When he was in hospital in Baltimore, in a state of great confusion, slowly but surely dying, Edgar Allan Poe kept calling out for Reynolds. The resident physician John Moran described his end in the following manner: "When I returned I found him in a violent delirium, resisting the efforts of two nurses to keep him in bed. This state continued until Saturday evening when he commenced calling for one 'Reynolds,' which he did through the night up to three on Sunday morning. At this time a very decided change began to affect him. Having become enfeebled from exertion he became quiet and seemed to rest for a short time, then gently moving his head he said 'Lord help my poor soul' and expired."

So, who was this Reynolds? Nobody seems to know. Jeffrey Meyers, in his biography, suggests Poe meant Jeremiah Reynolds whose book he reviewed in 1837 and later used as a source for his own book about the travels Arthur Gordon Pym. Meyers goes on to suggest that during his last hours Poe probably hallucinated along the lines of the last sequence of Pym: "And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow." Poetic but a bit far-fetched.

Peter Ackroyd, in his A Life Cut Short, observes that there was indeed an election official called Reynolds at the very Hotel in front of which Poe was discovered. There has been much speculation on Poe's involvement in some kind of election scam. Possible, but a bit uninteresting.

The Norwegian author Nikolaj Frobenius (who a few years ago wrote the quite excellent screenplay to the film Insomnia) comes up with a far more fascinating solution in his novel Jeg skal vise dere frykten. In the book Reynolds is in fact a slave belonging to Poe's foster father John Allan, an albino shunned by the other slaves, a man without a place in the world. In that respect much like Poe himself, an eternal outsider. Poe befriends the slave Reynolds, who in fact, unbeknownst to Poe, is Allan's bastard son. Poe reads the lad his early stories and young Reynolds, with his twisted and tortured soul, finds great relief in them.

Poe teaches Reynolds to read. They run away together, escaping the clutches of the tyrannical Allan. Reynolds idolizes Poe but very soon there comes the inevitable parting of the ways. Their friendship does not end well. Poe gets on with his life, such as it is.

Later, when Poe's grisly tales of murder and madness start appearing in national magazines, Reynolds begins his murder spree based on Poe's stories. The bloodier the story, the better.

There is an interesting theme of doppelgangerism in the novel, with Reynolds as Poe's evil twin (and in a way they are brothers, both being Allan's "sons"), his very own William Wilson, whose skin may be white as snow (the image at the end of Pym) but whose soul is blacker than black. Poe is the day, Reynolds is the night. What feverish nightmares Poe sublimates and exorcises by putting them on paper, Reynolds performs and realizes. Poe is the mind, Reynolds is the flesh. Reynolds is Poe's nightmare personified, his fears and anxieties come to life, running amok and causing destruction and wreaking havoc.

Ingenious idea.

It is eminently clear they cannot both exist. Not ultimately. Therefore Poe attempts to shoot Reynolds and bury him alive. Reynolds doesn't die. Reynolds uses subtler methods to try to kill Poe. He starts hiding bottles of whiskey among Poe's belongings. Poe cannot resist. In the end Reynolds and the bottles get him. His mind cannot protect itself against the attacks of his flesh.

Despite its many good qualities Jeg skal vise dere frykten isn't a frightfully good book. I found it curiously bland and it left me slightly confused, as if it didn't quite know if it wanted to be a literary novel, a biographical novel, a tale of horror or a plain thriller. Probably it wanted to be all of them at the same time, but not really succeeding in being any of them. Of recent novels delving in Poe's demise I much prefer Matthew Pearl's The Poe Shadow. A rather good literary novel about the latter days of Poe is John May's Poe and Fanny.

Though of course none of them solve the mystery of Reynolds. Neither did Frobenius but his take on the mystery is by far the most interesting I've come across.

On the other hand, taking into account Poe's state, it's quite likely that the name Reynolds is merely the confused rambling of an extremely delirious mind, signifying absolutely nothing.

No comments: