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Dark Inspiration BY JOE R. LANSDALE can’t think about Edgar Allan Poe without thinking about my life, because he was there in dark spirit, in my room and in my head. He was out there in the shadows of the East Texas pines, roaming along the creeks and the Sabine River, a friendly specter with gothic tales to tell. It was a perfect place for him. East Texas. It’s the part of Texas that is behind the pine curtain, down here in the damp dark. It’s Poe country, hands down. These thoughts were in my mind as I toured the Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. The Center, at the University of Texas at Austin, is celebrating the bicentennial of Poe’s birth with an exhibition that includes original manuscripts and illustrations. Looking at these artifacts, it occurred to me that Poe reached out from the grave and saved this East Texan from the aluminum chair factory. I know there are those who will say working in an aluminum chair factory is good honest work, and I’m going to agree. But I will say without hesitation and with no concern of insult that it damn sure wasn’t work of my choosing, and that it takes the skill of a trained raccoon and the I.Q. of a can of green beans, minus the label, to get it done. Like Sisyphus forever rolling his rock uphill, I feared I would spend my time on Earth matching up aluminum runners, or linking chain to be pinned together by hissing and snapping and cutting and crimping machines, which in turn would be forklifted away in shiny piles of bent rods and flexible seats. Something to be sold and brought out on hot days at barbecues, and on hot nights to give mosquito-attacked, beer-drinking drivein theater patrons a place for their butts to nestle. I did all manner of work after that, some of it even less pleasant, actually, but it was that factory, the trapped tedium and uniformity of it all, that has stayed with me like a scar. Again, it’s good honest work like digging a ditch or filling condom machines in gas stations, but even to this day, I have bad dreams of the aluminum chair factory, like some kind of horrid, slinking, saliva-dripping imp; clanging and cutting and crimping, and tugging at my soul. When it tugs, I can feel my spirit move inside my head. I feel it being slowly drawn away, and I awake thinking my life as a writer has all been a dream. That now it’s time for me to get up and pull on my clothes and go to work and make lawn furniture. But it’s only a dream, because Poe, bless his little crazy heart and messed-up mind, like some kind of superhero came to save me. Climbed up out of the grave and swooped out from the darkness and stuck his shadow in my head and gave me something to hide beneath and something to investigate. His shadow had been with me before, when I was kid, but during my time in the factory I had lost it for a while. When it came back, it came back with a dark, wing-flapping vengeance, and brothers and sisters, glory hallelujah, as the church folks say, I was set free. Let me explain. When I was a boy growing up in East Texas, from first grade to fifth, I lived in a town with about loo people. It was a fun thing for a child in many ways. I lived a kind of Huck Finn existence, except I got to go home to a loving family when I tired of the woods and creeks and bicycle rides. But without those things, I found the world where I lived somewhat empty. It was as if everything was painted gray, and there was very little shading; it was flat gray, like the walls of a prison, inside and out. But there were little bits of hope. There were comics, bright and shiny and rich in action, all in color for a dime. And there were books, which gave me strange new worlds and all manner of adventure, and then there was Poe. My family was a poor one. My father couldn’t read or write and my mother had an nth-grade education, but she was a reader. And when I was a very young boy, she handed me a book of horror and detective tales by Poe. That book darkened and shaded the gray around me, gave me velvet shadows that quivered at the bottom of my dreams. They thrilled me so deeply I often awoke with such an intense feeling of excitement and fascination that I would walk about my room for hours in an overstimulated stupor, stopping weak-kneed to grab a pen and paper to try to write down my own stories of wicked doings and dark designs. He was the first author to do that for me. There was something so strange about his work, yet so inviting and satisfying. For a long time, Poe owned me. At the Ransom Center, I read that he liked the night and dark places. I almost let out a whoop, because I’m much the same way. I live a more balanced life, no drunken forays and drugged nights, and I like the day better than Poe, but when I write during the day, I like it dark. I like the shades drawn. I love sitting in darkness and reading with only one NOVEMBER 27, 2009 TEXASOBSERVER.ORG 23