House of Wax
©2023 - All rights held by the author
Thursday, June 12th, 1862
The news rushed through the city like a gale. Delivery men told housemaids at back doors, and businessmen discussed it over morning tea. Children sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Maryland, My Maryland” while playing stickball in the streets, and dock workers grumbled about possible lost jobs. For the poets arriving for their annual conference, however, it was unimportant compared to the next evening’s event.
Rufus Griswold entered the packed Fells Point pub, certain he would be hailed before he could reach the counter. Sure enough, pushing through the excited and tipsy patrons toward the overworked bartender, he heard his name.
"Griswold! Over here, old man!” A wave of laughter welled up as Griswold approached the table, his friends welcoming him with raised glasses.
“Join us, won’t you? You’re the man of the hour, after all." William Davis clapped Griswold on the back, thrusting a mug into his hand.
"You'd allow a lawyer into your ranks?" Griswold said, smiling.
"As long as our manuscripts are safely stored." Davis winked, and the others chuckled. “Heard about Pennsylvania?”
“Of course. Bloody fools, like the other states. Secession’s not the answer.”
“Can’t blame them, with the jobs they’ve lost.” Frederick Lee nodded sagely, stroking his side whiskers. “The tariff's about crippled New England. And the 1814 embargo—”
“Fred, you always side with the underdog. They’re splitting the country over economic issues.” Dean Faulkner, one of the best living Southern poets, gestured impatiently. “It’s the Allied States of America, after all—”
“All I know is that Douglas has his hands full,” Lee interrupted, glaring at Faulkner. “He pledged to keep the peace when he was elected, and he needs to do it.”
“Personally, I don’t give a damn about the Northeast Union, except that it’s keeping Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes from attending. Thank God Shelley was interested, and for your gem.” Davis raised an eyebrow at Griswold. “Care to give us a preview?”
“I don’t have it memorized.” Griswold forced a smile. “You’ll have to wait like everyone else.”
“Pity Poe couldn’t be here to read it himself. Bad luck, him dying just before the conference.” Davis signaled the waitress.
“Yes.” Griswold didn’t elaborate, although he knew they were on tenterhooks. As Poe’s closest friend, he’d been his executor. When he’d traveled here six weeks ago to sort out the estate, he’d never expected to find unpublished works in Poe’s papers. But he’d felt it his duty to his friend's colleagues to share the piece with them. Poe had been so popular when he’d died of consumption that the news was greeted with huzzahs, particularly in light of the unfortunate political situation.
Griswold knew the truth about the poem. Poe would never have shared it with anyone. In fact, he’d burned it twice.
Night rolled in, clouds blotting out the stars. The air grew clammy with the impending storm.
Griswold awoke, sweating through his nightshirt, panting in the wake of an unremembered nightmare. Rising, he went to the desk by the window, turning on the gas lamp. He opened his portfolio, stuffed with papers to share after the reading.
Untying the ribbon, he removed them, arranging them on the desktop. Edgar Allan Poe. One of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century, hailed as a genius. His works were famous through the Western world. "The Tell-Tale Heart." “Cristabel Lee.” “The Raven.” "The Fall of the House of Escher." Brilliant, penetrating works of horror.
None, however, compared to the poem he’d found. “House of Wax.” An incredible and astounding work. One that Poe had never mentioned in all their correspondence. Why?
When Griswold had found his friend’s journal, it became clearer.
He opened the cardboard-bound book, adjusted his bifocals and began to read once more.
September 13th, 1861. Tonight was one of the strangest experiences in my years of writing. I awoke from a nightmare, horrible and vivid; and yet upon awakening, nothing of its content remained. I rose, and a poem appeared in my head. It was the first I've composed in weeks.
I took pen and paper and wrote it down, and now, as I reread, it seems perfect. I can’t envision making a single change. Strange, for I've never felt this way about anything else I've written.
