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The Raven in the Mirror : A novel that crosses the real Edgar Allan Poe with a bolder and less haunted one : THE LIGHTHOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD, By Stephen Marlowe (Dutton: $22.95; 324 pp.)

February 04, 1996|Edward Hower | Edward Hower's third novel, "Night Train Blues," will be published next spring

Looking into a mirror as a child, I sometimes wondered what the figure I saw there did when I walked away from the glass. After reading Stephen Marlowe's marvelous new novel, "A Lighthouse at the End of the World," I finally know the answer: That person lives my alternate life, the one of my dreams and imagination.

The novel's central character, a fictional Edgar Allan Poe, has the mirror experience in a Baltimore saloon in 1849. It happens just before he is about to disappear on an alcoholic binge, only to surface five days later mortally ill in a hospital.

Marlowe (whose previous novel, "The Journals of Christopher Columbus" was awarded the French Prix Gutenberg du Livre in 1988) gives us two interwoven stories. In one, a realistic narrative, he vividly re-creates Poe's life in mid-19th century America. In the other tale, told in a series of fantasies, we meet a mirror-image Poe as he shares adventures with his fictional characters come to life.

In the realistic sections, Poe is a writer much misunderstood and maligned by his contemporaries, a man struggling with poverty, alcoholism and his young wife's tuberculosis. He is a sympathetically drawn character, troubled and difficult but always determined to maintain his artistic integrity. Images from his lonely childhood often haunt him, especially a recurring memory of a beloved kaleidoscope he once smashed into mirrored fragments to keep his cruel stepfather from taking it from him.

Though Poe sometimes blames himself for the suffering of his teenage wife, Virginia, he remains touchingly devoted to her as she steadily grows weaker. Theirs is a doomed, romantic love, unconsummated for the first four years of the marriage, but it inspires the author with as much intense joy as grief. Virginia is an engaging young woman, alternately childish and wise, selfish and ingenuous, fearful and brave.

Other characters, like the songwriter Frederick W. Thomas, come to Poe's aid with money and companionship. But fellow authors like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (whom Poe attacks as a plagiarist) dismiss him as a drunkard. Despite Poe's sudden fame after the publication of his poem, "The Raven," his forays into literary and political circles are often disasters. The bombastic Daniel Webster tells him he should stop writing about "murders and mesmeric horrors" and take up the "clarion call of the West . . . an opportunity that a brave man can seize in his two strong American hands."

In the fantasy sections, Marlowe presents us with a bolder, less haunted Poe. Magically transported from Baltimore to Paris, he appears as a nocturnal sybarite, enjoying liaisons with a Brazilian bareback rider and a Rubenesque Polish countess. An elusive woman named Nolie Mae Tangerie (as in noli mi tangere: "don't touch me") leads him into even wilder adventures. He also meets C. Auguste Dupin, a Parisian detective who explores Poe's dreams with the tenacity of a psychoanalyst as he tries to help the writer solve the mystery of his brother's disappearance.

We recognize Monsieur Dupin from one of Poe's most famous stories, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Marlowe plants characters and atmospheric vignettes from many of Poe's works throughout the book. Part of the fun is recognizing them along the way. From time to time he also re-creates Poe's writing style with both its lugubriousness and its luxuriant enthusiasm.

In a passage that echoes "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," Marlowe describes his hero's first impression of the Malaysian islands to which he has been transported: "I stood . . . upon a surf-tormented shore at the edge of a shoreless sea, under a night sky aflame with the light of a comet that spanned half the zodiac, ten times brighter than the full moon." In these islands, Poe retreats for a time to the "Lighthouse at the End of the World" to complete a novel that, we're told, the real Poe left unfinished before he died.

In these fantasy chapters, he gets to complete the manuscript, a chronicle of his own tropical adventures as he searches for both his elusive lady friend and his long-lost brother. During his quest, he is helped by the magical powers of a talisman reminiscent of the smashed kaleidoscope that so fascinated the author as a child.

The Malaysian sections feature lush dreamscapes, cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, passion and betrayal in the jungle--all described with suitably ornate stylistic flourishes. At times the melodrama reminded me of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but this didn't stop me from enjoying it immensely. In the book's last dozen pages, however, as Marlowe moves his characters toward a meeting of his fantasy and realistic worlds, I did find the rapid scene-shiftings confusing, like a wonderful magic show gone slightly berserk.

But this is a minor flaw in an otherwise skillfully crafted and highly original work. Marlowe's fictional exploration of Poe's life and creative vision is accomplished with great panache, providing fascinating insights into the nature of dreams and the workings of the imagination. "Lighthouse at the End of the World" is a spellbinding novel.

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