Who better to usher in Halloween than Edgar Allan Poe, the master of horror, suspense, and the macabre. Does your lifelong fear of being buried alive originate with Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”? Do you ever lie awake imagining a heart is beating from beneath the floorboards? You have Poe to thank for your nightmares. He brilliantly locates our collective fears and animates them in the short stories and poems written over the course of his brief and mysterious life. His ballad “Annabel Lee” hovers over Vladimir Nobokov’s “Lolita,” whose protagonist’s first love is “Annabel Leigh.” (“When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel [Leigh] was no nymphet to me”). Then there’s “The Conqueror Worm,” an appropriately creepy poem that comes to us from beyond the grave. Poe describes a theater performance; the actors are “mimes,” the hero is a large worm that eats the actors. The curtain falls. Boo!
The Conqueror Worm by Edgar Allan Poe
Lo! ’t is a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.
Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
That motley drama—oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.
But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.
Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.