Story by P.R. O’Leary
Illustration by John Waltrip
If it wasn’t for my wife I never would have visited the professor. Yes, we had been friends once. Close friends. But that was back when we were both teaching at the university. Him, a Doctor of Literature. Me a doctor of American history. That was almost twenty years ago now. Long before the news of his wife’s disease made it to my ear.
My wife had heard about the professor’s situation, at a social function no doubt, and she subsequently made it her business to push me towards a visit. “His wife hasn’t been out of the house for months.” She said. “He’ll appreciate you stopping by to see him.” She said. “In a time like this, he needs a friend.”
So, with her as my conscious, I made up my mind to at least give Boris Hemlock a call. The last time we were in contact was through some letters we exchanged over a year ago. Back before his wife went ill. He had talked about a book he was working on. A comprehensive biography of Edgar Allen Poe. He seemed to be quite content with his work and retirement, and I was quite content with mine, but we were both getting old. Maybe it would be good to reconnect. The next evening, I looked up his number and phoned it.
As it rang I tried to think of ways to get past the inevitable awkwardness of our first words. Before I could think of what to say he answered with a brusque “Hello” that sounded the same, albeit it older and rougher, as it did twenty years ago.
Gathering my thoughts, I put on a friendly air and spoke.
“Boris! It’s Herbert Black. I just called to see how you were doing.”
His tone instantly changed from brusque to pleased.
“Herbert! I’m so glad you called. I have really been meaning to contact you. It’s been a long time since we talked, and I wanted to run a theory past you. Well, it’s now more than a theory, but I still want your input. You were always the most trustworthy in our circle.”
I was taken aback by his rush of words. There was no awkwardness or strain behind them. He was truly happy to talk and obviously had something he wanted to talk about. Still, I cautiously tried to steer the conversation towards his wife. The purpose of my call was to see how she was doing and if there was anything I could do to help. But whatever words I said were rebuffed and then redirected.
“Herbert, I need to see you. It’s fate that you called! I have been knee-deep in my work and have made great breakthroughs.”
“The Poe biography?” I asked.
“Yes! The Poe biography. I must insist you take the trip down to my home. We have much to talk about!”
Everyone takes the strain of a dying loved one in different ways. Boris was obviously throwing himself into his work. I agreed to join him the next evening. His wife Priscilla was a good woman and we had all liked her. With any luck, my visit would brighten both their days.
The next morning, I bid my wife farewell and caught the train to Baltimore. The ride was long, and I sat alone, fidgety and anxious until we arrived at the station. Once there, I hailed a cab and, at the appointed time, made it to the Hemlock’s brownstone – a large gothic structure that belonged more to a time a hundred years ago than it did to now.
Boris answered the door before I had a chance to knock. His appearance shocked me. Time had not been his friend. What struck me most was how thin he was. He used to be tall but now seemed much shorter. His strong cheekbones were skeletal. His face was covered with hollowed out cavities where the flush flesh of youth used to glow. With eye sockets like black pits and only a few graying wisps of hair, he looked almost morbid. The dusty black suit did not help.
For a moment I thought he would be as shocked at my appearance as I was at his – after all, time had not exactly been my friend either – but he smiled and clasped my hand, shaking it and pulling me into the house with one quick motion.
“Herbert! Herbert! I’m so glad to see you. Please come in. Let me take your coat.” He grabbed it off my back and shuffled over to a closet. The room was dark, lit only by what light flowed through the dirty windows. The furnishings were dark red velvet and heavy oak. Papers and books covered everything. What wasn’t covered by documents was sprinkled with a fine layer of dust. This room had not been cleaned in a long time.
In the corner sat a desk with a typewriter. There was a single unlit candle placed next to it. Boris followed my gaze. “Oh, they turned our power off a few weeks ago.” He said. “But I don’t mind working by candlelight. It makes me feel authentic!”
I was horrified by the state of his home. The house was in disarray and didn’t even have power! I had not been aware of Boris’s financial trouble. The toll of Priscilla’s disease must be more than just physical and emotional. “Is that okay for Priscilla?” I asked. “If the power is out? She doesn’t need it for anything?”
