Inside the Iron Maiden
The lighthouse talks to me. That wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s a steady stream of abuse.
Invader! Why are you here? What do you hope to accomplish? You will fail.
The sound is like an angry tuba duet in the next room. The wind? I can imagine some peculiarity in the echo of these cylindrical walls—but oh, no!—this is all nonsense.
“Silence!” I snarl back at the voice. “If I needed criticism, I’d bring my mother.”
I’m in the belly of the Iron Maiden, a circular, iron-walled tomb that extends twenty feet below the surface of Lake Huron. It’s a perfect base to support the metal monster that rises above me.
Water has seeped in over the years, creating a shallow swamp, fetid and steamy even in the icy cold of a New Year’s Eve. To call it a hostile environment would be an understatement.
You’re a coward trying to hide from his just desserts.
“I wronged some people. And now I’m hiding out. But why should I admit anything to you? You have no right to judge me. You’re not real.”
I’m as real as that bag of drugs you hid in the basement.
“Now I understand. You’re that tab of acid I took.”
The Iron Maiden is a towering armored lighthouse, an anachronistic monolith wrought of iron and rivets—and covered with rust and lake moss from ninety years of standing lookout off the coast of Michigan. It’s an isolated cocoon 60 miles north of Detroit and 200 feet out into the lake. As high as I am right now, it may as well be another planet. That would be okay with me.
When I want to smoke a joint, I climb even farther down, through a manhole on its own little raised concrete island in the swamp. Down a ladder to what I call the basement. That place is a dank, putrid chamber so deep in the earth that it feels warm. Or maybe it’s the sewer air drifting in from the 36-inch water-and-utilities pipe that feeds the chamber, and connects it to the county’s toilets.
The basis on which the structure rests seems to me to be chalk. This is not a foundation that inspires my confidence, but over the years the lake seepage has fed a thick growth of moss over the white surface. The result is a slimy Velcro that fastens the iron walls to the lake floor.
Maybe I’m that hit of Ecstasy that you took after the LSD.
“You might be some psychedelic mold that’s growing in the swamp. It doesn’t matter how you explain it—you’re just an hallucination.”
I’m a vision. You need me. You wouldn’t be here if you had any vision of your own.
“I keep the drugs in the basement. That’s vision.” And I smoke down there, too. To keep the lighthouse air fresh. I need to leave no trace right now. If certain people find out where I am, I’ll get bloody.
Horndog’s rust-bucket old Cutlass had a narrow escape from here: he almost drove it into the lake. We spent a freezing hour getting him turned around and off the beach. Huron is too big to ice over, but the snow drifts go right down to the water. We had to dig for sand to throw under the tires for traction.
The snowstorm is subsiding a little, I think—but the Cutlass will have a rough passage home, nevertheless. Even if he takes Route 94 back to Detroit. That’s because Horndog is high enough to fly back without the car. And I fed him the drugs. They were his pay to give up New Year’s Eve and be my ride here.
Horndog dropped me off with a backpack full of protein bars, a couple liters of water, and a writer’s notebook. I also packed a crow bar suitable for one-handed skull cracking—because the other half of my luggage was a gym bag full of weed, speed, acid and Ecstasy. Diversify, they always tell you.
We smoked some of that weed after we finally got the Cutlass turned around, off the beach and on the straightaway. We used his classic old Mëerschaum pipe, some guy with a turban and a beard, originally all white but now darkened with finger oil and dirt and age. The hole in the top of his head was blackened with match burns.
He quizzed me: “You’re getting out here? What the hell is here?”
“I don’t know, Horny. Maybe I’ll swim to Canada.”
He looked at me annoyed. “I’m not Horndog. Call me by my real name.”
Orndoff, who in hell wants to be called that? He’s Horndog. But I told him, “I’m sorry, Bobby.” He has some of my secret; I didn’t want to piss him off.
