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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-five THE POE TOASTER



eering through the black netting was tedious and hard on the eyes, but Aidan’s brother had assured him that it was excellent cover for surveillance during the hours of darkness. And it was dark. Here in Baltimore’s Westminster Cemetery, though in the midst of a large city, there was little light. What could be discerned was mostly the result of the faint radiance of faraway street lamps, and the even more remote stars, glinting off the frost that coated the somber landscape. January 19th was a cold night for waiting.

His brother, Kevin, had given Aidan the netting when he was last home on leave. “It breaks up the profile and conceals the watcher at the same time,” he had said. “We use different colors and patterns depending on the environment we’re working in.” He was a Marine sniper and had served two tours in Iraq; one in Afghanistan. “You can rig it over you like a tent with a little zip-cord, or just drape it over yourself—but if you do that you’ve got to be really good at sitting still for hours at a time. You’re not good at that, bro,” he had warned.

Having arrived after dusk Aidan had followed his brother’s advice, suspending the netting from a large, drooping shrub that he now lay prone beneath, gazing out across a still-life of vaults, tilting crosses, and mausoleums. If there was a moon, he could not yet see it. Lacking any night vision devices, his brother had recommended that he use a pair of ordinary binoculars. “You’ll be surprised how much they’ll help—they’re not as good as infrared, or starlight scopes, but they’re better than nothing. Try it…you’ll see.”

Aidan did see, not well, but better than with the naked eye in the darkness. He found the grounds surprisingly active considering that beneath the acres of soil lay generations of dead—thousands of them—a thought he had to keep pushing away. Westminster came alive after dark, he discovered: feral cats stalking hidden prey and, seemingly, each other, scuttling opossums that looked like giant, smiling rats, and the occasional urban raccoon trundling along on some mysterious errand. All of this animal movement only serving to emphasize the absence of any human activity; the reason Aidan was there in the first place. In addition, laying there on his sleeping bag, it made him uncomfortable to think of one of these creatures making their way into his hidden nest. He was also freezing, despite the thermal underwear and the layers of clothing. Six hours of inactivity was taking its toll.

Setting the binoculars aside, he rubbed his gloved hands together as vigorously as he could; the small chemically activated heating elements placed inside each no longer functioning. They had gone useless long before the time printed in bold letters on the packaging. Wasted money, Aidan thought, and he could afford little of that. He had already spent more than he should on this project.

Managing to restore some circulation, he peeled back a sleeve to check the luminous hands of his watch. It was now after one, and still no “Toaster.” Bringing the binoculars back to his eyes, he turned them onto the dark bulk of the church that dominated the horizon, trying to find the Edgar Allan Poe cenotaph…and became aware that there was movement out there. Not the scurrying of urbanized creatures, but something upright.

As his eyes once grew more accustomed to the magnified view, he could make out the silhouette of a hat with a wide, sloping brim all around, the shapeless bulk beneath the hidden face betokening an overcoat…or possibly a cloak. Aidan felt his heart begin to race.

Shifting his view down just a bit, he tried to discern whether the mysterious figure used a cane, but was unable to determine that much detail between the hindering darkness and the intervening headstones. Nor could he see whether the figure carried anything. Still, he told himself, who else could it be at this ungodly hour, on this particular date, here, on January 19th, 2009? It had to be him…the Poe Toaster!

A year ago Aidan would not have envisioned himself involved in a stake-out in the midst of a cemetery on a winter’s night. He was, and remained, a student at Loyola University working on his graduate thesis in American literature; specifically Poe’s writings. The subject obsessed him, both the man and his work. He knew, of course, that the father of the American horror story had died in Baltimore. But he had not known before of the strange cultural phenomenon he had come to witness this night.

That odd tidbit of information had been revealed to him exactly a year ago, January 19th, to be exact. He had awakened that day to a piece in The Baltimore Sun, an article on the annual appearance, and continuing mystery, of the Poe Toaster.

