Annabel Lee: The Story of a Woman, Written By Herself
by Christopher Conlon Genre: Historical Gothic
Everybody knows Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”—but who was she really? In this haunting and evocative novel, Christopher Conlon (“one of the preeminent names in contemporary literary horror”--Booklist) imagines a life for one of literature’s most renowned characters. Hers is a chronicle even more thrilling, doom-haunted, and tragic than Poe himself could have conceived, for here Annabel Lee tells her own story in her own words…for the first time.
In my memories of childhood it is always raining. I am sitting in the little nook off our kitchen, a snug recessed space just sizable enough for a plain armchair and small side table on which rests in its saucer a cup of steaming, aromatic tea. Three windows in a semicircular arrangement around me look out on the garden, the fields beyond it, and the blue hills in the distance: the very landscape, it may be said, of my early youth. In my lap rests the book I am currently reading, usually a novel from Father’s library—Walter Scott perhaps, or Fanny Burney, or else the natural philosophers Mother worries are somehow inappropriate for my delicate feminine mind. Father, it should be said, emphatically does not believe his daughter to be so limited, and among his hundreds of handsome leather-bound volumes I am encouraged to graze at will.
I have looked up from my reading to watch the rain slide down the windowpanes, listening as it taps the rooftop and spatters the glass. I sip at my tea, a familiar, not unpleasant melancholy settling over my soul. The quiet seems eternal. The world, gray and glistening, seems timeless.
Chair, teacup, book—my brain’s private image of a period in my life which then gave the impression of stretching forever, but which in reality was no more than nine or ten years. As with all memory, the image is somehow both perfectly true and oddly misleading. Reduced from reality, oversimplified, this still life of myself in the little alcove off the kitchen is less an actual remembrance than a kind of representational one, a moment perhaps never really lived as I think I recall it but rather a fusion of different moments crystalized into a figurative whole.
Mayhap this is the reason it is always raining in these visions I have of times long ago, the falling showers a metaphor for a certain mood I believe, rightly or wrongly, permeated my childhood. For in truth the state of Maryland, in the eastern portion of which I was born and spent the first twelve years of my life, receives, according to my Farmer’s Almanac, only some forty inches of rain per annum—hardly the Noah-like deluge my mind seems to suggest. I know, intellectually, that there were many days that were cloudless and sun-blooming, and when I try, I can just picture the fields around our house on the outskirts of Grimsleytown as they would have been in spring—the Indian grass and bee balm, the bright daffodils and black-eyed Susans. And yet I am unsure if such memories are any more true than the picture of myself in the armchair looking at the raindrops trickling down the glass. They seem to have no staying power in my mind, no lasting reality. Are such remembrances truer, then, or less true than the others? All these years later, is there any way to tell—to be sure?
The one common point between these, so to say, competing memories is the fact that in all of them I am quite alone. I picture myself strolling in the garden, the umbrella in my hands protecting me from the wet; no one is with me—and yet I know that I walked in the garden hundreds of times with Father in all sorts of weather. Now there I am in town, looking in shop windows, umbrella again keeping me dry, and again I am alone, even as I know that this could not have been so. The downtown area was a forty-minute carriage ride from our house, a venturing-out I certainly would never have undertaken by myself; Father or Mother would invariably have accompanied me. And yet there they are, my memories: rain-drenched, solemn, and solitary.
And, at times, terrifying—for if I let my reverie continue, reliving my early girlhood or some approximated simulacrum of it, I invariably find that as I sit there in the alcove with my teacup and book the rain becomes stronger, steadier. The sky darkens until it is nearly like night. Thunder explodes. Lightning slashes the sky. The downpour batters the glass so strongly that I begin to fear the panes may burst. But that is not all. What were pleasant rain-moistened fields only a moment ago now seem, in the strange dim light, like something else altogether. The shapes of the trees and flowers and wild grasses seem to move in the darkness—not simply swaying with the wind but moving entirely on their own, as if they have somehow uprooted themselves and are sliding grotesquely, impossibly toward my little alcove. My breath comes fast as the trees and flowers and grasses enlarge, inflate, grow gigantically until they are toweringly tall in the lashing rain. Unconsciously I have placed my tea things on the table. My book has fallen from my lap onto the floor. I stand as the nightmare world slithers toward me, yards away from the glass, now feet, now inches. I try to turn but cannot. I try to scream but my throat is tight. I can only watch as the fantastic wild world looms up before me and I hear a sound now, an unnatural, unearthly moaning somehow emanating from the outside, from the terrible invaders themselves. They press against the glass—there is a scraping sound like knives on bone—the glass bends inward--
Of course, the reader must think, this is but a little girl’s fancy. And indeed I agree. Obviously nothing like this ever occurred, or could have. Yet there is something to it, something that, as I have written, perhaps did not happen in a literal sense, but which nonetheless reflects something quite true, quite real, about my life—the sense of a melancholy peace suddenly turned to appalling, inexplicable horror. That is a process with which I am, alas, all too familiar.
Christopher Conlon (b. 1962) is best known as the editor of the Bram Stoker Award-winning anthology "He Is Legend" (Gauntlet/Tor), a tribute to author Richard Matheson which was reprinted by the Science Fiction Book Club and in multiple foreign translations. His novel "Savaging the Dark" was included in Booklist's "Top Ten: Horror" for 2015 (starred review) and acclaimed by Paste Magazine both as one of the 21 Best Horror Books of the 21st Century and as one of the 50 Best Horror Novels of All Time. Two of his earlier novels, "Midnight on Mourn Street" and "A Matrix of Angels," were finalists for the Stoker Award, and he has written numerous collections of stories and poems along with two full-length stage plays. A former Peace Corps Volunteer, Conlon holds an M.A. in American Literature from the University of Maryland and lives in the Washington, DC area.
I and My Annabel Lee by Christopher Conlon copyright 2019 by Christopher Conlon
“You mean the Annabel Lee?”
I’ve received this response several times now after telling people that the title of my newest novel is Annabel Lee (with the subtitle The Story of a Woman, Written by Herself). Almost everyone has encountered the poem by Edgar Allan Poe at some point, most typically in school. It’s a basic American classic, with its wonderfully lilting language and storyline of aching romantic doom. The narrator and his girlfriend Annabel surely stand as one of the great Gothic couples, alongside other such passionate lovers of the period as Heathcliff and Catherine of Wuthering Heights and Rochester and Jane of Jane Eyre. Why tinker with a masterpiece?
What occurred to me in thinking recently about “Annabel Lee”—which I first read and loved as a child—is that, for all its unforgettable imagery and emotion, the reader never experiences a single moment of the poem from Annabel’s own point of view. The entire piece is narrated by the nameless young man who tells us that they “loved with a love that was more than love,” but he alone defines this; Annabel’s own thoughts and feelings are never given voice at all. We know what he says about her and their relationship; but what might she have said?
My novel sets out to answer that question, and in so doing goes into some strange and unexpected places—including an appearance from Mr. Poe himself. How successful my imaginings are, of course, is for the reader to decide....
By Edgar Allan Poe
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love--
I and my Annabel Lee--
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me--
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we--
Of many far wiser than we--
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea--
In her tomb by the sounding sea.