“You gonna camp out here in the snow?” Then he saw the lighthouse. “Oh. You’re going in there.”
I gave him a rehearsed look of annoyance. “How am I going do that? Bobby, we’ve been here before.”
His eyes got wide. “You’re right. That’s the Iron Maiden. Sealed tight.”
Sealed tight for fifty years. She did look like a medieval torture appliance, all rusty metal and confinement. Except that this Iron Maiden was 160 feet high. 180 if you counted that belly room below the lake. Imposing. Built in 1914. And running on automatic since the fifties.
Summers up here during the sixties, Horndog and I tried to break in after we knew the caretaker was gone for another month. As I climbed out of the Cutlass last night, Horndog recalled our failures. “How are you going to break in?”
“Bobby, I’m not. Maybe I’ll to row to Canada.”
His mouth opened and with relief I could see him buying this little fiction. Then he returned to what he’d been wondering for hours: “What’d you do that was so bad?”
“Horn— My friend Mr. Orndoff, don’t ask. What you don’t know can’t get you into trouble.” I climbed out of the car. “Go! Smoke some more pot, drop some more speed. Eat some more Ecstasy. I don’t care. Just don’t get busted. Now leave. I need to be alone and you don’t want to get caught here.”
He loved a good conspiracy, so I figured that enlisting him in one would make him trustworthy. Sort of. I didn’t trust him with everything. He could lead people back here, but he didn’t know about the back door.
After he was out of sight, I pawed around the snowdrifts for the manhole cover that I knew was there, opened it with my crow bar, and then climbed in and closed it over my head. The manhole led to the 36” water-and-utilities pipe.
The back door was the Iron Maiden’s iron bowel.
In the computer business, the “back door” is a secret entrance you use to break into a forbidden fortress. The TRW credit database, the Defense Department, the DMV. A trap door past all the security that only insiders know about. If you’re not an insider, you have to be incredibly lucky to discover it.
Who’s willing to walk hunched for 300 feet down a sewer pipe? Forty years ago, I discovered this back door to the Iron Maiden on my own because Horndog refused to crawl around the sewer system with me. I never did trust him with that secret.
Time has proven me wise in these matters. At this point in my life, I don’t trust anybody.
Today is my first day in the lighthouse. I brought the notebook as a diversion from boredom: maybe I’ll try writing a novel. As regularly as I can write, I will. But there’s no telling what may happen to a man all alone as I am. I may get sick, or worse. One thing seems definite: I will get high.
A novel... what a laugh: if I write about what I know, it’ll be titled, “I Was a Middle-Aged Drug Dealer.”
A miserable failure at it, too.
“Shut up,” I tell the lighthouse.
I need to be alone right now. I’m a victim in the company of others. People take advantage of me. So let me be! My spirits are beginning to revive already, at the mere thought of being—for once in my life at least—thoroughly alone.
But my ghosts won’t let me: I begin today’s writing with a bulleted to-do list. Damn! Even now, De Grät has power over me. I had to keep a status journal for him at work, each day a tedious listing of my tasks, every damned thing. He didn’t trust me to supervise a lunch break.
We tried to be friends, but the nature of our relationship would not allow it.
I was surprised to learn about the difficulty he had in hiring me. I’ve got over twenty years’ as a software developer. I’m like a noble of the realm, but that means I also have the salary needs of a noble. You’re offering twenty bucks an hour? Don’t insult me!
So eventually I became a number on a spreadsheet. I’ve got a legitimate beef with the bosses of my former boss. I have not forgotten De Grät’s prophecy: “Keep it up and you’ll be behind bars.” Ginny told me that, too.
There’s not much warmth inside this iron tube... unless you go to the machinery that generates the light. That’s where I spent New Year’s small hours of the morning: near the light but still in the dark--on the other side of the door. I was still uncomfortable, but my magic bag of drugs cured that: I didn’t care. I was safe.
