Thu
Feb 26 2015 8:45am

Literary Mysteries: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Light-House”

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) remains a giant within the horror set with renowned classics such as The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Pit and the Pendulum. He’s also acknowledged as the architect of the contemporary detective genre with his French investigator, C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in 1841’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and later in ”The Mystery of Marie Rogêt“ (1842) and ”The Purloined Letter" (1844).

It is these main ingredients of horror—or, more precisely, impending doom—and mystery that fused a minor but intriguing literary coda to his legacy. A last shot, if you will, across the bow that enticingly leaves many questions unanswered. I’m speaking of the roughly 800 word, untitled (though now commonly referred to as “The Light-House”) manuscript that is presented in diary form beginning on New Year’s Day 1796 and features journal entries for the next couple of days.

Poe admirers will feel on familiar ground as this brisk piece shares themes from earlier works, though with less of the macabre flair that has fostered his reputation. In the January 1st entry, our protagonist, who took on the desolate post as a lighthouse keeper thinking it a perfect situation to finish a novel, contemplates the remoteness around him. His outlook wavers, insisting that the solitude won’t bother him, but he then acknowledges that until that moment, he’d never appreciated how bleak the word “alone” happens to be. His one companion, a canine, causes him to reflect:

Neptune, large as he is, is not to be taken into consideration as “society”. Would to Heaven I had ever found in “society” one half as much faith as in this poor dog: — in such case I and “society” might never have parted — even for the year

A friend named De Grät had secured the position for the lighthouse keeper despite the apparent apprehensions of others who felt he couldn’t handle the job. De Grät advised him to keep a diary, implying his own concern over his friend’s emotional wellbeing. No explanation of his incompetence is given, and as the keeper belittles his naysayers’ disapproval in his journal, within the same entry he effectively substantiates their misgivings when he begins to hear echoes in the walls. He writes:

...there is no telling what may happen to a man all alone as I am — I may get sick, or worse […] I do believe I am going to get nervous about my insulation.

January 2nd passes without event as he observes the tranquility around him, seemingly pleased with his lot. Even in this shortest entry, Poe capably and subtly presents a man who’s becoming unhinged, trying to assure himself that he’s content with solitude. And, in an amusing aside, like many anal retentive writers, the lighthouse keeper while attempting to accurately record his new experiences weighs “gratified” vs. “satisfied” (he decides on the former).

On January 3rd, he continues to comment on the “dead calm” but turns his attention to the configuration of the building and comments specifically on its dimensions, “I should feel myself secure in it during the fiercest hurricane that ever rages.” But as he wanders about the grounds his anxieties mount that he’s in grave jeopardy. The disconcerting last line reads, “The basis on which the structure rests seems to me to be chalk...”

A heading for January 4th is given, but there is no other text in the entry.

Blank …

So, what happened? Did the tower collapse on that foundation of chalk? Did a madman go over the edge? Did the ghosts in the walls seize his mortal shell? Did fear and natural causes strike him down? And what happened to Neptune?!

Edgar Allen Poe’s final piece is a curiosity and some have wondered if he had planned to end on this note. Maybe he left it dangling on purpose, or, quite simply, he didn’t live to finish the manuscript as others have surmised.

Either way, this untitled work is a rewarding literary mystery to ponder … on a midnight dreary.


Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent noir Western collection, Further Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles.

Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
7 comments
1. mates
I couldn't help but think this would make a good movie.
David Cranmer
2. DavidCranmer
I just checked IMDb and a Poe film (possibly several short stories?) is in post-production.
3. Undine
I've always interpreted "The Light-House" as Poe's shaggy dog story, with the last words serving as a punchline. Guy realizes, "Hm, this thing is resting on chalk. Eh, I'm sure it means nothing."

Then...

It's one of my favorite Poe tales, simply because of the mystery surrounding it. If I could interview his ghost, "The Light-House" is among the first things I'd want him to explain.
David Cranmer
4. DavidCranmer
Undine, I would have to ask Poe what happened in that last week of his life and then dash right to quizzing him about the enigmatic "Light-House." I tend to think it was left unfinished (because according to sources on the net) there was an additional page left to add more to the journal. But, then again, that could be the brilliance of the tale. If so, shaggy dog story indeed.
5. Prashant C. Trikannad
David, your review of "The Light-House" is testimony to how little I know about Poe, not to mention how little I have read of his work. Thanks for bringing this forgotten "story" to my notice.
7. Arel 1
I seem to recall this story being "finished" by Robert Bloch in a back issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland back in the days when Uncle Forry was still at the helm -- I can't get to my back issues right now as they're in storage, or I'd check.
Post a comment