“But see, amid the mimic rout
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—It writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And the angels sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.”
Edgar Allan Poe, The Conqueror Worm
“There is a countenance which haunts me ... There is an hysterical laugh which will forever ring within my ears.”
Edgar Allan Poe, The Oblong Box
“And all my days are trances,
And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy dark eye glances,
And where thy footstep gleams—
In what ethereal dances,
By what eternal streams.”
Edgar Allan Poe, To One in Paradise
Thomas Hayward Poe dipped his pen and sat for a moment in thought. The shadow of his hand, cast upon the blank sheet by the candlelight, seemed to dance on the page. But it was his hand that trembled, not the flame. The air was still. After a moment, he swallowed and began to write.
The darkest day—the darkest hour,
my sear’d and blighted heart has known...
There it was again! He heard it distinctly this time. Certainly, these sounds did not originate within his ears. Not this time, not now. Laying aside his pen, he stared into the darkness, listening.
Mice in the walls, he told himself for the hundredth time. But he knew better by now. The traps with their mouldering bits of cheese remained unsprung wherever he had laid them. No, these curious scratchings issued from far beyond his ears and far beyond these walls.
He stood and turned away from his writing desk. His bedchamber, illumined only by the meager light of his candle, was cloaked in darkness. The bed was empty, of course, and the canopy that covered it was slightly parted on one side, the bed itself hidden by the gloom within. To Thomas Hayward Poe, it resembled a tomb. Sleep did not come easily in this room; it never had. On this night—the one year anniversary of Eliza’s death—it had not come at all.
The canopy of the bed was of the same fine golden fabric as the curtains that covered the walls from floor to ceiling. As he surveyed the room, he saw that it was more than his hand that trembled, for the curtains, too, seemed to shiver at the cold wind that suddenly rattled the windows. Animated by their subtle rippling and obscured by the feeble candlelight, the jetty black arabesques wrought upon the cloth seemed less static designs than living forms, ascending the curtains in ghastly procession from some unseen depths below. It was natural to be uneasy in this room. He had always felt it, now more than ever.
And more than just uneasy. Truth be told, Thomas Hayward Poe was afraid.
The wind had indeed picked up. A storm was coming. Withered leaves skittered against the panes. In his ears, the sound was as loud as if the branches themselves clawed at the glass. Of all of his sharpened senses, it was his hearing that had grown most acute. There was no mistaking the scratching of the leaves for the scratching beyond the walls. He was tempted to take up his candle and search. But he already knew the truth. Nothing here accounted for the sound, not leaves nor mice.
He would wait it out.
He sat down and took up his pen. Writing would soothe his mind.
The highest hope of—
Damn-it-all! Now the metallic banging filled his ears—the damned banging. He slammed down his pen. How much was he expected to endure? A loose shutter. Somewhere. He stood in a rush, dashed to the window and flung open the curtains. Empty darkness greeted him. He ran to the next, and then the next after. He flung open the curtains of each until every window of his bedchamber stood exposed to the night.
He knew the sound and his anger boiled. He would end it now, this night. He threw on his dressing gown and slippers, ran from the room and onto the landing that ringed the great open foyer below. He burst through the first door he came to. The banging had not ceased; in fact, it had grown louder. He thrust open the drapes. Empty darkness mocked him. He turned and dashed from the room.
A broken shutter.
In a blind rage, he ran down a corridor and threw open the door of his study. If he had to lay bare every window in the house, he would. But he would find it. He would end it. Ignoring the walls of books—legal and medical tomes, natural sciences, poetry—he made for the dual windows in the south-facing wall. He flung open the curtains of the first. The metallic whir of the rings on the rod drowned out the hideous banging—but only for a second. He gazed through the glass into darkness. There was no rattling shutter, but the sound remained. His anger grew.
Anger, because he knew the sound was not a shutter. By God, he knew it was not. But his sanity demanded that it was. It must be a shutter. It must!
He moved to the second window. This time when the curtains rang across the rod, it was as if the world had stopped. Except for that of his heart, all pounding had ceased; even the scratchings were gone. Now, he heard only the howl of the wind through the casements, and saw only the thrashing limbs of the trees in the yard. And something else as well. Something beyond the trees, only intermittently visible through the mass of gnarled branches.
He opened the window and leaned out, peering at it intently. The cold wind blew in around him, scattering some papers from his desk. The turbulent night sky emitted no trace of moonlight, yet the tomb seemed illumined by some preternatural glow, as if it were demanding his attention. For a year he had been loath to give it. He could scarcely stand to look upon it. Within days of Eliza’s internment, he began cutting short his walks to avoid it, and when some errand brought him within sight of it, he diverted his gaze. He even left the curtains through which he now peered forever drawn against an accidental glimpse of it, condemning his study to an atmosphere of perpetual gloom and melancholy. Weeds had sprouted up around the base of its walls. The walls themselves had grown dingy with neglect, giving the sepulcher an air of an abandoned ruin.
