STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK
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People don’t linger long in Edgar Allan Poe’s basement.
Dimly lit, with only a few slivers of natural light filtering in, the room — more crypt than cellar — is all cobwebs, crags, and eerie quiet. Floorboards creek overhead, as guests move from the parlor to the kitchen. A dank stillness hangs in the air.
Of all the rooms in the rustic, centuries-old house on North 7th Street in Philadelphia, this is the one that feels the most Poe-like, which is to say, the most ominous and disquieting, as if its darkened corners still harbor a sinister secret or two, if they ever did.
As a handful of guests move around the cramped cellar on a recent Friday afternoon, one of them, Kim from Bethlehem, shudders visibly, and intones, “Oh, this is creepy right here.” She takes a few quick photos with her phone and then moves toward the exit. Her nephew quickly follows suit.
For nearly 40 years, the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site has attracted scores of history, literature, and horror lovers. People come to walk the hollow, unfurnished rooms where one of America’s most famous writers lived and worked in 1843, toiling in poverty.
The walls of the three-story home are cracked and peeling, revealing the structural brick and wood of the building’s Victorian past, like architectural scar tissue. But the building itself is all that remains of Poe’s days in Philadelphia. In fact, a short video aired for visitors on arrival remarks that the house merely “echoes the man, for no trace of his occupancy survives.”
Later this month, those echoes will be a bit more tangible.
On Friday, Oct. 28, the Poe House will honor the literary giant in a new way, with the first-ever Poe Arts Festival, a day of readings and performances, lectures, live music, Poe-themed “Tell Tale Heart IPA” beer, and tours of the writer’s former residence.
Since the museum can only comfortably fit about 25 people at a time, the Poe Fest will be held in large part across the street, at the German Society of Pennsylvania.
“The [Poe House], of course, is very limited and the amount of people you can get indoors is quite small,” says Bill Bolger of the National Historic Landmarks Program, who is organizing the event. “The German Society on the other hand has a large auditorium [250 capacity] and a large library [150 capacity] — and it’s also an extraordinary, historic building with a kind of Poe-era sensibility.”
In addition to dramatic performances and a presentation of artist Justin Duerr’s massive, 80-foot-long “panoptic story scroll,” the main attraction at the Poe Fest will be guest speaker David Plunkert. A prolific and award-winning artist, Plunkert illustrated the popular 2014 collection of Poe works “Edgar Allan Poe: Stories & Poems.”
Over the phone Oct. 10, Plunkert says that when Rockport Publishers first approached him about its “Classics Reimagined” series, he “was familiar with Poe but not overly familiar with Poe.”
The artist would soon find that Poe’s work presents an intriguing challenge for an illustrator: “What was interesting was how evocative and moody his work is,” if not quite action-packed. Poe’s robust and lyrical style, weighted in Gothic gloom, seemed more concerned with atmosphere than movement or action. In fact, when you think about it, the most that really happens in ‘The Raven’ is a bird flies through a window.
“So, what was challenging was that basically a lot of the action hinges on the intensity that [Poe’s] creating, as opposed to there being a specification,” says Plunkert. “Like, no one ever pulls a gun.” The drama of a Poe piece is more emotional, more visceral. “People are just sort of writhing within themselves.”
For that reason, Plunkert says his illustrations were loose in their interpretations. He would read a few pages of, say, “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “just doodle whatever visual came to my mind at that time. I kept this really loose.” The result is a book of macabre renderings that capture the haunting ambience of a Poe piece, if not always the events.
The artist adds, “There are many facets to Poe, and the book leans hard on his spooky side,” which ended up serving the text well. After all, Poe’s penchant for the spooky and grotesque is what has helped his fame endure nearly 170 years after his death. Horror is in many ways the author’s legacy.
Honoring that long legacy is kind of the point of the Poe Arts Festival. With regular tours of the museum running well into the evening — 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. — there will be plenty of opportunities for guests to explore the rooms and consider Poe’s troubled life and bone-chilling body of work.
And, as the sunlight fades that night, perhaps some guests will even linger for a moment or two in Poe’s basement, standing among the cold stones and cobwebs and lengthening shadows, to listen in the eerie quiet for the beating of a tell-tale heart.
IF YOU GO
What: Poe Arts Festival, featuring artist David Plunkert.
Where: German Society of Pennsylvania, 611 Spring Garden St, Philadelphia.
When: Friday, Oct. 28, from 5 to 10 p.m.
Tickets: Early registration: $10.
More info.: Visit www.PoeArtsFestival.com.