Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Trick

Nevermore, by Harold Schechter, Pocket Books, 1999

I hated this book, really and truly absolutely hated it.

Or so I thought.

Consider, if you will, the second novel of a man whose publishing history up to that point consisted of titles such as Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer, Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America's Most Fiendish Killer, Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America's Youngest Serial Killer, Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original "Psycho," as well as The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers.

Take a gander at the jacket copy, if you must:

He is an aspiring writer, plagued by dreadful ruminations—a man whose troubled nights are haunted by dreams of his angelic cousin Virginia. He is Edgar Allan Poe, a literary critic known for his uncompromising standards and scathing pen. His recently published attack on the autobiography of Colonel David Crockett, U.S. congressman and celebrated American hero, has brought the indignant frontiersman—unexpected, uninvited—to the chamber door of Poe’s private sanctum. Neither man is prepared for where this fateful meeting will take them: on a quest for a killer through the city’s highest and lowest streets and byways.

In a modest boarding house, an elderly widow of sad circumstance has been found murdered by an unknown assailant. On the wall above her bed, scrawled in the victim’s blood, is a single, cryptic word. But the meaning of the chilling clue is merely one piece in a complex puzzle that ensnares the writer and the politician in a twisted and deadly game. For the ghastly crimes, each more bizarre than the last, have only just begun.

Okay? Can you see why I’d imagine I’d really and truly loathe such a specimen?

But it gets worse.

How can it possibly get worse? you ask.

The prose, the prose of this book. It is so florid, so ridiculous, so over-pumped full of pseudo Poe-isms, so chock-a-block full of paragraphs filigreed in italics, hacked by m-dashes, and slammed with exclamation marks that the whole confection fairly makes you gag. At random, I give you this sample, page 280 in hardcover:

The reason for my abduction was now perfectly—if not hair-raisingly—plain. I was to be cruelly murdered, then buried in an unmarked grave out in the countryside, where the grisly evidence of the crime would remain forever undetected! The reader may easily imagine my reaction to this dire, this dastardly plan. My nerves—already strained to the breaking point—became thoroughly unstrung, and a groan of uttermost horror escaped from my trembling lips.

The sheer volume of grammatical tomfoolery at one point prompted me to do a quick inventory of the book’s contents. Chapters three, five, six, seven, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-three, twenty-five, and thirty-two end in exclamation marks. Nearly half the book, to which one could add the chapters ending with the word "Nevermore" (14, 18, 23, 27, 32). The novel's fifth chapter goes whole hog ending with an m-dash followed by a proper name in italics capped off with an exclamation mark.

It was the severely contused and lacerated, but seemingly victorious, figure of—Hans Neuendorf!


Now, purportedly written as though told by Poe himself to us, the book reads more like some fantastical fevered dream sprinkled over with pastiche Poe. There are simply far too many overt references made throughout the book. Poe never calls his room a “room,” it is always a “chamber.” At the book’s opening, he is reading a treatise by a Leipzigian doctor by name of M. Valdemar. At nearly every fright, Poe describes himself as feeling as though given a shock from a “galvanic battery.” In one particular climax, Poe hangs by a hook over a supposedly bottomless pit; he escapes by swinging his body like a—can you guess?

If all this weren’t much too much already, stir in the cornpone tall-tale chest-beating of that goshdarn yarnspinner Davie, Davie Crockett:

“Now you’re talkin’!” Crockett declared. “Why, I am so all-fired hungry, I could eat a whole bushel o’ bear-steaks, salted with hail storm and peppered with buckshot!”


“I knew it had to be done by bringing the lightning right smack against my heart and driving the love clear out of it. So I waited ‘til there was a pestiferous thundergust one afternoon. Then I went out into the countryside, and I stood there with my mouth wide open, so that e-lectricity might run down and hit my heart and cure it of love. I stood so for an hour, and then I saw a thunderbolt a-coming, and I dodged my mouth right under it, and—bang!—it went clear down my throat! My land! It was as if a whole tribe of buffaloes was kicking inside my bowels. My heart spun around amongst my insides like a grindstone going by steam, but the lighting went clear through me and tore my trousers clean off as it come out t’other end.

Now, while the book’s marketing might try to suggest that it is all as straight as straight can be, it just doesn’t strike me as likely that Schechter is being entirely as serious and gloomy minded as the packaging might suggest. I went into Nevermore expecting something that tried to be dark and as much like Poe as was in the power of the author to be.

And I hated this book.

But then somewhere about five or six chapters into it, I actually began to get the joke. I lightened up a little. There were signs all along too that this should be so, that we should laugh a bit at this Poe, at his seriousness. At every single instance of physical combat, he has some excuse as to why he wasn’t up to it—that time! When he discusses his book reviewing, he makes frequent mention of popular best-sellers that fly off the shelves while much better books by much better writers, ahem ahem, just languish. When asked any single thing, Poe answers in a paragraph long folderol of elevated language.

“My gracious, Eddie, but you do look peaked. Another bad night?

I acknowledged the accuracy of her observation with a melancholy nod. “Slumber—that blessed but fickle benefactress—withheld her sweet nepenthe from my soul.”

She regarded me for a long moment before inquiring, “Do I take that to mean ‘yes’?”

“That is, indeed, the signification I intended.”

The effect of all this is a bizarrely captivating work with little merit save that it’s a grand good joke and an entertainment, just the kind of book Crockett recommends to Poe that he write. Sure, at times the joke might get a hair stale or the characterizations, already broad, might swing into beyond ridiculous, but it’s fun nevertheless. The mystery itself in the book is slight, is apparent to the reader long before any of the characters grasp it, and is as unlikely as anything else in the whole book. Shechter has continued the series with three more novels, latterly pairing Poe up with P.T. Barnum to keep the mismatch comedy going. I’m not sure I could read all four anywhere close to each other, but I won’t turn my nose up if I stumble across one either.


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