In what is now the sixth-largest city in the US, the master of the macabre wrote some of his scariest stories. In the house he lived in, you feel as if you'd been transported into one of the writer's works.
"For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief." Edgar Allan Poe begins one of his most nightmarish stories, "The Black Cat," casually and calmly. If you visit his home in Philadelphia, you can see where one of the forefathers of literary gloom set down his thoughts - and where his cat, Catterina, who might well have served as a model for the horrifying story, also lived.
From the outside, the three-story brick building seems unremarkable: white garden fence, wooden shutters on the windows, a small veranda to the back. During Poe's lifetime (1809-1849) this area was a bucolic suburb of Philadelphia. His wife Virginia planted flowers and entertained friends with singing and music. Her mother lived with the couple, helped with the household and cared for Virginia, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Thanks to its southern-facing façade, sunlight streamed into the rooms for long periods of time - for a writer, no minor aspect in times when homes were lit with gas lamps, not electricity.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809 - 1849)
Poe, born in Boston, was just 18 years old when his first volume of poetry, "Tamerlane and Other Poems," was published. He loved poetry, but his short stories sold better in literary magazines of the time. His stories soon began to deal with brutal, malevolent murders, as well as the deaths of beautiful young women. "The death of a beautiful woman, is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world," wrote Poe in 1846. None other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, described Poe as the progenitor of mystery and detective fiction.
The tragic circumstances of Poe's own life may well have played a role in his search for narrative material: his mother died of tuberculosis when he was two years old, and his father - an unsuccessful actor - had already abandoned the family. Poe's foster mother, Frances, as well as his cousin and later wife Virginia also succumbed to the "white death," and the mother of his childhood friend, said to have been Poe's first love and discovered the boy's talent, died a few months after being confined to a mental institution.
Driven by financial need and his perpetual wish to be the owner and editor-in-chief of a prestigious literary magazine, Poe often changed his place of residence. In addition to living in Baltimore and Fordham (in what is now the New York borough of the Bronx), the writer spent six years of his life in Philadelphia. Here he met fellow authors such as Charles Dickens and corresponded with writers and poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell.
In Philadelphia, Poe soon showed that he had an sure instinct for what readers of the time wanted. Within a few months, the circulation of "Burton's Gentleman's Magazine" rose from 500 to 3,500 copies, after he had accepted a post as editor for ten dollars a week. The short story "The Fall of the House of Usher", in which the deceased Madeline rises from the family tomb before her former home disastrously splits in two, was published in it. It was also in Philadelphia that he wrote most of the poem "The Raven," arguably his best known work.
More than a dozen residents called 532 North 7th Street their home after Poe left the house in the 1840s and before it was secured as a historical site in the 1930s. The lack of furniture makes it hard to picture the daily routine of the cash-strapped author. But in the cellar, where cobwebs cover the panes of the window shafts, a hollow chimney breast is a reminder of the gloomy ending of the story "The Black Cat."
The narrator describes the cat Pluto as a "sagacious" animal that was his close companion. But under the influence of alcohol, the narrator undergoes a change of character. He increasingly abuses his wife and ultimately the cat, who scratches him in fright. In revenge, he cuts out the cat's eye and later puts a noose around its neck and hangs it. When another cat appears months later, he develops an aversion to it and tries to kill it with an axe, but then, enraged, buries the blade in his wife's head as she tries to protect the animal. And it is this black cat that betrays his bloodthirsty murder when, in the presence of police, its wailing shriek is heard from behind the wall where he had hidden his wife's body.
"The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators," wrote Poe in the last scene. "Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!"
Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/ms (dpa)