It seems to capture the spirit and sustenance of that forgotten nightmare. I shall lay it aside for later publication.
October 23rd. I still have been unable to publish “House of Wax.” When I reread it, it fills my heart with dread and terror. I put it away but keep taking it out at odd intervals. Even now, as I contemplate it, a cold sweat moistens my brow.
Still, it’s only a poem. Mere words.
Strange, though, how it came to me without a single correction. Almost…as if it came to me from without.
Griswold, the most hard-headed and practical soul, shuddered in a breeze from the window. Rising, he closed it and sat again, reading on in the gaslight’s flicker.
December 5th. I have burned “House of Wax.” I could stand it no more. Tonight, I shall sleep.
December 6th. No good! I awoke in the grip of another forgotten nightmare, panting with pounding heart. I got up and sat at my desk, trying to regain control of myself…and began scribbling madly, filling the page with words, with never a pause to think. When I had done, I read the result. To a syllable, it is “House of Wax.”
How could this be? I can’t even remember what I wrote as I wrote it.
I shall burn it again. There is something ominous about this piece.
Griswold stopped, shaking his head and glancing around the room. All seemed quiet. Then he heard a pattering and looked up to see streaks of rain striking the window. He resumed Poe’s journal.
February 10th. I had thought I was free. I burned the poem without incident two months ago.
Then, last night, once again I woke with an unvoiced scream on my lips. Again, I leapt from my bed to my writing desk. Again, “House of Wax” was the result.
I cannot rid myself of this horror. I believe it was sent from Lucifer.
I must hide it. I know the very place.
There the journal ended save for one line: Below a thousand layers lies the riddle's answer.
Griswold frowned, rereading the cryptic words. “I must hide it.” Why had Poe written that? He’d not hidden the poem; Griswold had found it in his desk, very near the top of a pile of papers, above his journal.
He shook his head, returning the journal to his folio, then dousing the lamps and climbing into bed. Although he wanted to honor his dead friend's wishes, he couldn't bring himself to do so. It seemed clear that Edgar had suffered from dementia. The poem’s content certainly indicated a delusional frame of mind, even more than most of Poe’s work.
He owed it to the world to share this incredible work of art. Even more, he knew how much money it would bring him, Poe’s sole beneficiary. Talk of Lucifer and malignant forces was nothing but talk.
Still, as he dropped off to sleep, vague dread lurked in the depths of his consciousness.
Morning dawned dry but dark. Clouds hung low, black with the promise of more rain. Sweat broke out on Griswold's brow as he dressed. He’d promised to meet Davis for lunch.
Davis awaited him at the inn, a dingy place appearing even gloomier in the half-light of the stormy skies. “Did you rest well?”
“Moderately. The rain didn’t help with the heat.”
“No. We’re in for a hell of a storm.” Davis sipped his ale, his eyes sparkling as he regarded Griswold. “Do you have it?”
“Of course. Here.” He handed over the folded pages, which Davis took eagerly, opening them and scanning the words. His face blanched.
“My God, this is incredible. The imagery…Is this the final draft?”
“First and final. He said it came to him with no corrections.”
“Amazing.” Davis finished, shuddered and turned back to the beginning, pursing his lips. “I think I can give it an exemplary reading.”
“I’m sure you will.” Griswold knew his own voice wouldn’t do the poem justice. “Give me a few minutes to give the background. Then I’ll turn the podium over to you.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” Davis put the papers away, grinning. “They’ll be talking about this one for weeks. The basilica should be full."
"Glad you're reading it there. It was Poe's favorite place." His friend had spent hours there, sitting on the low wall beneath a maple tree, composing poems.
"It seemed quite suitable." Davis paused to order. "So what's the latest from New England?”
Griswold shook his head. “Not good. Boston’s state militia fired on the Federal troops Douglas sent.”
“So it’s war?”
“Not officially. He’s trying to negotiate with Seward to ‘resolve our differences.’”
