Growing Up Poe: Alethea Kontis
Edgar Allan Poe would be celebrating his 200th birthday this year. He cast an epic shadow across American fiction; he inspired every last horror writer who came after him; and his fans founded this very magazine. Weird Tales wondered if Poe still has the same impact today — so in our latest issue, we asked a bevy of dark fantasists (including Cherie Priest, whose essay we’ve already published online) how much the Grandpa of the Gothic loomed in their tender years. The answer: a whole freakin’ lot. Here’s what geek princess Alethea Kontis has to say about it:
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GROWING UP POE: Teen Angel, Dark
by Alethea Kontis
copyright © 2009 / May not be reproduced without permission
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Fourteen: the age of nihilistic fervor. The pinnacle of those egocentric, life-altering years where no one suffered as much as me. In a million years no one could possibly have understood the ineffable quagmire of emotions in which I flailed, a lone gull crying out over the empty seas of my tears.
To make matters worse (because matters could always be worse, and usually were), the innocence of youth had left me with the tiniest flicker of hope, and a dream that the brooding prince of a tiny, heretofore-unknown kingdom (who, coincidentally, happened to be my One True Love) would come galloping by on his horse at any moment to save me from the hell that was my life. He would see through the physical mess I had become and know the Real Me, the beautiful, shining beacon of soul held hostage by my own darkness. But alas! the newly-forged, freshly-jaded adult side of my Mini-Wheat knew that there was no such prince. No one was coming for me. Hope was futile. I was doomed to be left behind by the world, forever alone, a small, forgotten puddle of disappointment, darkness, and despair.
Enter Poe. And The Cure.
Life had a soundtrack in those days. The radio played songs chock-full of hidden messages, battered symphonies of secrets whispered only for my tortured ears. Volumes could be read into mixtapes that were as personal as journal entries, telling the story of my duality, my constant struggle between darkness and light. I wore my heart on my sleeve, freely dripping blood down hallways and hoping someone would notice. (That brooding prince, maybe.) I had been writing poetry since I was ten—almost a third of my life. I was in love with the power of words, the ability to say so much with so little. It was a gift—I had a gift—and I would not squander it.
Music was the logical next step in poetry’s evolution, but I was not a lyricist. Sure, I had walked around the house singing nonsense tunes as a child, but I lacked the genius code in my DNA attributed to such luminaries as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Gilbert & Sullivan, and the virtuoso that was Cole Porter. I would never be a songwriter. That didn’t mean, however, that I couldn’t lie corpse-like on my bed in a room soaked in dusk (and wallpapered in movie posters) and appreciate the talents of Robert Smith or Peter Cetera or Bryan Adams. I was that small-town girl in her lonely world, bags packed for that midnight train to anywhere (preferably an equally small, heretofore-unknown kingdom). My hurt didn’t show, but the pain still grew. Me & Charles Manson liked the same ice cream. I was a strange angel, an angel of music, and the Phantom of the Opera was there, inside my mind.
Any member of the Spring Valley Players worth his or her salt knew all the words to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s production of Phantom (though I was the only one who could sing Christine’s part). Memorization is what we did in those days. After all, if I was going to be Lights Mistress, I had to know every line of See How They Run in order to hit all my cues. Every line . . . including the first verse of “If,” by Rudyard Kipling. And when I found the rest of the poem in a set of Kipling’s works at my grandmother’s house that summer, I soaked it up. I was a sponge that could not be saturated. It was the beginning of the end.
I started memorizing all sorts of poetry after that, starting with the poems that had any excuse to be in one of our plays (“The Jabberwocky”). I memorized fun stuff with my little sister as a game — Shel Silverstein, of course, and the often-quoted-but-rarely-attributed Ogden Nash, of whom we were both great fans at a very young age (we liked mustard, even on custard). But the best part about memorizing poetry was when I got to play the role of the overachieving student. (There’s nothing like having fun and getting extra credit for it!) Shakespeare? No problem. Sonnets, Friends, Romans, Countrymen, and star-crossed lovers separated by only a balcony. Byron, anyone? Oh, the sappier the better.
Unfortunately, two of my favorite poems — “The Highwayman” and “The Raven” — were both far too long, and I would not be a complete person (as complete as I could be, imperfect soul though I was) without some Poe in my repertoire. There must be something else in my literature book. And there, buried deep in the back, I met Annabel Lee.
Known as Poe’s Last Poem, “Annabel Lee” was beautiful and sad, true and tragic. It spoke to me, telling me a tale of a love that was more (more!) than love, a love that made even heaven jealous, the one love that lasts a lifetime . . . albeit a very, very short lifetime. Obviously, the only kind of love I could possibly be destined to have, and currently, um, did not. I was covetous alongside those angels, craving such pure, rare, unprecedented, unadulterated feeling and dying a little inside their immortal souls to know they could not let it exist on the mortal plane. I read the first line out loud to myself, “It was many and many a year ago,” Poe’s Once Upon a Time. And suddenly the strangest thing happened: the poem began singing itself to me in my head.
I had never before composed a song (and likely never will again), but the words of that ballad of true love, tempests, and tragedy had an unmistakable melody that I remember to this day. It was as if Poe Himself sat at the foot of his bride’s tomb and sang to me a song only I could hear, a tune that traveled beyond time. It was sad, that song; I belted it out full voice in empty rooms, a nightingale calling in the night-tide. Perhaps many and many a year ago I had been Annabel Lee, the maiden from a tiny, heretofore-unknown kingdom by the sea, and Poe was my brooding prince. Because of the intensity of our love we could never again cohabit the mortal plane (as all men know). But he could send me the tale of our love through the bond that would always remain between our souls, and I would always carry in my heart this song we made together.
Now that I’m grown, I chalk all that up to the silliness of youth, the alien angst we all go through. But I’d be lying if I said that part of me—a very, very small part—didn’t still pine a bit for the Poe I never knew. But I still have our song.