There’s no way I could let Orndoff stay with me here. I’d never make any progress with my writing as long as he was within earshot, with his intolerable gossip--not to mention that everlasting Mëerschaum. We’d smoke ourselves comatose.
Actually, I did smoke myself comatose later this morning, down in the basement. Then I dropped more acid and came back to the warmth. I probably won’t make much progress writing, but I’m free to drift through my own mind, instead of Orndoff’s. I need those visions, to help me sort things out. I’m here because I can’t face reality.
And speaking of visions: the dull gray insides of the Iron Maiden remind me of the cubicle farm at work. They remind me of De Grät’s office, the last time I was in there. Barren oppressive walls, closing in on me...
I can envision De Grät behind his desk, surrounded by those suffocating blank walls, refusing to look at me, guilt spread all over his face. I knew that look. He had summoned me to his torture dungeon because I was doomed.
So I turned the tables as soon as I walked in. “You’re fired!” I told him with my best Donald Trump imitation. He blanched. I never saw that before! Did his boss say the same thing to him? Ha-ha, just kidding De Grät, but I needed to put the fear of God into you.
De Grät hid his emotion quickly, but too late. I see your fear, Mr. Rat. I can smell it.
“No,” Mr. Rat whined in that squeaky voice that failed so miserably to project authority. “No, Eric. You’re not fired. But I have a new assignment for you.”
“I’m in the middle of a development cycle,” I told him. “I can’t drop my projects. The stuff I’m working on, made you guys rich.”
“I didn’t get rich," De Grät grumbled. "But you’re doing a good job--so good, they want you to train others.”
That set off an internal alarm. I noticed a guy from India standing expectantly outside the office. Our eyes met and he looked away. I figured it out quickly.
My stomach burned with adrenaline. “I’m not fired... today. But after I teach this sonofabitch my job? I’m history. Don’t bullshit me, De Grät!”
Busted. De Grät groveled. “I didn’t make this decision. Eric, I pushed hard to hire you. And I pushed hard to stop this. The company is just trying to survive.” He threw up his hands. “It’ll take three months to train him. At least you’ve got that.”
“I’m not going to help you screw me.”
De Grät’s voice wavered. “Eric, this isn’t my choice. You agree to train this guy or I have to fire you. Today.”
I couldn’t hear the pain in his voice. The adrenaline roared to my head and I jumped him. We fell to the floor. Eventually, coworkers pulled me off. De Grät wiped blood from his shirt.
“You’ve got an attitude problem. Keep it up and you’ll be behind bars.” He sighed. “You chose this. Clean out your desk. See if you can manage that peacefully.”
I did. But fifteen minutes later, I was just as gone as if I’d kept it ugly.
Lake Huron has been dead calm all afternoon... and like glass as the sun went down. The beauty hurt my eyes. The sky was as empty as outer space. Not even the slightest speck of a cloud.
Your drugs work well. I’ve been here every day for ninety years. Even without clouds, today was dull and gray. The beauty hurt your eyes? That’s laughable. Today was without character.
With the sun down, my only release from boredom is exploration. The Iron Maiden is a lofty building--as I find to my cost when I have to ascend its interminable stairs. Warmth above, near the machinery that runs the light. Safety below, in the smoky darkness.
But refuge... refuge is nowhere.
“Leave me alone!” I demand. I want to pass this night in a species of ecstasy that I find difficult to describe. I want to be like fog, just drifting formlessly. No worries. No pain. I’m developing a real passion for solitude, and I can envision being thoroughly gratified.
What crap! Forget the lighthouse--I can’t even lie to myself convincingly. I’ve got ghosts. I’m looking for the drug that will hold them at bay. With no luck.
All I want tonight, is to keep Ginny out of my head.
She came to me after Horndog left the apartment. Pot smoke in the air.
“Was that a drug deal?”
There was only one correct answer to this question. “No,” I told her. But I’m a lousy liar.
“Am I dreaming? You just lost your job and now you’re taking drugs?”