He smiled slyly and took just a bit too long to answer. “No. She doesn’t need any power. She is fine where she is.”
“How is she? Can I see her?” I asked.
“No. Not right now. A little later. I want to talk to you about something first.”
He busied himself searching through the stack of books. The musty air and the darkness were making me uneasy. I decided not to stay long, just enough time to hear what Boris wanted to tell me and to visit Priscilla. Then I would gladly leave this horrid place.
Boris pulled a book out of the middle of a pile and started leafing through it, intent and excited.
“This is the one. An early edition of the complete Poe. It contains one of his less well-known stories. The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Have you heard of it?”
“I have read it, but that was years ago.” I was never a fan of Poe. I found his prose too dark and his stories too dreary.
“Well, to refresh your memory. This tells the fictional account of a man who tries to mesmerize someone at the point of death. Doing so, he thinks, will postpone the physical act of dying. Finding a suitable subject, he proceeds with his experiment. To the shock of everyone involved, the patient is not only mesmerized but is kept in a death-like trance for months. His body is dead, but his mind is alive. All he can do is beg for them to release him from the trance. Once the narrator releases the subject, the man immediately decomposes.”
I remembered reading that story. The image of the man on his death-bed, waiting to die but kept alive in a hypnotic grip, it disturbed me, and I felt happy to be rid of it once I finished reading. I told Boris this in more polite terms. He waved me off.
“Do you remember anything about the style of the story?” he asked.
“I do. It was told as if the narrator was writing down his recollections of a real incident.”
“Yes, exactly. Now, what would you tell me if I said this M. Valdemar was actually based on a real person and that this incident actually happened?”
The thought never once crossed my mind, and I began to think that maybe Boris was taking the strain of his situation a little too hard. He sensed my disbelief and continued.
“Hear me out, Herbert. I have been pouring over dozens of papers on, by, and about Mr. Poe. Now, I don’t think he was the narrator in the story, but I believe he knew the person and wrote about the incident from that person’s point of view.”
“What makes you think that?”
“In the Baltimore City College archives, I found a letter from Poe to an old professor. As you may know, that school has been around since 1839, that’s ten years before Poe died. The archives date back to the school’s inception.”
“But how did you find it?”
“It was with the personal papers of Dr. Albert Whitney. He was the attending medical professor since the school opened. I was hoping he might have written something about Poe’s death. It was a big deal at the time. In the newspapers, the official cause was ‘Congestion of the Brain.’ There are many theories as to what killed him, and I was hoping one of the foremost doctors of the era might have written something about the incident. Little did I know I would find this letter!”
He ruffled through some papers next to his typewriter, pulled out a copy and started reading.
“Dear Dr. Whitney. I feel that the time is near. I am taking the first boat I can to Baltimore. I know what happened to McCree may repeat, but I have confidence in your abilities. Please be ready for my arrival and gather me when I call upon you at the harbor. Yours, E. Poe.”
Boris finished reading and looked at me expectantly. That could not possibly be a real letter, but it did seem plausible. I knew a bit about Poe. He had lived in New York but took an unexpected trip to Baltimore for reasons unknown. He died several days after arriving.
“What is the date of that letter?” I asked.
“September 25th, 1849. Poe died in Baltimore, October 7th, only two weeks later.”
It was all very overwhelming. A missing letter from one of America’s most famed authors? Thoughts were whirling through my head. I needed more information.
“What do the records say about Poe’s time in Baltimore? There must be some connection to Dr. Whitney.”
Boris started to walk around the room as he spoke, reminiscent of when he had given lectures as a professor.
“The official records don’t say much. Poe took a boat to Baltimore for reasons unknown. Ten days after landing he was found ranting and raving in the middle of town. Shortly thereafter he died in a hospital.
“Dr. Whitney does not turn up in any official connection. But I followed his biography. He lived in Baltimore his whole life. Poe also lived in Baltimore, for a short time, fifteen years before he died. It’s probable that’s where they met.”
