A Cough Drop for Edgar Allan Poe

In January of 1845, Columbian Magazine listed among its upcoming publications, a new story by Edgar Allan Poe called “Some Words with a Mummy.” The story finally appeared, however, in April of that year in American Review. People who care to know such things assume Poe pulled the story from the original magazine because he received a better offer. And, well, what writer wouldn’t do that?

Despite having a mummy at its center and being written by an author most widely known for his dark tales, the story is actually an example of Poe’s lighter work. If you haven’t spent much time with him since reading “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” in high school, then you may be surprised to know that he was also pretty good at being funny.

mummy
Can you even imagine? By jalvear – originally posted to Flickr as Mummy at Louvre, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7141759

“Some Words with a Mummy” is straight up satire, poking fun at the 19th century Egyptomania that had people decorating their sitting rooms with mummies and hosting unrolling parties with their closest non-scientist friends, just for kicks. And he doesn’t let the scientific community off easy, either.

In case you haven’t read it (which you can do here if you want), the premise is that a tired narrator blows off his early bedtime for a chance to attend a mummy unrolling at his buddy’s house. The gathered friends decide after poking and prodding for a little bit that they might as well feed some electricity into various slits they make into the desiccated body.

The mummy, named Allamistakeo, wakes up and informs them they’re all pretty rude. Then the story really gets going. After sewing up their new friend and giving him some ridiculous clothes to wear, the 19th-century gentlemen feel compelled to prove to their ancient counterpart that mankind sure has come a long way in 5,000 years.

Edgar Allan Poe
EAP may not have been terribly photogenic, but he could be kind of funny when he had a mind to.

Allamistakeo remains unconvinced. He offers a reasonable counter for every ill-informed suggestion his hosts make, demonstrating their narrow grasp on not only science, but also history. The only thing that impresses the reawakened Egyptian at all is the throat lozenge.

That’s right folks, the best advancement humankind made in nearly five thousand years was the cough drop.

Of course, Poe’s fairly dopey narrator didn’t yet know anything about space travel or smart phones, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Allamistakeo, who had been as successfully placed into perpetual stasis as any sci fi character ever was, wouldn’t have been too impressed with those either.

This is actually one of my favorite stories of Poe’s. It’s absurd and clever and it makes me giggle, which is why I was particularly excited to discover I could pay homage to it in my own work about mummies.

My first (to be published) historical thriller Gentleman of Misfortune follows the story of an elegant swindler who steals a shipment of eleven mummies. My thief is invented, but the mummies are ripped from the pages of history and there was a point when they were located in the same city at the same time as Edgar Allan Poe. Talk about a fun cameo to write!

cough drops
So many choices! What a time we live in.

My fictional gentleman got the opportunity to have a fictional conversation with the ripped-from-history Poe himself. As you might imagine, they talked about mummies. And lozenges.

It’s one of the lighter, more playful moments in a story that has a definite dark edge. I’d like to think that if Poe found himself suddenly resurrected, he’d enjoy it. But I doubt that. He was generally a pretty harsh literary critic. And like his Allamistakeo, Poe didn’t seem much pleased with his own age. I think it’s unlikely he’d be all that impressed by ours.

Still, I bet he would appreciate our wide variety of cough drops.

A Most Inestimable Piece of Balderdash

In 1834, not long after submitting to the Southern Literary Messenger the disturbing story “Berenice,” in which a man yanks the teeth from his wife’s corpse only to discover that she wasn’t quite dead after all, Edgar Allan Poe sent something equally disturbing to the magazine. What he offered was a harsh critical review of the book Confessions of a Poet by Laughton Osborn, who may have been somewhat less cheerful than his name suggests.

In the beginning of his book, Osborn (publishing anonymously) claimed he would commit suicide upon completion of the work and that as he began the book, he placed a loaded pistol on the table beside him for that purpose. Poe astutely pointed out that even were he to work quickly, the poet would not likely complete a book in less than thirty days. By then the powder in the load would no longer be usable and the world might be unfortunately subjected to a sequel of Confessions.

poe
I have pretty thick skin, but this is not a man I’d want to have leaving a review for my book. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even for a man known for writing dark words, that’s pretty heartless. A few months later, Poe was charged with writing a review for a novel by well connected New York journalist Theodore S. Fay titled Norman Leslie. Poe called the book a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or villainously insulted.”

It wasn’t long before Poe earned something of a reputation as a literary critic, that reputation being mostly that he was an insufferable jerk. Of course, today Poe is far more well-known than either Osborn or Fay, and there were a few authors whose work he actually appreciated.

One of those was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who Poe wrote about in a review of Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an old Manse for Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1847. There Poe claimed Hawthorne was unoriginal, peculiar, and “infinitely too fond of allegory,” but possessed “the purest style, the finest taste…the most delicate humor…the most consummate ingenuity.” That’s about as high praise as anyone might be able to expect, I think, from the author of a story about getting a man drunk and burying him alive behind a brick wall.

But in the same review, Poe also states that it’s not for him to say whether Hawthorne, or any other author, has impressed his readers. And he’s right. Because ultimately the people who read a work, the majority of whom probably don’t write harsh critical reviews for a living, get to decide whether or not they enjoyed it.

I have to assume that Poe would find the state of book reviews today pretty irritating, full of flattery and lacking (hopefully) in the suggestion that the author’s suicide would be preferable to a sequel. But I think it’s kind of great that in this era of Amazon and social media, the book reviews that matter most are the simple ones in which readers tell other readers the gist of what they thought.

And reviews really do matter, not only because word of mouth and recommendations are the way most people figure out what to add to their pile of books to read, but also because the fairies that live inside our computers give the numbers of reviews a great deal of weight when determining what to present to the next reader to come along in search of a book.

bookcouch
Sample review: “Five Stars…This book has absolutely given new life to my furniture!”

I’ve been very fortunate so far. My book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense has been out for about three weeks and in that time it has received ten reviews on Amazon and several on Goodreads. As a bonus, not one has called it a “most inestimable ­piece of balderdash.” Yet.

I am so grateful for all those who have added Launching Sheep to their pile of books to be read (both real and virtual), for those who have already flipped through it, and to the folks who have actually even read it and are already using it to prop up the wobbly ends of their sofas. And I am overwhelmingly grateful to the people who have taken the time to offer their thoughts, especially on Amazon where the computer fairies are particularly nosy.

If you have read the book, and think it might be worth someone else’s time, would you please consider leaving a review? It really doesn’t have to be long and pretentious, or cleverly harsh. Just a simple sentence or two about what you liked or didn’t like is all it takes. If you genuinely don’t have the time or inclination, though it might briefly occur to me that you’re unoriginal, peculiar, and infinitely too fond of allegory, I promise I will still think you’re a lovely person, and I really am delighted you were interested enough to read it at all.