“No, I’m just selling them.”
A half-lie, and it looked like I told the wrong half.
“Eric, how are you going to find work from a jail cell?”
“I assaulted my boss, Ginny. Nobody’s going to hire me with that on my record.”
“Don’t forget the drug test.”
“Ginny, I’m not doing drugs.”
She dismissed that lie with an angry roll of her eyes. “We’ll both go to jail if you get busted. Is that what you want?”
She should have left you that night.
“You’re right, she should have.” Especially after she found out that I used my severance pay to buy the drugs I were selling. It might have stopped my slide. But she couldn’t leave. She loved me.
Here’s the truth I didn’t tell her: I’m a lousy businessman, too. My dealer sold me crap and suddenly my severance pay was just gone... spent on drugs that wouldn’t get a fly high. If I expected to make that money back, I’d have to dip into our savings.
You’d have to be smarter with it, too.
Fat chance of that.
My dealer, a linebacker-sized guy named Toad, tried to hand me a baggie with 100 hits of Ecstasy. I pushed it away angrily.
“For Chrissake, Toad! You sold me crap. My people didn’t get high. I had to give refunds.”
“Refunds? That’s stupid.”
“I don’t think so. What are they supposed to do? Fuck themselves?”
Toad got belligerent. “You tellin’ me to fuck myself?”
“No! I’m telling you to give me my money back.”
Toad suddenly became a financial expert. “All investment is risk,” he told me, “And sometimes you lose. That’s why the profit is so good.”
I stood there helplessly. “I need my money back, Toad. You owe me this bag. I want it for free.”
He got in my face: “Do I look like your bitch? Do I?”
I closed my eyes and sighed in frustration.
Toad laughed. “I didn’t think so.”
This is where your life goes sometimes: I couldn’t trust my own wife with the news that her husband the breadwinner had gone broke. And the funny part is, when I tried to withdraw some of our savings a few days later, I discovered that she couldn’t trust me. She’d already moved the money. Smart.
That was one hell of an argument, but she didn’t leave me then, either. She left me after too many incoherent discussions about the future. Our future. She would talk and I would drift in my drug haze, hoping to just get through today’s lecture.
I woke up one afternoon to discover that I wouldn’t have to ignore her any more. A newly-minted middle-aged hermit. I would have made the perfect software developer, if I still had my old job. Nothing to draw me out from the private little universe inside my head. I would have lived in the office on Pepsi and pizza, feeling no need to go home--to sleep or shower--between workdays.
But I did have to eat and pay rent: the dreary details of middle-aged hermithood. And I didn't have that job any more. So I passed my misfortune down the line, just like Toad. Yes, this is indeed how business works. You spread the risk, and sometimes that means you have to spread the misery.
And that’s how I got here, hiding out to save my life. I screwed my customers, the same way Toad screwed me. I was just trying to get by.
Clarence didn’t see it with any sympathy. He loomed over me last week, ready to rip my head off. And I had more customers just like him. Lots more.
“Calm down, my man,” I tried on him.
“Fuck that!” Clarence was a model of eloquence and brevity. “You sold me shit.”
Was it too soon for the economics lesson? “All investment is risk, Clarence. Sometimes you lose. That’s why the profit is so good.”
“You owe me for that last bag of speed.” He got in my face, just like Toad. He wasn’t big like Toad, but his anger gave him scary strength.
I stood up to him anyway. “Clarence, do I look like your bitch?”
Boom! I went down without seeing what hit me. He put a knee in my chest and a gun to my forehead.
“Matter of fact,” he told me through clenched teeth, “You do.”
To prove it, he bitch-whipped me with the gun. “You listen up, bitch. I’m not gonna cheat you. I’m gonna take the drugs you owe me and some money for my trouble. And you’re gonna thank me for not making you suck my cock before I blow a hole in your head. You got that, bitch?”