He had built it to contain two bodies, his and Eliza’s. He had intended to routinely mourn there, but had instead determined he would go there only once—and never while alive.
But he knew he would have to go there now. There were no mice. There was no loose shutter. There was only Eliza’s tomb.
He turned away from the window, retraced his steps and crept down the hall to the stairs. The house was quiet but for the ticking of the great clock in the parlor below. It resounded throughout the open foyer. It sounded overloud in his ears, maddeningly so. The volume increased with each step he took. The sound veritably rang within his ears until it became unbearable.
“Dear God! End my torment!” he cried, clutching his ears.
Not until the last echoes of his cry had utterly sunk into silence did he remove his hands—and then only tentatively.
There was not a sound. The ticking had stopped.
But when he resumed his descent, the sound resumed as well—faintly. And not a clock this time, but a metallic banging. The sound of the loose shutter. Only now it had assumed the cadence of the clock, the rhythm of his step upon the stairs...
...the meter of his own beating heart.
At the base of the stairs, he turned and started down the hallway toward the back of the house. This took him past the open doors of the parlor. Glancing inside, he saw the tall case clock and the glint of its motionless pendulum, still as death. He had stopped it weeks ago. Nowhere in the entire house was there a ticking clock.
The pounding in his ears continued, weak and rhythmic. In the kitchen, he reached for the lantern that hung on a peg just inside the door. Locating a match, he lit it, carefully closed the cover and stepped out into the cold October night.
The wind immediately caught the door as he opened it, slamming it against the house. The lantern swayed in his hand and his dressing gown flapped wildly around his legs. With an effort, he pulled the door closed. Then he set off across the garden terrace toward the patch of rising ground two hundred yards distant upon which stood Eliza’s tomb.
He did not feel the cold as he walked. The wind howled in his ears even as the banging never ceased. Perhaps the iron door of the mausoleum had come loose. Was it possible? He had never considered the question before. Shutters, yes; mice in the walls, of course. But the iron door of the mausoleum itself? Oh, what a cruel jest! That all of his sleepless nights, his endless torment, should have been due to nothing more terrifying than a loose hinge, while the terror it produced in him had been the very thing that prevented its discovery!
He could almost believe it—but only until he came within sight of the tomb itself. Then he broke out in a cold sweat. The sound, the slow, rhythmic pounding, had a source now. It was the door, but not because it was loose. Standing inside the recess between two Doric columns under the sharply pitched roof, the door remained as motionless as the moss-covered stones of the tomb itself. He approached with trepidation.
The sound was not within his ears, not this time. It was the door! But how? In God’s name, how could he hear it from his bedchamber? The sound was feeble, weakening even. Holding his lantern aloft, he entered the recess. Perhaps his ears had tricked him. He pressed his palm to the cold surface of the door. He could feel the vibrations of the banging, though he could scarcely hear the sounds. Bong …. Bong …. An effect of the wind, perhaps. Of course! The vibration, the faint sound...nothing but a nearly imperceptible rattle produced by the wind. And who knew what acoustic tricks could be played by nature? Why, he had heard of great cannonades that remained silent to observers no more than a mile away. Certainly, then, the opposite could also be true—a sound amplified over great distances, an effect of terrain and air currents...
The sound erupted in his ears, throwing him from the door. He dropped the lantern. It shattered on the ground at his feet, extinguishing the flame.
He clutched his ears. “Stop, damn you!” But the banging only grew louder, more persistent. How long could it continue? He fumbled in the pocket of his dressing gown for the key. He grasped the heavy lock and pulled it toward him. With trembling hand, he vainly endeavored to open the clasp. He could feel the key tap-tap-tapping the faceplate of the lock, a tremulous pecking as it sought the keyhole. Finally, it clicked home. He turned the key and flung open the door. “Leave me in peace!” he cried.
When the door opened, Thomas Hayward Poe was greeted by his wife, Eliza. Or what he thought must be Eliza—who else could it be?—for there was nothing left of her but bones held together by mere rotting strands of tissue. Still partially draped in her burial shroud, her skeletal mouth hung open in a silent scream. The shroud had gotten caught on the door somehow and when it swung open, the hideous body came spilling out with it.
Screaming in terror, Thomas collapsed to the ground, the shrouded corpse falling upon him. He dared not open his eyes. And even his screams could not drown out the sound of the hideous banging.
It was the sound of someone pounding on the iron door—from the inside!