Writers Chat 29:Karen Lee Street on Edgar Allan Poe and The Empire of the Dead (Oneworld: London, 2019)

Writers Chat – Edgar Allan Poe and The Empire of the Dead

Karen, you’re very welcome to my Writers Chat. We last chatted about Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru and today we’ll discuss  Edgar Allan Poe and The Empire of the Dead which was described as “a gripping read, and a worthy homage to Poe’s genius” (Historical Novel Society). In this novel you evoke “Poe’s unique sensibility through passages of inspired prose, in a narrative that preserves the spooky penumbra surrounding Poe’s enduring legend(Tom Nolan, The Wall Street Journal) it is, as described by Mystery Scene Magazine “a brilliant historical whodunit.” In the words of yet another starred review (Booklist), it is a “superlative historical mystery, capturing the tone of the time and Poe’s lasting literary legacy” and for this Writers Chat rather than focus on the narrative and the mystery, to save ourselves from spoilers, we are going to look at themes, motifs, setting and atmosphere.

thumbnail_raven at Poe house Philly photo kls
Raven sculpture from Poe Museum in Philadelphia; photo by Karen Lee Street

SG: The novel opens with one of my favourite first lines: “It began with a cat”. A simple first sentence, yet intriguing and so very gothic. I am delighted to present a short clip to our readers/viewers of you reading it. Was this the line that set you off on telling this tale or did it come later?

KLS: Thank-you, Shauna, for inviting me to talk with you again. You always ask questions that make me think about the novels in new ways. I’m pleased you like the opening line, which was in the very first draft. I thought of Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead as a ‘gothic noir’ when outlining it and my intent was always to use a flashback structure, an homage to film noirs like Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard. As for the cat, Poe was very fond of his calico who was named “Catterina” and apparently used to write with her wrapped around his shoulders. It’s said that when Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, learned that Poe had died in Baltimore, she discovered that Catterina, who was with her in New York, had also died. Given its very gothic flavour, that little tale inspired me to include Catterina in the opening and resolution.

Press Play to hear Karen Lee Street read from Edgar Allan Poe and The Empire of the Dead [duration of 6 minutes, 1 second]

SG: So, after hearing your wonderful reading – there’s always something special about hearing the author read – can you tell us a little about what helped you capture – what seems like – the narrative voice of Poe that runs throughout? We’ve talked about this before but it’s important, I think, as you capture, as the History Revealed review says “a heady mix of the macabre and enigmatic.”

KLS: To try to capture the flavour of Poe’s narrative voice, I re-read Poe’s Dupin stories, but relied more on his letters, which can be found at EAPoe-dot-org.  I was pleased when a reviewer for the British Fantasy Society noted that he really enjoyed Empire of the Dead and “found it very easy to get into (I do sometimes find period-style writing to be difficult to warm to.) ” That’s always a concern when trying to capture period voice. Accuracy does not always mean accessibility for a modern reader. Some authors choose to write period novels in a modern voice, with plenty of anachronisms, but I’m personally not as fond of that approach unless it’s comedy or YA literature.

SG: Magic and mystery- in the writing, the reading, and the plot – abound through the novel. We have Dupin’s servant Madame Morel appearing “as if by magic”, we have Virginia, Poe’s decesased weife standing or sitting before him at key points in the narrative, and indeed, advising him at times:

“Moonlight trickled into the air and coalesced into her form – she was sitting in the chair near the fireplace, glimmering and pale… stay safe.

Can you tell us about your interest in magic and how you’ve used it both to create atmosphere but also as a plot device (the scenes with The Great Berith, for example)? 

KLS: When I came up with the idea for the trilogy, I knew what would happen to Valdemar (Dupin’s nemesis) as his name is from one of Poe’s short stories: “The Facts in the Case of M. Ernest Valdemar.” It’s a story about mesmerism, which fascinated people in Poe’s day, and when the story was published, Poe insinuated that it was a factual account of a real experiment. He also mentions esoteric literature and the supernatural in some of his tales, so I wanted to play with those elements and how our ideas of what is science and what might be considered occult practices have changed. For example, things we take for granted today such as electricity, telephone communication, the internet (to name but a few), would have seemed like impossible magic in the early 1800s. On the other hand, many nineteenth century intellectuals believed in phrenology, autography, the power of mesmerism, all of which are typically dismissed by today’s scientific community. In my trilogy, the highly intellectual Dupin has a keen interest in esoteric studies such as alchemy and has a firm belief in his superior intelligence. He delights in exposing charlatans who dupe people with seances or magic shows. When Dupin encounters the Great Berith, a charismatic magician in the tradition of Victorian conjurers, he is instantly suspicious of him, particularly when Berith uses popular magic tricks of the day to impress the mob of the Île de la Cité. The analytical Dupin knows how each trick is done… until he doesn’t. That wrong-foots him and forces him to be more open-minded. Or perhaps his desperation and desire make him gullible. A mystery that deals with the magical (in the widest sense) is more than just a who-dunnit; it often forces the investigator to investigate him or herself.

Mesmerist (Thanks to Karen Lee Street for providing the image which is in the Public Domain)

SG: Yes, and I think that double layer you have running through all three books is what gives them that extra edge. I love how animals serve as portals into other worlds – physical and psychological – but also as warnings. I’m thinking of Catterina the cat, the gulls “like demons” on The Independence ship that brings to Poe to France , the cobra head on Dupin’s walking stick (weapon!) and, most importantly, the carvings of owls that lead Poe and Dupin to the “mysterious world that existed beneath their very feet.” Owls, are “associated with Athena, goddess of wisdom – but the screech owl is sacred to Hades, god of the underworld.” Can you talk about the role animals play in this novel?