“I got it, I got it, thank you, don’t kill me.” I cried, I begged. “Don’t kill me, Clarence. Please.” I could feel his pistol barrel on my forehead. I was a puddle of pain and fear, waiting for him to end my pitiful life...
...gradually it comes to me that it’s now and not then, that I’m inside the Iron Maiden and not in my living room with Clarence. But there’s still a gun in my face. Who’s holding it? A kid! A ten-year old kid.
He’s small and spare. No threat, except for his gun. His child’s face is lined with hardship... but not hatred. His eyes are clouded--but not obscured--with pain. His fate isn’t sealed. Yet.
It doesn’t matter. I can’t stop begging for my life. I watch myself do it. I watch the kid ping-pong between crying with me and playing the tough gunman. His fantasy can’t sustain itself in the face of my misery. He’s discovering that he doesn’t like being a bully.
I stop sobbing abruptly, draw in a loud breath and pull back. The kid puts his tough guy face on again and waves the gun barrel. I don’t move, but somehow my fear subsides. He’s not Clarence. I never cheated this kid.
The plead leaves my eyes and I slowly catch my breath. We watch each other. Finally, I ask him, “How did you get in?”
“Shut up, fool!” he tells me, “Shut up before I blow your brains out.”
But I’ve been here before. If these are my last moments on the planet, then okay. “I’m not trying to break your balls,” I tell him. “But I know the door is locked. I’m just curious how you got in. Really.”
My matter-of-factness disarms him. Literally: he slacks with the pistol and the barrel points to the floor.
“I came in the sewer,” he says. “Just like you.”
He looks--and smells--like he’s spent some time in the sewer. His dirt is old and shiny. His muddy blue parka leaks stuffing at the arm hole seams.
“Where’s your food?” he asks. Then realizes he’s blown his tough guy image. “I don’t need it, but I’m gonna take some.”
Right. He’s a skeleton.
“I’ll trade you food for the gun.”
He steps back, angry. Brings the gun up. “You crazy? You’re gonna give it to me!”
I shrug. “You’re right. I am. No strings. And you’re going to put the gun away. I don’t want your gun. But I don’t want it pointing at me, either. Okay?”
“Okay.” He tucks the gun into his waistband with a flourish. He’s been to the movies.
I get a protein bar from my pack. “This is it, but I’ve got a lot of ‘em.”
He takes it, struggles with the wrapper, keeps taking bites until he’s got the entire bar in his mouth. He can barely chew.
I open one for myself. “You can have another,” I tell him. “No need to rush.”
The kid just stares, struggling to chew and swallow.
“I’m Eric,” I tell him. “You can call me that, or Rick.”
“Theo,” he says around his mouthful of bar. I hand him my bottle of water. He chugs it.
“Easy,” I tell him. “When that’s gone we have to go outside and eat snow.”
He slows down eating and drinking, takes his time chewing.
“Do you live in the lighthouse?”
Theo shakes his head. “I never got in before.” He looks at me. “I smelled your pot smoke. Do you live here?”
“I do now. For awhile. Is that okay with you?”
“Where do you live?”
“Underground. It’s warm.”
“But this is the sewer. Don’t you get sick?”
Theo reaches into my bag for another protein bar, but in leaning over he loses his balance and rolls onto his back. He can’t get back up, and that seems strangely funny to him.
I look at him suspiciously. “Are you high?”
He laughs. His hand goes protectively to his jacket pocket. I reach there, and he tries to stop me but can’t. He’s got three baggies from my gym bag--one of speed, one of acid, and one of Ecstasy. I grab his shoulders.
“What did you take? How much?”
Theo’s pupils are so big that I can’t see the color. “I dunno, a handful.” He tries to laugh again, but it turns into a gurgle, and he chokes on it.
Oh, shit! If he took speed, acid and Ecstasy all at once--
How long ago did he take those pills? He’s got to get rid of them! I grab him. He’s limp, he doesn’t resist. I half-drag him down to the Iron Maiden’s belly, through the swamp to the manhole, and open it.
