Sometimes the articles or books you read seem to drift your way across a cosmic web of destiny. Or via a simple twist of fate. Particularly specific passages from the masterpieces of literature.
My eyes aren’t what they used to be. While I can still find the tiniest of sharks’ teeth amidst light shell beds, the printed word is getting more difficult to read with each passing month. Yeah, it’s well past time for me to get glasses and I should consider myself fortunate that my vision has served me well for 52 years.
I happened upon a book from the Great Illustrated Classics series, “Tales of Mystery and Terror,” while looking through racks of used books at Chapin Memorial Library on 14th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach. The series offers easy-to-read adaptations targeted at children, featuring large print. Perfect. I’m still a child at heart, probably always will be, and the large fonts fit my needs.
“…but the whole island, with the exception of this western point, and a line of hard, white beach on the seacoast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle, so much prized by the horticulturists of England. The shrub here often attains the height of fifteen or twenty feet, and forms an almost impenetrable coppice, burthening the air with its fragrance.”
Did anyone else know – or could you have guessed — that this passage was written by Edgar Allan Poe and excerpted from one of his marvelous works? Well, it was. It’s one of the lead paragraphs of his story, “The Gold-Bug.” And here I always imagined Poe sitting in a dark, subterranean pad somewhere in Baltimore, writing and drinking himself to death while living with the horrors of melancholia as a mysterious raven rapped at his door. Don’t get any ideas, Jon Seagull VIII.
Here’s the first half of that paragraph: “This Island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the main land by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the marsh-hen. The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant, or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen. Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed, the bristly palmetto; but…”
Poe was describing Sullivan’s Island, located at the entrance of Charleston Harbor. He had to have passed through there sometime prior to “The Gold-Bug’s” publication in 1843.
White beach on the seacoast? Dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle? Wilderness of reeds and slime? Bristly palmetto? The original master of the macabre might just have easily have been documenting the Grand Strand’s appearance in the same era. For that matter, the description would have been accurate for the grandest of strands until the turn of the 20th century. Without the use of horses and mules on sandy paths and of ferries across various waterways, our hamlet by the sea would have been virtually impossible to reach. It wasn’t until Burroughs & Collins (now Burroughs & Chapin) opened a railway from Conway to New Town (now Myrtle Beach) in 1900 that our coast became more easily accessible.
Poe had me from the tale’s beginning in more ways than one. I was immediately enraptured by the author’s great storytelling and I fell for his deception hook, line and sinker. I spent two-thirds of the story trying to figure out how and why a golden object would bite William LeGrande, a pauper who came from a once-wealthy, New Orleans family. At that point, I gave up, deciding to quit playing detective and enjoy the rest of the story.
Admittedly, I’ve read very little of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing. Other than The Raven, I hadn’t picked up any of his work for decades. I can only recall having perused “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontilido.” I loved each of those works, so I re-read them after “Tales of Mystery and Terror” seemingly found me. The collection also included “The Gold-Bug,” which I might very well have scanned long ago. My memory is headed the same direction as my eyesight. The price of “Tales of Mystery:” 50 cents. Talk about a bargain!
Speaking of bargains. “The Gold-Bug” hints at the supernatural thoughout — a theme shared in Poe’s most popular poems and stories — but the story is actually an early form of the detective fiction genre, as LeGrande, after claiming to have been bitten by a scarab-like bug, goes to great lengths to find a treasure chest buried by Captain Kidd. Showing his brilliance, Poe intentionally misleads the reader from the beginning to focus on “The Gold-Bug” and it’s unknown origins. In the end, “The Gold-Bug” has very little significance. How grand is that?
Poe took an interest in secret writing and cryptography a few years prior to writing the “The Gold-Bug.” In including a cryptogram in the story, he challenged his readers to test his skills as a code-breaker. Fittingly, Poe’s death remains a mystery. Speculation as to the cause of his demise is rather wide-ranging, including the possibility that he was murdered because of his political beliefs. He was found delirious, incoherent and reportedly wearing clothers that weren’t his in Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1949. Poe died four days later.
After publishing this and upon finding the time, I’m going to do more research to make sure he wasn’t wearing a rucksack. Laughing out loud.
Will I ever cast aside Poe’s genius by virtually ignoring his writing for another two or three decades? Nevermore!
(Editor’s note: The next blog will be published Friday. The return of Jon Seagull VIII, whose strange life is documented here under the category, Seagull Saga.)