Bewildering Stories

Stephen Marlowe, The Lighthouse at the End of the World

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

The Lighthouse at the End of the World
Author: Stephen Marlowe
Publisher: Plume, October 1996
Hardcover: 0-525-94049-9
Paperback: 0-452-27556-3
Length: 324 pp.
Price: ≥ $1.98 US
It could be said that both Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, masters of the modern American horror genre, died appropriately. Lovecraft, prey to monsters of dream as real to him as his own face, died as a disturbed recluse. Poe, inventor of detective and nightmare, expired in a stupor under mysterious circumstances in a Baltimore charity hospital. What happened to Poe in that missing week before he died? Things were apparently looking up for Poe. But in characteristic fashion, he never managed to grasp the golden ring. Marlowe’s novel, The Lighthouse at the End of the World, attempts to answer the question of that mysterious week. The result is both a historical imagining of Poe’s life, told in flashback, and a phantasmagorial riff on the themes of both his life and his fiction worthy of the subject’s own œuvre.

The story begins with its ending. Poe indulges in one last fatal drinking binge in a series of skuzzy Baltimore taverns. What happens to him in the course of that final self-destruction is fuzzy even to the narrator. It is 1849: congressional elections are going on. Out of the bar, Poe is recruited to do his patriotic and paid duty by voting according to orders. But elections in those days were often violent. Poe and his press-ganged fellow derelicts fall afoul of a political rival’s own gang. Poe is hit with a brickbat. That’s the closing event in his real world. All that remains is the hospital he dies in.

But the salient quote of the book is Poe’s own:

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Poe begins to recall his life in flashback. There is his child-bride, his fourteen-year-old first cousin Virginia, who torments Poe with her prolonged and painful death by consumption. There are his vain struggles to earn a living, undercut both by his drinking and his fatally truthful acerbity to publisher, employer, and friend. He remembers the agonizing consumptive death of his brother Henry, almost a spiritual twin, who longed to write like his brother as Edgar longed to travel like the footloose sailor Henry. Lost opportunities, as inevitable as the inherited doom of the Ushers, haunt him throughout.

Yet interleaved throughout are Poe’s dreams. In his dreams, his beginnings are changed; his new beginnings beget new endings, and the universe disappears into and renews itself. The lighthouse of the title is an unfinished story that the historical Poe left which describes a writer who maroons himself two hundred miles from land in order to finish his manuscript. In his dream, a storm, as cataclysmic as the Fall of the House of Usher, casts the writer into the sea and swallows the lighthouse into the maelstrom. The manuscript so painfully completed is both lost and eventually re-found. The story within a story is the symbol of Poe’s universe of self-destruction and re-birth, of dream that resembles reality and reality that resembles dream.

The Lighthouse at the End of the World is not an easy book to read. Poe’s dreams, as he struggles to beget change in his dream-life, form multiple narratives within the story. In the dream, Poe finds himself in Paris, where he enlists his fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, to help him solve the disappearance of both his brother Henry and a strange artifact. In the dream of Paris, Poe writes a story, “How the Yaanak Lost Their God,” which is itself part fiction, part dream-reality. In that story Edgar and his brother destroy a cosmic idol worshipped by the Yaanak. Only a Shard, with the mysterious ability to alter natural laws, remains. The Yaanek, deprived of the god they praised, pray now for destruction, and in Poe’s dream world that destruction will arrive in the form of a fiery giant comet and a typical Poe cataclysm. Yet the comet is also part of the dream of his blighted wife Virginia, who longs in her doomed life for something to happen; the Shard by which the dream Poe saves his world is also an invention of his own imagination. Layer upon layer, Poe’s life, dreams, and the lives and dreams of others loop and circle and re-invent themselves.

The astonishingly inventive riffs on Poe’s themes of dream and reality worked best for me in the story. The least convincing part of the story for me was, oddly enough, the author’s historical Poe. This Poe is perhaps more assertive than he was in real life. Was the real-life Poe as physically truculent or as attractive to women as this fictional Poe? I suspect not. To me, one need only look at Poe’s images in the few photographs we have of him to suspect a more curtailed and tragic life. I see a broad white brow, evidence of his intellect and morbid imagination; compressed beneath that large forehead are delicate and sad features, evidence of his frailty. In this story, as is perhaps appropriate, the dream Poe with his desperate longing to save brother, wife, and the world he himself imagines into destruction is the more real.

Readers who are serious readers of metaphysical writing (Hesse, for example) should not miss this book. Poe wrote several kinds of stories: there are the nightmares and, wildly apposite, the relentlessly logical detective stories. Both kinds are represented well here. The merely casual reader may find the multiple narratives of the story confusing. But if you are a thoughtful Poe fan and can handle a story that will require you to really think, check it out. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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