Then I stick my finger down his throat. Several times. He resists weakly. I help him lean over the manhole and heave the contents of his stomach. In the process, we both get wet and cold.
His stomach is so empty, there's not much to puke. I climb down and sift through it. Just protein bar, pills and stomach acid. I find several pills and capsules, of all kinds... most whole but some partly digested. Theo’s just beginning a trip. He’s got acid and Ecstasy in his system, and maybe speed, too.
“Come on,” I tell Theo. “I gotta get you to the hospital!”
Theo finds some strength and almost escapes my grasp. “No!” he’s terrified.
You could drag him. You’re big enough.
As if a lighthouse would know anything about handling people.
“How many miles is it? Through the snow and the cold? And what happens when I tell the doctor that this ten-year old swallowed my LSD and Ecstasy? Oh, and maybe some of my speed, too?”
You’ll go to jail.
“That's right. And Theo will spend the rest of his trip with strangers.”
And a drug dealer he just met is his trusted friend.
“Shut up! The kid's not safer with them. You think I’m cheating him to save my own butt. No, this is the only thing that makes any sense. I’m going to stay here. I going to help him, right here.”
Then you’d better keep him warm and awake.
I shake the boy. “Theo! Wake up! Come on, wake up!”
I drag him upstairs, toward the warm machinery. He wakes up, mostly. Thank God. I’m no doctor, but in a drug overdose, sleep usually means death. Did Theo O.D.? Or did he puke up enough of what he took?
If this kid dies, you’re a murderer.
"Thanks, I really needed to hear that."
I hold him, try to keep him awake, and of course I’m high myself. I’ve been drifting around in a fog ever since I got here, hiding from my own demons. How am I supposed to stay awake for this kid? By taking speed? That seems sick, but I do it.
Do as he says, kid, not as he does.
I drift for awhile, then snap back to awareness. “Theo? Are you okay? Talk to me!”
The word carries so much pain, it chills me.
“Dad? Is that you? Don’t go.”
What can I do? I hold him and tell him, “I’m here, Theo. I’m not going anywhere.”
And I don’t. It’s a long, cold night. He pisses himself and so do I. But I don’t leave him. I keep him awake.
“Theo? Listen, I’m not your Dad. I’m Eric. But I’m here and I’ll stay. I’ve been running away from things. That’s how I got here. I ran away because I didn’t like my life. I screwed up and made people mad at me. And maybe I can’t ever go back."
Theo might be dying, and it’s still all about you.
I’m just running off at the mouth. To keep him awake. To keep him alive. “I won’t run away from you, Theo.”
In the small hours of the morning, his breathing changes. It’s a signal that he’s turned the corner. He’s coming off the trip. I let him go to sleep. The tension leaves me, exhaustion takes over, and I allow that, too.
I wake up in the afternoon. Theo is gone. I smile: he didn’t die. I feel the baggies of pills in my pocket, and it makes me think. I go to my gym bag and then out the sewer into the bright sunlight. I paw a deep hole in the snow and dump all the pills into it. I light some matches on the baggies and back off while they burn with dark, acrid smoke. Then I bury the mess in snow. It’ll freeze now and dissolve by Spring. Nobody is going to take those drugs.
I don’t destroy the weed. What do you want? I didn’t find Jesus. I’ll burn the pot too, but I’ll do it one joint at a time.
When Theo comes back, I’m going to talk with him about his future. Our future. Maybe we’ll hang together awhile.
Maybe he’ll never come back. But I hope he does. It is strange that I never observed, until this moment, how dreary a word can sound... alone.
I’ve asked the Iron Maiden where Theo is. If he was even real. And if I’m still a coward. The lighthouse, at long last, has nothing to say.
