We begin with a mystery. In the autumn of 1849, having disappeared for a week, Edgar Allan Poe was discovered in a disturbed state at Ryan’s Tavern in Baltimore. He was wearing worn-out ill-fitting clothes that seemed to belong to someone else. He couldn’t account for his whereabouts or what had happened to him and raved incoherently, shouting out for someone called ‘Reynolds’. He was taken off to hospital but died shortly thereafter. The enigma of Poe’s last days and demise has never been solved.
It is believed that ‘The Light-House’ was the last thing Poe ever wrote. It is like a key to a lock that will never be found. Outside of the context of his last days, it would seem a minor work – incomplete and promising more than it delivers. Yet, given the nature of his end, there is something most intriguing and eerie about it. A chill wind blows through those diary entries.
My grandfather was a trawlerman. When I was a boy, I used to be desperate to hear his tales of the sea and, as fascinating as they were, they were always unromantic and even terrible at times because it was a place not of adventure for him but survival. He was risking his life to earn a living for his family while I was this bookish little kid with my head filled with voyages and strange creatures and mysterious islands. I still have that attraction alongside the knowledge that it is partly mythic. In a way ‘The Light-House’ embodies that. It’s an unresolved fragment of a dream or a nightmare, the kind of story you read at night, with rain lashing your window, and you realise how lucky you are not to be out there where the land ends.
First published in The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1909. Available to read here