Love and loss. Grief and death. Rivalry and revenge. The themes of Edgar Allan Poe’s work have eternal relevance, but what I remember most about learning it in school was that it just seemed so much cooler than everything else. He turned my skin cold and damp while I read about the catacombs in “The Cask of Amontillado” and slowly crumbled my heart with “Annabel Lee.” He set my entire body on edge through “The Tell-Tale Heart” and stole my breath with “The Pit and the Pendulum.” He made me mourn for women I’d never met and cheer for retribution I didn’t even completely understand, and all I knew was that he was the first person I’d been assigned to read who made me marvel at what an author could do, where an author could place you, what he could make you physically feel.
It’s a tall order, running off of those feelings, those memories, and trying to both recapture them and reimagine them into something new. This collection is a way to honor the work of Edgar Allan Poe, but it’s also a way to view it through different gazes, to take classic literature with its relatively homogeneous perspectives and settings and give them new life.
What I learned while editing this collection was how much changing those aspects of a story can affect the greater picture, how you can maintain so many of a story’s themes but find entirely new motivations by centering characters from society’s margins, characters who seldom got to be Poe’s heroes.
We all have our dark sides, and we all have our tragedies.
So many of us have seen them through his eyes.
Now I hope you enjoy reading them through ours.
The Tales Retold
She Rode a Horse of Fire
inspired by “Metzengerstein”
The night the stables burned, the air turned cold and still as in the dead of winter. They had caught not long past 10:00 p.m., but ours was a quiet estate, none of the staff known to keep late hours, and each of us tired into our bones after that evening’s revelry. So by the time the main house wakened to the fire, it had gone too far to be stopped. Flames shot up some twenty meters into that still sky as the doors and walls were eaten away and caved in. They said it was a blessing, the still of that night; that it kept the fire from jumping into the trees and making its way to the manor house. But it seemed no blessing to us gathered in the cold, dressed hastily in boots and bedclothes, our horrified faces turned orange by the glare, listening to the shrieks of the horses and men still trapped inside. A violent wind would have been most welcome, if it could have covered that sound.
By morning, all that was left of the stable was a smoking ruin. Someone said later that one of the grooms found the remains of a doorknob, melted and warped. He held it up to his face and laughed at the strangeness just before he burst into tears. Twelve horses and two stablehands perished in the blaze. Good and loyal servants, all. Twelve horses, two stablehands, and one new maid, who had no business in the world being there.
They found her amidst the caved-in rafters, her body nestled beneath a fallen pile of planks. They said her dress was torn and there was blood upon her cheek, but the rest of her was not badly burned. Nearly untouched by the fire. As if her youth and beauty had protected her from it. I can’t attest to the veracity of these statements. I lacked the heart to go and see. I didn’t want to face the steaming carnage of the others lost, those men and gentle horses whose youth and beauty had not been near protection enough.
After the fire, cleanup at Baron Park was, as ever, fast and thorough. We’d certainly had enough practice, even before Friedrich came into his inheritance and seemed fit to press the limits of debauchery. His parents had been no strangers to balls and soirees, and in summer the grounds were often crowded with guests, stuffed into every room and tucked into every alcove. Their shrieks of laughter kept us awake long into the night—a night we had illuminated for them with hanging lanterns—and in the morning they would snap at us if their empty cocktail glasses clinked together as we cleared them.
They were all the same. Except for Friedrich. Friedrich never yelled at us, or kicked over our mop buckets when they were in the hall. And if we were late, or slow, or the tables in the billiards room hadn’t been cleared of cigar ash, he would only smile and shrug, tug at his sleeves and find another room to lounge in. After his parents died, cruel rumors abounded in the city: rumors of excess, of nights of drinking until dawn, gambling and deep debts. They said he drove his car at speeds that were downright reckless for the twisting, pine-lined roads along the cliffs. But he was only eighteen. Parents dead in a boating accident. He was newly alone and with so much money. It could be argued that given the circumstances his behavior was rather restrained.
But he was still the reason that maid died in the stables.
I saw them go in together, you see. Just past dusk, in that soft light, so the curve of Friedrich’s devious smile was still visible along with the unbuttoned collar of his shirt. He had an open bottle of champagne in one hand and was leading her forward with the other. He had already taken her hair down out of its pretty golden twist.
She was a terrible maid. Didn’t even know how to dust properly and looked aghast when someone suggested she scrape the dishes clean or empty a trash bin. She had been with us nearly two weeks before we gave up and let her do nothing but fold the laundry. What did it matter? Anyone with eyes knew what she had been hired for. Friedrich’s first addition to the staff since the loss of his parents, and it was hard to miss her lovely face, and the way her curves filled out the uniform.
The day after the fire, Friedrich found me as I was reordering a bookshelf that did not need to be reordered, hiding in a deeply interior room away from the scent of smoke and ashes, the horrific smells of burnt flesh lingering underneath. He looked nearly lost, still in the same trousers from the night before and his white shirt misbuttoned and streaked with black soot and a little blood. No doubt he had been combing through the wreckage of the stables.
“Friedrich,” I said to him as I stepped off of the ladder, and his eyes snapped to my face almost angrily, as if surprised to see me standing there, though he would not have been able to miss me when he came into the room. At once, his expression calmed, then crumpled, and he ran his hand roughly across his mouth.
“Eliza,” he said to me. “Of course. Who else would I find now but my Eliza, still working amidst all this madness.”
“Have you slept?”
“Not a bit.”
“You must then. There’s still a few hours before supper.” I patted the sofa and pulled a soft blanket off a shelf, and he came slouching toward me obediently. He grumbled all the while as I laid him down, covered him over, and smoothed his hair away from his brow.