2006 by Steve Schlich
Written August 2004, Published 2006
ABOUT THE STORY
Poe’s Fragmentary “Lighthouse” Inspires New Book
By Jeremy D’Entremont
A young man named Edgar Perry, still in his teens, was stationed for five months in 1827 at Fort Independence on Boston Harbor’s Castle Island. The soldier, who would achieve literary immortality under his pen name, Edgar Allen Poe, would certainly have observed the old lighthouse at Little Brewster Island in the outer harbor, as well as the new one closer to Castle Island at Long Island Head. Perhaps a seed was planted in his young mind that led him to write—more than 20 years later—the fragments of a story that has become known as “The Lighthouse.” Poe died at the age of 40 in 1849, before he completed the story.
The sketchy basis for the tale of a lighthouse keeper first found the light of day in George Edward Woodberry’s Life of Poe, published in 1909. Another page from Poe’s notebook, sold at auction in 1896, was later found to contain another piece of the story, and the entire unfinished work was published in 1942 in a British publication called Notes and Queries.
Following is the complete text left by Poe, as compiled by Professor Thomas O. Mabbott for Notes and Queries:
Jan 1 — 1796. This day — my first on the light-house — I make this entry in my Diary, as agreed on with De Grät. As regularly as I can keep the journal, I will — but there is no telling what may happen to a man all alone as I am — I may get sick, or worse . . . . . So far well ! The cutter had a narrow escape — but why dwell on that, since I am here, all safe? My spirits are beginning to revive already, at the mere thought of being — for once in my life at least — thoroughly alone; for, of course, 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 . . . What most surprises me, is the difficulty De Grät had in getting me the appointment — and I a noble of the realm ! It could not be that the Consistory had any doubt of my ability to manage the light. One man had attended it before now — and got on quite as well as the three that are usually put in. The duty is a mere nothing; and the printed instructions are as plain as possible. It never would have done to let Orndoff accompany me. I never should have made any way with my book as long as he was within reach of me, with his intolerable gossip — not to mention that everlasting mëerschaum. Besides, I wish to be alone . . . . . . It is strange that I never observed, until this moment, how dreary a sound that word has — "alone" ! I could half fancy there was some peculiarity in the echo of these cylindrical walls — but oh, no! — this is all nonsense. I do believe I am going to get nervous about my insulation. That will never do. I have not forgotten De Grät's prophecy. Now for a scramble to the lantern and a good look around to "see what I can see" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . To see what I can see indeed ! — not very much. The swell is subsiding a little, I think — but the cutter will have a rough passage home, nevertheless. She will hardly get within sight of the Norland before noon to-morrow — and yet it can hardly be more than 190 or 200 miles.
.Jan.2. I have passed this day in a species of ecstasy that I find impossible to describe. My passion for solitude could scarcely have been more thoroughly gratified. I do not say satisfied; for I believe I should never be satiated with such delight as I have experienced to-day . . . . . . . . . The wind lulled about day-break, and by the afternoon the sea had gone down materially . . . . . Nothing to be seen, with the telescope even, but ocean and sky, with an occasional gull.
Jan. 3. A dead calm all day. Towards evening, the sea looked very much like glass. A few sea-weeds came in sight; but besides them absolutely nothing all day — not even the slightest speck of cloud. . . . . . . . Occupied myself in exploring the light-house . . . . It is a very lofty one — as I find to my cost when I have to ascend its interminable stairs — not quite 160 feet, I should say, from the low-water mark to the top of the lantern. From the bottom inside the shaft, however, the distance to the summit is 180 feet at least: — thus the floor is 20 feet below the surface of the sea, even at low-tide . . . . . . It seems to me that the hollow interior at the bottom should have been filled in with solid masonry. Undoubtedly the whole would have been thus rendered more safe: — but what am I thinking about? A structure such as this is safe enough under any circumstances. I should feel myself secure in it during the fiercest hurricane that ever raged — and yet I have heard seamen say occasionally, with a wind at South-West, the sea has been known to run higher here than any where with the single exception of the Western opening of the Straits of Magellan. No mere sea, though, could accomplish anything with this solid iron-riveted wall — which, at 50 feet from high-water mark, is four feet thick, if one inch . . . . . . . . The basis on which the structure rests seems to me to be chalk . . . . . .