Having grown up in the city, Aidan had no explanation for how he had managed to be unaware of this yearly occurrence. But once he had completed reading the rather perfunctory special interest story, the idea had jumped full-blown into his mind—what an interesting couple of pages, maybe even a chapter, this would make in his thesis—illuminating this bizarre tribute to one of the greatest horror writers of all time! At the very least it would give his paper something no one else had done before—a unique, and modern, cultural reference to Edgar Allan Poe!

Besides, who was this guy that every January 19th, beginning as early as 1932 (the first recorded sighting), returned to the grave of Edgar Allan Poe to leave behind three roses and a half-empty bottle of Cognac? Why? What the hell did it mean?

Every time Aidan considered the problem, it only grew more mysterious, and therefore significant in his mind. Firstly, there was the arc of time involved—whoever the Poe Toaster was, he had been at it for, at least, seventy-seven years as of that very night. The date was the only self-explanatory element of the whole business—the father of American horror literature had been born on this day two hundred years before. It had been suggested that the mantle of Poe Toaster, as he had come to be known due to the Cognac, was hereditary; perhaps a father and later his son.

Amongst the few who had seen him there was debate as to his height and weight, though little else could be described due to both the darkness and his furtive, if dramatic, form of dress. Besides a wide-brimmed black hat, he wore a long white scarf and black cloak, or overcoat, no one could agree. Some thought he used a walking stick.

Throwing aside the netting, Aidan scrambled to his feet, his joints creaking and popping from the cold and long disuse. The Poe Toaster had become an important facet of his thesis, and he intended to obtain the first-ever interview with this mysterious man. To that end, he had spent considerable money. He paused long enough to switch on the small recorder within the pocket of his pea coat and to ensure the tiny camera and microphone attached to his lapel was unobstructed. Satisfied, he strode as quietly as he could, dodging headstones along the way, toward the object of all his efforts.

Whether from the light of a still-unseen moon, or from the adrenaline pumping through his system dilating his pupils, Aidan was able to see the cloaked man halt before the Poe cenotaph and lean over it, appearing to arrange something.

Before Aidan could announce himself, the Toaster spun round, his cloak swirling. Beneath the broad-brimmed hat, Aidan could make out a face gone very pale, a white luminosity punctuated by two dark holes; within the cavities the glint of eyes.

“You must have been downwind,” the Poe Toaster spoke, his voice the soft hiss of silk sliding through a calloused hand. “My congratulations on your stealth; you’ve studied our wildlife here, I think.”

Behind the man, Aidan was aware of the opened Cognac bottle; the three roses placed at the foot of the headstone, but could not tear himself away from the speaker’s face.

“You are…?” the Toaster continued.

“I’m…sorry…yes…I was wondering…?”

“Perhaps a drink might aid your concentration, mister…?”

“Aidan…Aidan Laurie,” he stuttered, beginning to find his tongue. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a dead ringer for Poe…Edgar Allan Poe? I mean, it’s uncanny…really! You look just like those old pictures of him…”

“How about that drink?” the Toaster interrupted, retrieving the bottle. “You’ve missed the toast, I’m afraid. Though there’s not much to it. I just raise the bottle—it’s too awkward to actually bring a suitable glass—and drink to those who’ve gone before me—my dear wife, Virginia; my mother, of course. I do miss them so. But there’s nothing to be done about it. They’re dead…really dead.”

He removed the hat revealing the familiar hairline, the vaulting, and somewhat bulbous, forehead, the small mustache over the weak, pouty mouth.

“Yes,” Aidan agreed in a vague way, unsure of what he was agreeing with. He thought he might be dreaming.

The toaster thrust the bottle into his hand, his white fingers brushing his own and sending an icy shock through them. “Your mother and wife would account for two of the roses,” Aidan observed, beginning to recover his verve and sense of purpose, “but what about the third one? Who is that for?”

“A friend,” the Toaster replied while making a tippling gesture with his long white fingers—the classic, ‘drink up,’ mummery.

