In A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe (St. Martin’s, Feb.), former film and television critic Dawidziak uses Poe’s puzzling death as a hook to revisit the writer’s life.
Why begin with Poe’s death?
With Poe, a good deal of what has perpetuated our interest in him is this incredible mystery that surrounds his death. Poe died under circumstances that reflect his two greatest achievements as a writer: he leaves us a mystery worthy of his great detective C. Auguste Dupin, and he dies under horrific circumstances that would not be out of place in one of his tales of horror.
Did you set out to solve that mystery?
When the book was first discussed, it was suggested that the theme of the book be his death. My response was, you don’t want this to be yet another book purporting to solve the mystery of Poe’s death, do you? From my 43 years as a journalist, I know you shouldn’t make claims you can’t deliver on. So I was very quick to say that this is a cold case and we have no hard evidence, that there was no autopsy and the record is incredibly muddled. The best we can possibly do is examine his life through the mystery of his death and perhaps come up with a reasonable theory as to how he died. Do I come up with a favorite theory? Yes, absolutely. But can I prove it definitively? I’m upfront, from the very beginning of the book—the answer to that is no.
What did your examination of his life reveal?
We have this almost funhouse mirror image of Poe that is nothing like who he actually was. All these myths and misconceptions have grown up around him almost from the day he died.
What are some of those misconceptions?
There’s the stereotype of the guy up in the attic, probably strung out on drugs, writing his stories out of some kind of fever dream, a raven perched on his shoulder and a bottle of cognac by his side. The truth is that Poe was a very careful writer and a very careful craftsman. That was one of the reasons I wanted to write the book. I’m fascinated by the writing process, and something didn’t make sense with Poe. The stereotype could not account for the guy who wrote those stories. Another thing we do not attribute to Poe is a sense of humor, and yet almost everybody I know who writes horror has a great sense of humor. A horror writer has to have a great sense of humor, or else you’d go crazy doing this kind of thing.