KLS: Certainly, as you point out, animals provide messages or act as harbingers in the book. I suppose fairy tales initially provoked my interest in animals as guides to other worlds or as messengers. Of course Poe’s poem “The Raven” uses that bird as a messenger and ornithomancy—messages from birds—is an important element in Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru, so I felt a thread connecting the trilogy would be useful:  Charles Dickens’s pet Grip the raven in book I; all the birds in book II; and the owls in book III. Following the owls into the dark world beneath (or within) can lead to wisdom and transformation… or perhaps death.  Owls being associated with Athena and wisdom is also important as many of the owl figures in the book are associated with spaces that are or were libraries in Paris, a little puzzle in the book linked to the epigraph.

SG: One of my favourite scenes is Madame Legrand’s literary salon. Poe, Dupin, and the Prefect of Police attend the salon where Poe is accused – by the Madame also known as Undine (“who kills with a kiss”) of telling only “tales of the macabre…poetry…and ghoulish affairs of the heart”. Poe brings us right into the room with him:

“A thin male servant wearing alarming orange livery and a sour expression guided us into the salon. Crossing the threshold into the room was like stepping into a confectionery shop filled with glazed cakes, sugared candies and marzipan sweetmeats, all glistening with a surfeit of sugar.”

Here we encounter historical literary figures such as George Sand, Eugene Sue, Charles Baudelaire. How much fun was that to research and write?

KLS: It was great fun to write, particularly Undine who is all about shiny surface but has little depth as exhibited by her decorating sense, fashion, and the vapid poetry she writes. She is very loosely modelled on the Marquise de Merteuil in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses— a very beautiful, but narcissistic person who uses her wit to undermine others. I enjoyed bringing together some of France’s nineteenth century literary greats for a “poetry slam” as one reviewer put it and to give Baudelaire, who greatly admired Poe’s work, the chance to defend him in the flesh. During my research trip to Paris, I visited Baudelaire’s grave in Cimetière du Montparnasse, and the cemetery plays a part in the novel.  I also went to George Sand’s house; I hadn’t known until I started researching that her birth name was Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, which was a fun coincidence. I had to wonder if Poe borrowed her name.  Probably unlikely, but not impossible as Poe knew her work.



thumbnail_Victorian magician poster
Victorian magic poster: Carter the Great – Thanks to Karen Lee Street for the image.

SG: In all your Poe and Dupin mysteries, place and setting are characters in themselves and no less so here. The Paris that you bring us to is full of illusionists, magicians, tricksters, ruffians, even an ogress (Mother Ponisse). It’s also full of rich food and wine – hare stew, heavy red wines – as well as “ravening darkness”, elixers, poisons and, who could forget, the subterranean world of the underground tombs and tunnels. We are presented with contradictions and mysteries in just a few examples which illustrate your beautiful sensual writing:

“Golden light shimmered along the bleak walls, but our four lanterns did little to dispel the malevolent atmosphere. Sounds were amplified: pattering feet, the flutter of wings, chatters and squeaks – sounds that might fill one with the joy of nature in a woodland or some attractive city park, but evoked nothing but dread in this tomb-like space.”

“Perfume snaked through the night air, intoxicating and cloying as the scent of death, accompanied by a haunting voice raised in a song without words.”

Can you tell us about how you used 21st Century Paris to re-create 19th Century Paris?

KLS: My main inspiration in trying to give a convincing flavour of 19th century Paris to Empire of the Dead was to read some books written and set during that time, most particularly Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris and Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot as well as Poe’s Dupin stories. The descriptions of clothing and furniture and food were inspired by these works and those familiar with The Mysteries of Paris will recognise some characters and some places from the Île de la Cité, which are part of a little subplot linked to one of the book’s themes.  Prints, illustrations, and maps of Paris from the time were also incredibly useful in trying to create a convincing picture of 19th century Paris —trying to work out which streets, bridges, cemeteries, libraries, and other buildings were in existence in 1849 was not an easy task. And then there were the tunnels beneath Paris and their history. When I had most of a very rough draft in place, I did a research trip to Paris and visited key locations and areas, especially the catacombs, which I hadn’t been to previously, and took a lot of photographs.  I also visited Paris at the same time as the book is set (in July), which was useful in terms of weather, light, general atmosphere – and below you can see some of my photographs!

And now for some fun questions:

  • One cat or many cats? Two, currently. Given they are indoor cats, that’s probably enough. Probably.
  • Best book you’ve read in the last six months? The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which I just finished. It was interesting to find a magic show in it, and some other familiar elements.
  • Best film you’ve seen in 2020? Probably Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, but I also enjoyed  Lulu Wang’s The Farewell —definitely the best debut film for me.
  • What do you miss the most during this Pandemic ‘lockdown’? The trip I’d planned to make back to Europe and a research trip to New York City.  As I work from home, day to day life hasn’t changed radically during lockdown.
  • What’s next up for you in terms of novel writing? I’m working on a contemporary crime story set in New York City which deals with photography, but all the events of 2020 (so far!) are making it difficult as current events would have an effect on what happens in the novel.

Buy Edgar Allan Poe and The Empire of The Dead

Keep up to date with Karen on her website

Karen Lee Street

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