Aidan tipped the bottle back and took a slug. It was excellent Cognac, both fiery and sweet, an aroma of seasoned oak and dark, damp places flooding his nostrils. Immediately he felt its effects, the fumes seeming to rise through his body and settle over his brain like a comforting mist. He felt calmer almost at once.

“But you’re here…still here…Mister Poe,” Aidan pointed out, more confident now with the drink inside him.

“You may as well call me Edgar,” Poe replied, his Tidewater accent coming into full flower.

Sweeping the top of an adjacent vault clear of leaves and other debris, Poe sat on the edge of it and crossed his legs. Pointing at the upright stone engraved with a raven, he said. “They removed the body long ago to be reinterred back home in Richmond. But, I’m sure you already knew that. You must have researched the subject of the Poe Toaster very thoroughly before now, or you wouldn’t be here.” He held out his hand for the bottle.

Aidan handed it over. Taking a pull, the Toaster swished the brandy around in his mouth; then spat it out. “I miss drinking,” he said, a wistful expression on his face.

“But you’re real,” Aidan observed. “You touched my hand and I felt it.”

Remembering the body-cam, Aidan moved to frame the Toaster directly in front of the lens. My God, he thought, it’s been recording this entire time—and it does have infrared capability! He felt his heart pounding loudly in his chest.

“Yes,” the Toaster agreed, “in my way I’m real enough.”

“Then whose body was disinterred?”

“You must be a reporter,” Poe remarked with a slight, sad smile.

Aidan shook his head and answered, “No, I’m not—I’m a graduate student working on my thesis. It’s about…you…your influence.”

“And here I am... But you’re missing the point, aren’t you? What of the main question—how am I here?”

“How,” Aidan repeated, feeling more and more dislocated from reality. “How is it possible?”

“How, indeed...?” Poe muttered. “Did your mother never warn you of bad companions? Mine did, as did my dear wife. But I was never one to listen to sensible advice when I took to drinking. That was my downfall, really. If I hadn’t started drinking with a fellow waiting for the same packet boat I was, none of it would have happened. I wouldn’t be here…haunting my own grave, as it were.”

“This was after your speaking engagement back in Richmond, correct?” Aidan asked. “You were living in New York at the time and returned to Virginia to address a literary group there. I’ve read about this.”

“You have it exactly,” Poe agreed. “Whereas I had managed to be on my best behavior in the few days leading up to my discourse, afterward, I felt the need for refreshments of a stronger nature than the tea, or sherry, offered by my hosts of the Richmond Literary Society. I made my excuses as soon as it was decent--the press of business; a boat that would sail with the evening tide.”

He stopped speaking to pat the space next to him on the cold stone of the sepulcher. Seeing Aidan’s hesitation, Poe smiled and went on, “It was all true, of course, only there were hours remaining till the packet’s departure, so perhaps not quite the urgency I inferred.

“In any event, I made my way to the docks quickly enough, arriving at dusk where I found a tavern located conveniently near the boat I required.” Chuckling, he asked, “But isn’t there always a tavern conveniently located nearby?” Not receiving an answer, he replied to his own question, “I always found it so, Aidan Laurie.

“I can’t remember the name of the establishment now. It was torn down, or burned, long before your great-great-grandfather was born, I imagine. But I do recall it was a snug enough place, very typical of the environs: broad plank floors coated in sawdust, a few brass spittoons scattered about for the patrons’ convenience, too few oil lamps giving off far too little light, and smelling of spilled beer and liquor, pipe tobacco, and sweat—I found it most agreeable. I was about to order a brandy, as I remember when…”

Interrupting himself to take a pull from the Cognac, Poe repeated his peculiar ritual of swishing it round in his mouth before spitting it out onto the cold earth.

“Why don’t you swallow it?” Aidan inquired.

Making a rueful face, Poe answered, “It burns too much. My entrails are without warmth, Aidan Laurie, and reject most nourishment, I’m afraid.”

“Most…?” Aidan repeated.

Poe handed him the bottle. “Here, you finish it, for God’s sake. It’s a pity to waste such good liquor.”