There was enough space left on Poe’s notebook page to indicate the story was simply left unfinished. One can’t help wondering where Poe was headed with the keeper’s “passion for solitude.” Would his passion later descend into madness? And Poe seems to have been foreshadowing the ultimate destruction of the tower, perhaps in a storm.
Sci-fi/horror writer Robert Bloch (author of the novel Psycho) attempted a completion of the story (“The Lighthouse”) in 1953. More than a half-century later, writer/editor Christopher Conlon was inspired to create a new anthology based on Poe’s fragment, Poe’s Lighthouse, published in 2006 by Cemetery Dance Publications of Baltimore.
“I'd long been familiar with the Poe fragment,” says Conlon, “and with the original completion that had been done of it by Robert Bloch. It crossed my mind: Why did Mr. Bloch get all the fun? Why shouldn't other writers have a crack at this? I contacted some writers I knew, got them to express some interest, and with their names under my arm, shopped the notion around to publishers. Happily, Cemetery Dance took it.”
Conlon approached some of today’s leading writers of science-fiction, horror, and mystery, asking each to give their unique spin to “finishing” Poe’s lighthouse fragment. The result is an anthology of works by 23 writers. The results are somewhat mixed but often compelling, especially for Poe aficianados and devotees of short story writing as an art form. The inclusion of a lighthouse is incidental to many of the stories, and some details of lighthouse and lens construction are off the mark. But the book is much more about writing and creativity than it is about lighthouses.
Some of the writers take the story into the realm of the truly bizarre, and others are quite adult in their subject matter—this is not a book for children. One of the most notable is “Blind Eye” by John Shirley (author of the screenplay for The Crow), in which the lighthouse lens attains Twilight-Zonish qualities.
Several of the strongest stories are attempts to complete the story seamlessly, using Poe’s style. One of the shortest contributions is “A Passion for Solitude,” by Earl Hamner, author of several novels and screenplays, and executive producer and head writer for TV’s The Waltons. In Hamner’s piece, the keeper gradually learns that he’s not so alone after all, and the plot builds quickly to a memorable climax.
Hamner says he was anxious to take part in the project because he admires Conlon as “one of our most original and gifted writers,” and because he’s always loved Poe’s prose and poems. “When I was a very young boy,” says Hamner, “I was taken to the dorm room at the University of Virginia where Poe lived when he was a student there and where a raven still perches over the entrance. It was stressed at the high school I attended that Poe was a Virginia writer and I took pride in that.”Wanting to maintain the integrity of Poe’s work, Hamner took great pains to write his completion of the lighthouse story in the original author’s style.
William F. Nolan, author of the novel Logan’s Run, takes the story to a lighthouse on another planet, where the keeper lives with his dog-like alien friend, Neptune. Despite the outlandish setting, Nolan’s “The Tragic Narrative of Arthur Bedford Addison” actually makes more use of the lighthouse theme than most of the others. The light’s “laser-bright beam” is designed to be seen from space by interplanetary travelers, and the foghorn is an “incredible sonic burst strong enough to penetrate a Ship’s metal shell and alert the pilot to potential danger.”
Some of the writers have employed Poe’s words (including little from the original text, in some cases) as a launching point for their imaginations, making no attempt to match Poe’s style. Conlon’s own “Darkness, and She was Alone” employs the lighthouse as a spiritual symbol in the haunting tale of an abused child.
Different readers will favor different stories in this collection, but all of them are interesting attempts at the least. Unless Poe finds a way to complete his story from beyond the grave (and who’d put it past him?), Poe’s Lighthouse is the best we can hope for.