“Let’s hope they can resolve them. Otherwise, we’ll have a bloody mess on our hands.”
Night fell on the city, the storm yet unbroken. The air was thick and humid, and the streetlamps failed to dispel the growing blackness.
Despite the weather, the basilica was full. Men’s voices echoed in the vast cathedral illuminated only by lit candles. Griswold glanced at his watch yet again; its hands seemed glued to the dial. He wished it was done. Since arriving, a strong sense of dread had gnawed at him.
Eight o’clock. Frederick Lee cleared his throat, ascending the steps to the pulpit. The crowd quieted, fixing their eyes on him. Outside, a low rumble of thunder sounded.
“Fellow poets and distinguished guests. On behalf of Mr. Davis, Mr. Faulkner, and myself, I welcome you to our annual Poetic Conference. To commence this glorious occasion, we have a special reading which I’m sure is of interest. As you know, one of the greatest poets of today, Edgar Allan Poe, passed away two months ago…”
Couldn’t he get to the point? Griswold thought. The stuffy atmosphere was overwhelming. Perspiration ran in rivers down his neck and back. Another low echo sounded, closer now. The trembling in the pit of his stomach increased.
“…May I present Mr. Poe’s executor, Mr. Rufus Griswold.” Applause and a few whistles filled the church as Griswold stepped to the pulpit. The people were dim shadows in the pews. Taking a breath, he began.
“Thank you, Mr. Lee. I merely wish to give a bit of background to the poem before Mr. Davis gives us the honor of reading it. It is perhaps the most unsettling work by Mr. Poe hitherto discovered, with vivid and violent imagery. Most significant is that Poe used the title as a metaphor for the collapse of society, one we can appreciate in the wake of today’s news.” A flash of white illuminated the windows, followed in a moment by an enormous clap of thunder. Griswold fumbled his notes, disconcerted. Abruptly, he decided to leave the rest.
“Thank you. Now, may I present Mr. William Davis.” The applause this time was louder, sounding for several minutes. Davis nodded, smiling. Griswold found his chair and sank into it, his heart pounding. Davis waited until the noise had died before speaking.
“Thank you, my esteemed collegues. Without further ado, here is the poem, ‘House of Wax.’”
Immediately, all sounds ceased except Davis’s smoothing the pages before beginning, drama filling his voice. He was a true orator.
“A flash of fire strikes the house of wax…”
Light flashed through the windows with a crash of thunder almost simultaneously. Davis paused, and a murmur rushed through the crowd. Griswold's stomach churned, and he pulled out his handkerchief, wiping his brow.
“Well, that was certainly fitting,” Davis said, trying to smile as a hesitant laugh rippled through the audience. “Let me begin again.” Once more, he spoke, his voice strengthening as the lines rolled out. Thunder boomed and rain drove against the windows. Griswold winced, and Davis raised his voice to be heard over the din.
“…Thunder drowns the blast of horns…”
Again, lightning flashed with a crack of thunder. Davis stopped, and a high piercing scream sounded outside. Before Griswold could speak, Davis continued, even as the shadows in the pews began to rise and exclaim to one another.
“…Hidden deep below the ground, underneath the garden wall…”
Griswold started at the words which he’d forgotten. I know the perfect place. Was that what Poe had meant? The church wall outside?
Davis shouted the poem's final line above the growing din.
“...and the house of wax tumbles down!”
The doors flew open, and a man ran in, shouting. “Get out! The roof’s on fire!” The sharp scent of smoke tinged the air, and a beam cracked in the ceiling. People screamed, jumping up and stampeding for the exit, shoving each other aside as the aisles filled.
“Keep calm, everyone!” Davis shouted, clutching the pulpit. “Remain calm!”
Griswold knew he had one chance. He seized his chair and ran to the window, summoning his strength and flinging it at the glass. It shattered, and the wind and rain blew in. Around him was chaos; people yelling and crying out as plaster fell from the ceiling and the air grew hazy with smoke. He coughed, sweeping the shards aside, hardly feeling the stabbing pain when one embedded itself in his palm.
"Griswold! Wait for me!” Davis scrambled down, but Griswold climbed through the window, leaping several feet to the yard below. Not looking to see if his friend had made it, he yanked the glass from his hand, wrapping his handkerchief around the wound. He ran from the building through the driving rain.
The world outside was almost as frightening as that within. Soldiers galloped on horseback through the streets, firing shots which popped faintly at the people running recklessly to and fro, blinded by panic. Poets spilled from the basilica onto the street, scattering hither and yon into the night, illuminated by lightning flashes and the blaze of fire from the dome above them.
Women screamed, darting back and forth like wild horses. Griswold saw one drop to the ground, a dark stain spreading on her bosom. A calvary officer’s steed leapt over her and sped toward the harbor.
“They’ve invaded!” someone shouted. “It’s the end!”
Griswold tried to control his growing panic. Somehow, the poem had unleashed this anarchy; he knew it. But he felt it also held the answer. “Hidden deep below the ground, underneath the garden wall…” And that last line in his diary: Below a thousand layers lies the riddle's answer. That was it! Poe must have meant the basilica. He'd spent so much time there.
He sped toward the low wall at the back of the grounds, ignoring the cries and shots dimly heard through the booming thunder. The dome, engulfed by fire, illuminated the night. Rain soaked his clothes and drove into Griswold's face.
There was the spot beneath the maple where his friend had loved to sit. Falling to his knees, he scrabbled at the earth, knowing the answer must be somewhere below layer upon layer of dirt. If he could only dig deep enough...
Chaos swirled around him as he tunneled into the mud. The air seemed charged with electricity, and not just from the storm. Griswold wrenched handfuls of earth and grass loose, going down, further down. Screams and shouts filled the air, the flames from the basilica singing his back.
Then his fingers struck wood, and he dug around the corner of the box, desperate to pull it out. He coughed on the smoke and yanked it free, grasping at the lid. At last he got it open and peered into its depths.
It was empty. Griswold thrust his hand in, feeling for a scrap of paper. Nothing.
He must've put the poem here, Griswold thought. And then...something...took it out again. Made sure I'd find it.
He looked back into the box. Nothing except blackness. Even the light from the fire didn't illuminate it. He stared into its depths, and to his horror the blackness began to grow, spreading into the night, blotting out the stars. People screamed, watching the sky as the hole expanded. Griswold's last thought was: It's swallowing everything--
Thursday, January 12th, 2006
“So how's the new album coming?”
He shrugged, taking another bite of salad. "All right. I've got most of the songs, but I just need a couple more.”
"No ideas?" His friend looked stunned. "I thought you could write songs about anything."
He laughed. "Not this time. Nothing's coming to me."
"Well, it will. And if not, you could record a couple of oldies."
"I suppose." He changed the subject, acting unconcerned, but inside disturbed at his inability to come up with a tune or lyrics. It was usually effortless.
As he went to bed that night, rain began pouring outside. He switched off the light and turned on his side. Driving rain. Not that...
Hours later, he awoke, clutching at the bedclothes, his pulse racing. Rolling over, he turned on the light, sitting up and catching his breath, trying to remember what dream had frightened him so badly. He couldn’t remember.
As his fear faded, lyrics drifted through his head, out of nowhere. He rose and went down the hall to his studio, switching on the lights and sitting at the piano. He gingerly flexed his fingers, still stiff, then played a chord. C sharp minor. That worked. He followed it with F sharp minor, then an A. The chords seemed to come naturally, just like the lyrics. Perfect. He began singing softly, then with greater assurance. This would be his biggest hit ever. He could premiere it on his upcoming tour.
“A flash of fire strikes the house of wax…”
The lights flickered. Outside, the wind and rain blew in a howl.