The connection made sense to a point. I suppose what Boris had said was possible, but the connection to the short story was still elusive. I told Boris that.
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” he started,” then called The Facts of M. Valdemar’s Case, was published in 1845, after Poe’s time in Baltimore. So, it could have been based on a real incident.”
I was still playing devil’s advocate. “But how do you know? He still could have made up the story.”
Boris smiled. “Remember what Poe wrote in the letter? ‘I know what happened to McCree may repeat.’ He’s talking about the M. Valdemar from the story.”
“McCree Valdemar? Does he exist?” I asked.
“No, McCree Valdemar does not. But Vladimir McCree does.” Boris held up a finger and paused for emphasis. “He was a patient of Dr. Whitney. There are records of him. He died of ‘consumption’ in the year 1830, when Poe lived in Baltimore!”
I stood silent, digesting this information, but Boris continued. “The official report is even more telling. There is a seven-month gap between when he was admitted to the hospital in ‘death agony’ to the date he actually died. Seven months, the exact time-frame in the story.”
The coincidences were adding up, but the story was still so improbable. Boris started digging through papers for something else to show me.
“I understand what you are saying so far,” I said. “But all the coincidences could be just that. Coincidences! There is no way of knowing if Dr. Whitney mesmerized Vladimir McCree at the time of death. Or even if Poe knew about the incident.”
Boris sprang up from a pile of papers with an old black notepad.
“Now, that’s where you are wrong. I took this from Dr. Whitney’s personal file.” He handed it to me. “Go ahead, open it.”
It was small, leather-bound, and obviously old. I cracked it open gently and started flipping through the pages. Thin, precise lettering filled every page, top to bottom. Words and phrases jumped out at me: mesmerism, trance, hypnosis, articulo mortis, delaying death. The whole notebook was full of theories about mesmerism, methods on how to do it, ideas on what it could accomplish, and tests the doctor had conducted.
Boris had left a bookmark between two of the pages. I turned to it and read aloud.
” I made the mesmeric passes whilst VM was still uttering words. At once, in less than one minute, the body rapidly decomposed. All that was left on the bed was the husk of a corpse. The test was unsuccessful.”
I looked up at Boris. “VM,” I said. “Vladimir McCree.”
He nodded. “Now turn to the last page.”
I did so and started reading.
“The body showed more vitality, but EP still does not speak. After seven days I try the new mesmeric passes. His arms and legs move as instructed, but no speech. With reluctance, I release the trance. EP bursts forth from the bed and exits the room. I cannot stop the subject. Ravings pour from his mouth and before I can collect him the authorities come. I fear his brain was damaged by the mesmerism. Test ended, unsuccessfully.”
I’m stunned. I look up at Boris, gaping.
“EP.” He says. “Edgar Poe. It’s quite amazing really. While living in Baltimore, he meets Dr. Whitney and witnesses or hears about the incident that happened to Vladimir McCree. He turned that incident into a horror story.
“Years later, when his death from alcoholism and bouts of pneumonia was near, he thought maybe Dr. Whitney could help rescue him from death. Unfortunately, the doctor’s mesmerism technique was still not perfected, and it failed.
“As for the doctor, it appears he gave up his mesmeric pursuits after that failure. There are no records of note until his death in 1868.”
It all fits. Everything. I am torn by feelings. Elation at being privy to a new discovery, fear that what happened to M. Valdemar had happened to a real person, and complete disbelief at the whole situation. Boris contemplated me from across the room and saw that I was speechless. He seemed stuck in thought as well, but then a decisiveness passed across his face.
“Come with me!” He said. “I have something more to show you.”
He walked toward the stairs and started ascending to the second floor. The stairs creaked when we stepped on them, and as we rose, the light faded. The higher we went, the darker it became. All the while Boris was still talking.
“Dr. Whitney was a smart man. He was on to some incredible techniques. If he had continued his experimentation he might have figured out what he was doing wrong.”
As we climbed higher and Boris continued to speak, it started to become clear what he was going to show me. Dread settled through my body, tightening my shoulders and turning my stomach to ice.