“There will be questions,” he said. “Arrangements to be made. Insurance forms for the attorneys.”
He grasped my wrist. His fingers, though covered with ash, were ice cold. “She was no older than you or I,” he whispered, though I’d taken her for at least a year younger. Seventeen. Perhaps sixteen.
“A great tragedy,” I said as his eyes slipped shut and he began to murmur.
“My father’s roadster. Irreplaceable.”
Weeks earlier, Friedrich had ordered the annexation of part of the stables for his growing collection of cars. Half of the horses were moved out and many were sold, in order to make room. The grooms who had quietly cursed the decision loudly sang his praises after the fire, for the loss of their beloved horseflesh would have been much worse.
I will admit that I stayed with Friedrich after he fell asleep. Too long, perhaps, stroking his hair and making sure he didn’t stir from some horrible nightmare. But I didn’t curl up beside him like they would later say I did. And no one found us in the evening in a state of disarray, my uniform unbuttoned and his arm thrown about my waist. Gossip, as they say, is feathers torn from a pillow and set upon the wind: ridiculous and impossible to gather up.
In the days that followed, Friedrich seemed completely recovered. Cleaning of the burnt and blackened stables continued, and though he had to pass directly by the charred and stinking husk on his way to his car, he simply did not acknowledge it. He would not even look at it. The only hint we had that he was even aware of the chopping and shoveling, the removal of carcasses, was a tightening of his right cheek that would not release until he reached the shadow of the manor house.
Indeed, all might have returned to normal had it not been for the man in the long silver sedan who arrived with a briefcase late in the evening. He made his way into the house and demanded a brandy, and for the fire in the drawing room to be stoked. We did as we were bid, not knowing any other way, but it was a great affront, as we had never laid eyes upon him before! Once settled comfortably with his brandy in hand, he bade us to summon our employer.
All of this now I tell to you secondhand, as I was not one of the poor maids serving in the drawing room that night. That maid, and other maids, recounted it to me, the state of poor Friedrich when he was summoned, found in the billiard room and already heartily drunk. He’d not had another girl since the night of the fire, and a lack of girls always put him in a dark mood.
When Friedrich went to the drawing room, he closed the door and there was some quiet talk inside. It was not five minutes before the voices rose to shouting, and he burst back through the door. The man with the briefcase followed him into the hall, and grasped him very fiercely just above the wrist (and this I can tell you as I was quite startled by the noise and came down to find what was the matter). He whispered urgently into Friedrich’s ear, until Friedrich pulled free and shouted, “I didn’t know who she was, and I don’t care!”
Then he was gone, down the darkened corridor. And so the man left as well, with nary a glance at any of us.
The other servants went back to their work with raised eyebrows and a shrug. I followed Friedrich through the halls.
I won’t hesitate to say that Baron Hall is a fearsome place at night; built nearly a century ago and then improved upon and expanded by every subsequent Baron inheritor, each with different taste so that style and decor can change rapidly from one step to the next. Wood gives way to stone gives way to brick or tile. So many twisting hallways that they have begun to double back on one another. Useless passageways leading to nowhere.
Some of the sillier girls are too afraid to go roaming after dark. They say the ghosts creep out of the family portraits and go creaking through the rooms. All nonsense, of course. Though there is bad history within the Baron walls. It would be strange if there were not, after so many generations of wealth, so many souls driven to excess and wicked sins sunk into the shadows.
I found Friedrich in the stone wing, the oldest part of Baron Hall, shut up in a small circular room, an odd room, hung with tapestries that smelled like mold and with what seemed to be a child’s bed against one wall. I do not know how he found himself inside. We’d grown up together at Baron—he the privileged heir and me the orphaned daughter of a beloved chambermaid who died of fever—but I had never before been inside that room.
“Eliza,” he said when he saw me, then came and took me by the shoulders. “He said she was a Berlifitzing!”
“Who was a Berlifitzing?” I asked, for the family, now dwindling, had only seven or eight living members, and all seven or eight could be said to hate Friedrich Baron, and all Barons, with a great passion. Not for anything he had done, mind you, but for some old wrong carried down through years.
“They will blame me now, for sure,” Friedrich exclaimed, and released me to put his head in his hands.
“Who will blame you? And for what?”
“She was a Berlifitzing! Not a maid! The girl who died in the fire, the girl I took up to the hayloft, was Hazel Berlifitzing!”
I stared in shock. Hazel Berlifitzing. I recalled her then, from the edges of garden parties the previous summer, one of those brief, shining times when the Barons and Berlifitzings had tried to make peace. That was her face, to be sure, the same face I had seen again and again during her short and ill-fated stint as a housemaid.
“But you did not recognize her, Friedrich?”
“I didn’t. I swear.” He pointed a firm finger in my face. “And you didn’t either, Eliza. I know you were watching last year, when she came around.” He lowered his hand and looked at me, aghast. “You didn’t, Eliza, did you?”
“Who would have thought it,” I said. “As old an aristocratic family as the Berlifitzings, and one of them pretending to be a maid? Putting on that uniform was akin to putting on a mask!”
Friedrich nodded. He touched my arm and guided me toward the door.
“I just need a moment, Eliza, you understand,” he said. “A moment alone, to think.”
I went into the hall and the door closed behind me. I heard a key turn in the lock.
The next morning the house was buzzing with news and rumor. I could not walk a step without hearing the whisper of “Hazel” or seeing a pair of darting eyes.
Copyright © 2019 by Dahlia Adler