A slight change in tact for this posting. It’s not a story. And it’s not about my writing. It’s about another story, one that isn’t written down but is acted out once a year. A wonderful, touching story, but one that may, perhaps, be just another work of fiction.
There are writers whose work I enjoy and who I hope influence my own work. One of these, and possibly my favourite writer, is Edgar Allan Poe.
I grew up with Poe. My parents had a large, hardback, leather bound, gilt edged compendium of all of Poe’s stories and poems. I can remember from a very early age, holding this tome in my hands, running my fingers around the embossed image of a raven on a skull, in gold leaf on green leather. Smelling the leather binding, the crisp pages. The weight of the book. Even before I could understand the stories, the book itself was a thing of beauty. It is the first book I actually remember. And the stories themselves! The Telltale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter (detective stories to rival Conan Doyle’s work) and my favourite, The Imp of the Perverse. Not to mention the oft-parodied The Raven, and my favourite poem, Eldorado. These are the tales of my childhood and adolescence.
If people wonder why so much of what I write myself is strange, bizarre, weird, perverse, then it is the influence of Poe, and latterly Lovecraft (himself hugely influenced by Poe).
Which brings us to the tale of “The Poe Toaster”. In brief, each year on the anniversary of Poe’s birth, a mysterious figure is spotted stealing into the Westminster Presbyterian Church graveyard in Baltimore, to lay three roses and a bottle of cognac by the writer’s grave. Described as a “Poe like figure”, the visitor has been spotted, but never spoken to. On rare occasions, he has left notes to indicate that he is not the original Poe Toaster, but someone carrying on the tradition, and that the original Toaster had died. Is he a fan? A distant relative? Is he some spectre, the ghost of Poe? Whoever or whatever he is, his actions are a labour of love, a tribute to a literary genius, that has happened every year since 1949.
Or perhaps it hasn’t. If Sam Porpora is to be believed, the whole thing is a hoax, a publicity stunt to garner attention to Poe’s final resting place. Porpora admits that someone has, based on his story, subsequently become the Poe Toaster (an example of an urban legend becoming true, known as pseudo-ostension). One of his tour guides? Porpora himself? An anonymous citizen of Baltimore? Perhaps even a tulpa, created by the expectation of seeing this mysterious visitor.
Yet controversy remains. A newspaper article from almost a quarter of a century before Porpora claims to have invented the story makes reference to an annual visitor to Poe’s grave who leaves a bottle of cognac. Porpora’s story is inconsistent, variously claiming that he made up the story and told a journalist in 1967, whilst the newspaper story he is referring to dates from 1976. Where is the truth? Porpora’s claim only muddies the water, and leaves us no closer to knowing who the Poe Toaster is.
And to be honest, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know that this was all a hoax. I don’t want to know that this was all a mere publicity stunt that has been carried on into the public domain by enthusiastic individuals. I want this to be a quiet tribute by an anonymous person, for personal reasons. A solemn remembrance of a tragic figure. A romantic idea, a recognition of a writer gone but not forgotten, visited by a shadowy figure, someone that Poe could have written himself.
Sometimes a lie is more beautiful than the truth. That is what fiction is. Beautiful lies, lies that we want to believe, even briefly, because believing the lie has beauty and purpose. If the lie does no harm, and the truth is less inspiring, then why not perpetuate the lie?
An actor dresses in a frock coat and goes through the motions of laying flowers in order to attract the tourists. Is that the truth? If it is, do you want to believe it?
I prefer to believe the tall tale, of an unknown person, who steals into a graveyard unnoticed and unchallenged in the dead of night, to lay a tribute whose true meaning we presume to know, for reasons we can only guess at. That has meaning. That has purpose. That has beauty. On this occasion, I don’t want to find out the truth, ever. Call it Poe’s last great mystery. And leave it unfinished.