26 years after Poe died. And the idea was to move Poe's body. He was way in the back of the cemetery. Even people who go to the cemetery today often overlook where he used to be because it's all the way around the back of the church.
Chris Semtner (51:01):
And this group of Poe's admirers thought, no, he needs a monument for his grave. He doesn't have anything now. He needs a monument. He needs to be in the front, near the sidewalk. So, now Poe's grave is right next to the sidewalk. You can see it from the street.
Chris Semtner (51:13):
So, that meant they'd have to move him. And as they're moving him, the coffin fell apart. He fell out. Gave everybody a last good scare. And by that time, it’s just bones, the newspapers said that it was mostly just bones, a little bit of skin, a little bit of hair left clinging to the skull. The skin and the muscle had rotten away. His rib cage had fallen open, his mandible had fallen off.
Benjamin Morris (51:34):
Oh, that's so good.
Chris Semtner (51:36):
All around a skull. And the newspaper, the next day, at least three different newspaper accounts said he had very nice teeth. So, he apparently practiced good dental hygiene. So, they scooped up all the Poe pieces afterwards, put them in a new Poe box, and people grabbed chunks of that old coffin off the ground.
Chris Semtner (51:50):
And some of those were just big chunks, like the one at the Poe Museum. Others are little pieces, and some are made into pens. And there's a few of them out there. There's a guy who showed us his Poe pen, but he doesn't want to donate it just yet. I hope one day he'll donate his Poe pen to us.
Benjamin Morris (52:08):
Chris Semtner (52:09):
There was a writer named George Hazelton, who was a playwright and a novelist, and he wanted to write a novel about Poe's life called The Raven in 1909. It was the centennial of Poe's birth, perfect time to write a Poe book. And his friend who had a Poe pen gave him the Poe pen and said, here's a piece of pen made from Poe’s coffin.
Chris Semtner (52:31):
And George Hazelton set up with his paper at his desk, a big stack of paper. He had his ink well, with black ink in it. He dipped his pen in the ink well and wrote chapter one on the top of the first page. And we looked at it, instead of saying chapter one, it said Eronel, E-R-O-N-E-L, Eronel.
Chris Semtner (52:56):
Well, obviously one of my kids got in here and they wrote this on the page. I'm going to start another page. And then he just gets rid of that one. Then he writes the next one, chapter one instead. Same chapter one, it says Eronel. And he had no idea what this meant.
Chris Semtner (53:10):
So, then he says, I'm going to force my hand. I'm going to hold my hand down and I can only write chapter one. And he holds his hand in place. And instead of the black ink, it turns out blood red and spatters on. And he says, "I need to stop using this pen." And he just gave up that part. Used another pen. And he eventually finished the novel. It's called The Raven.
Chris Semtner (53:33):
And he published this in a newspaper saying about his experience with the haunted pen. And he had people come to see the Eronel and what does this mean, this Eronel, is it some other language? And then somebody held up a mirror to it, and it's Lenore backwards. I love that ghost story. I'd love to get the pen though. Wouldn't that be good to have the pen in the museum?
Benjamin Morris (54:00):
That would be, that would be.
Chris Semtner (54:01):
So, if you out there have the pen, send it down to Richmond to the Poe Museum, we'll put it on display.
Benjamin Morris (54:07):
And your name too will be immortalized as the donor of the bloody pen.
Benjamin Morris (54:34):
I love that story in your book. And there are so many stories like that in your book of folks transgressing between the mortal realm and the shadow realm. And just doing everything they can to get as close as possible to what lies beyond the veil. It's marvelous. It's marvelous. It just such a joy.
Chris Semtner (55:02):
Well, thanks. And in some cases, one of the stories, if you can't get Poe's corpse, get his wife's, that was one of the pieces in there too.
Benjamin Morris (55:13):
Okay, well, we will leave our readers to find that out for themselves. That is a delightfully spooky story, which is also in the book. And if you want to know how and where to go grave digging for Virginia Clemm, then you know what to do, everybody.
Benjamin Morris (55:34):
The book is called Haunting Poe. It's published by Arcadia and the History Press. And we have been so grateful to have Chris Semtner with us here.
Benjamin Morris (55:44):
Now I have to ask you one or two last questions. First of all, do you have any plans for Halloween? I mean, is there a traditional reading of The Raven on the grounds at midnight or something there like?
Chris Semtner (55:56):
Well, it's always Halloween at the Poe Museum.
Benjamin Morris (55:59):
Chris Semtner (56:02):
So, just the usual, just terrifying more kids. And I think we even have a wedding scheduled for that day. We have lots of perfectly normal people who get married at the Poe Museum. But you have to be a special kind of person to book out Halloween Day for your wedding.
We also have our Halloween themed Unhappy Hour. We have an Unhappy Hour each month from April through October. It's kind of like a happy hour, except it's the Poe Museum. So, it's really melancholy. It's a miserable time from six to nine. And we have our Halloween themed one with costume contests and everything. And that's the most popular one of the year.
Benjamin Morris (56:49):
I can only imagine that you serve on the menu two of the greatest drinks, cocktails ever invented. Number one, I'm sure you serve a Bloody Mary because how could you not? And then please tell me that you serve that delicious gin-based concoction called the Corpse Reviver. Please tell me those are on offer.
Chris Semtner (57:07):
Well, you have to find out for yourself. I have all sorts of local brew. There's the Black Cat Ale, and sometimes we serve Raven Beer. One of the events we had an Amantillado tasting for our Cask of Amantillado themed evening.
Benjamin Morris (57:23):
Well, in that case, put it on your calendar folks. Put it on your calendar. So, Chris, last question for you is, where can folks find your work? I mean, if they want to get ahold of this book or any of your previous works on Poe, what's the best place to find you?
Chris Semtner (57:40):
Well probably can find them all on Amazon and also at the Poe Museum’s online store, poemuseum.org usually has a lot of the History Press titles like Poe's Richmond is a story of Poe’s life in the city, those pivotal moments that took place in Richmond.
Chris Semtner (57:56):
And also, we have The Raven Illustrations of James Carling. A whole book about this 19th century artist, died at the age of 29 while attempting to illustrate the Raven line by line. And this is the first gathering of all the illustrations in full color thanks to History Press.
Chris Semtner (58:13):
And of course, the Poe Shrine, which is distributed by History Press in Arcadia, which is all about how the Poe Museum got its artifacts. And we profiled 25 of the most interesting artifacts like Poe's childhood bed or Poe's socks or Poe's walking stick. And the key found his pocket after his death.
Chris Semtner (58:33):
All sorts of good things that tell the story of who he was. And of course, the most recent one is Haunting Poe, his afterlife in Richmond and beyond. So, you can track down those things at the Poe Museum website or even on my website, chrissemtner.com.
Benjamin Morris (58:51):
Fantastic. Thank you so much. Will you do us the greatest honor and take us out with a good old fashioned Nevermore.
Chris Semtner (59:05):
Benjamin Morris (59:08):
Perfect. Thank you, Chris.
Chris Semtner (59:10):
You're welcome. You want a Tell-tale Heart?
Benjamin Morris (59:13):
Oh, go on.
Chris Semtner (59:15):
“True, nervous, very dreadfully, dreadfully nervous. I have been and am. But why will you say that I'm mad? The disease has sharpened my senses. Not destroyed, not dulled. Above all things was a sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heavens and the earth are many things in hell. How, then am I mad? Hearken! See how calmly, how healthily, I can tell you the whole story.”