“Mesmerism is a complicated subject. I read through all his notes and those of other mesmeric scholars. Stopping the body from dying using the power of the patient’s mind is revolutionary.”
I did not want to continue to climb the stairs, but I did. Something drove me a forward. A desire, and a hope, to see that my fears were unfounded.
“I was fortunate,” Boris said. “There were no suitable subjects to practice on before the time came, but I learned enough just by reading. By piecing together the work of different experts I was able to do it.”
We came to a door. Boris pushed it open slowly. It was dark in the room except for a single candle with a smoldering flame. There were no windows to let in light. It took my eyes a moment to adjust. Boris walked in, and I slowly followed. The dread on my shoulders was now palpable, and the ice in my stomach had spread to my fingers and toes.
He closed the door behind me and then walked towards the middle of the room, face flickering blood red in the candlelight. Slowly, things started to take shape. There was a bed in the middle of the room. Something was on it. A thin shallow creature. Dry, tight skin. Long white hair. Large eyes open wide and dilated. Black cavernous mouth. I knew who I was looking at, but my mind wouldn’t accept it. This thing was not Priscilla. This dead thing was not the laughing young woman I had in my memory.
Boris held up a hand, begging for silence. I listened and heard the barely audible strain of breathing coming from the bed. Priscilla was still alive!
“What… what happened to her?” I stammered, already knowing the answer.
Boris’s voice was sickeningly gentle when he spoke. “She was slipping away last year. Dying in my arms. I could barely remember the mesmeric passes, but I managed to do them properly.” His gaze turned to Priscilla. “I saved her. She’s alive because of me.”
“She’s not alive!” I screamed, backing away. “She’s dead! You are forcing her to stay like that. It’s monstrous!”
He smiled and started moving his hands over her body. Never touching. Repeating the same motions. Leg to torso to arm to heart to head and back again. “No, this isn’t monstrous.” He looked into her eyes. “This is beautiful.”
Gently, he stroked her desiccated brow with one hand, still repeating the motions with the other. Leg to torso to arm to heart to head and back again. He began to speak to her. “Priscilla. Guess who is here? It’s Herbert Black. Herbert wanted to say hello. Why don’t you go give him a hug?”
With a final wave of his hand across her face, he stood up and moved out of the way, turning to me with a smile. “Watch.”
Slowly, Priscilla sat up. Her expression never changed, and her dead eyes never wavered. When she moved her bones creaked and her skin rasped against her nightgown. Her legs slid onto the floor with a thump. She rose up higher. Now standing. Now shuffling. Now walking towards me. Now her arms were raised up. A grotesque caricature of a human reaching for an embrace. I backed up against the door and grasped for the knob. My sweaty hands slipped around it. She was close now. Her eyes stared right through me. I turned. Turned my back on that thing. My heart was pounding in my chest. Using both hands I tried to twist the knob but before I could open the door I felt a cold flaky hand upon my shoulder.
I turned the knob and leapt through the door. My chest was tightening. I could not breathe. I stumbled, regained my footing. I bounded down steps, but my leg buckled, and I fell. Banging. Slamming. My arm hit the wall and cracked. My chest was about to burst. I couldn’t breathe. My head hit the ground and my vision went red. My heart. My Lungs. I was growing cold.
Boris appeared above me. I don’t know how he got there. I could barely see him. The red in my vision was sliding away to black. He leaned down, his hands moving. I knew what he was going to do but I couldn’t stop him. My muscles would not respond. I was fading away. The last thing I saw before the dark was Boris repeating the same motion, faster and faster, his eyes full of deranged hope.
Leg to torso to arm to heart to head and back again.
Leg to torso to arm to heart to head and back again…
— ♦♦♦ —
Dead Apache Gorge. By Martin Roy Hill, Art by Chlo’e Camonayan
Rancher Dave McReynolds was warned about illegally grazing his cattle in Dead Apache Gorge. According to the Navajos, anyone venturing into the gorge could raise ire of the chindi, the evil spirits of the dead. McReynolds just wouldn’t listen.