“But what about the tradition…the ritual…?”

“Oh…that,” Poe said after a moment. “Well, all good things must come to an end…but I digress. I was about to order a brandy…”

Aidan brought the bottle to his lips, this time detecting the slight, vomitus smell of death beneath the dark flavor of the brandy. After a swallow, he set the bottle next to the roses, unable to drink anymore.

“But before I could place my order, a young man arrived at my table with a bottle and two reasonably clean glasses,” Poe resumed his story. “‘Mister Poe,’” he said, “‘I am a great admirer of your works and have read them all. May I have the honor of joining you, sir?’

“Seeing that he was supplying the bottle in payment of my company, I could hardly refuse, could I? And being as susceptible to vanity as the next man, I remarked that I would be very interested to hear his thoughts on my stories.”

“Who was he?” Aidan interrupted; his words gone soft at the edges as the drink coursed through his veins.

Raising a dark eyebrow, his graveyard host, replied, “I’m coming to that—all in good time, Aidan Laurie.

“As to the young man, he was quite handsome in a pale, Byronic, way—long, dark hair, slender, and tragic looking. I’m sure he was quite appealing to a certain kind of young lady…and perhaps even more so to a certain kind of young man. Not being of that persuasion, myself, I was a bit on my guard.” He stopped and smiled at Aidan before saying, “Times were quite different then, you understand; not like now.” Shaking his large head, he returned to his narrative, “But he was charming, and he had truly read my works…every one! I won’t deny that I was flattered. We spent the evening discussing everything from “Annabel Lee” to “The Haunted Palace”; “The Fall of the House of Usher” to “Hop Frog”; the brandy flowing throughout! We were having a capital time, though he hardly touched his own glass.

“Then I heard a bell sound in the near distance, its insistent ringing suddenly reminding me through the alcoholic fog that my boat was boarding for imminent departure! I leapt up, swaying, and my companion rose as well, laying a steadying hand on my shoulder.

“That is my ship,” I cried. “I thank you for your generous company, but I must be off immediately!”

“‘What a coincidence,’” he remarked in turn; “for that is my vessel, as well. Do you sail for Baltimore, Edgar?’”

Smiling a little sheepishly, Poe explained, “It only takes a little brandy for complete strangers to become fast friends…and I, at least, had consumed more than a little.

“What luck,” I answered, throwing my arm over his shoulder, “a fellow voyager and a boon companion! Let’s be off!”

“Staggering under my weight, and me staggering because of my drunkenness, Patrick, for that was his name, Patrick Carlyle, led me away.”

Poe remained silent for so long after this that Aidan stirred himself to enquire, “To the ship then?”

His dark eyes returning to him, Poe answered in a faint voice, “Yes…to the ship. He was bound for Baltimore…me, to New York.”

“But you never made it,” Aidan reminded him.

As if remembering where he was, the dead writer shook himself, and replied, “No…but, of course, you already knew that much. We enjoyed each other’s convivial company while admiring the starry dome stretched above the sea, chatting of love and death—such easy subjects then.

“When we arrived at Baltimore Harbor, Patrick suggested we go ashore for a farewell toast or two. Having several hours before resuming my voyage up the coast, I readily agreed. Sea travel is thirsty business, Aidan.”

“Then what happened,” Aidan asked, feeling the effects of the brandy out of all proportion to what he had drunk. A fox barked from somewhere close, a quick series of sharp cries.

“What do you think?” Poe asked in return, rising to his feet and looking off into the distance. “There’s someone watching us, Aidan,” he added. “I’m afraid, I can’t allow it tonight. Would you mind waiting here for a short while?”

Taking him by the shoulders, Poe lowered Aidan into a prone position atop the vault. Aidan felt each of his fingertips, sharp as garden tines, through the thick fabric of his coat.

“Have you drugged me?” Aidan slurred.

Leaning over him, Poe answered, “Of course not, it’s just that sometimes I can have that effect on people—I can be very tiresome. Just close your eyes and rest until I return. I shan’t be long, I promise.”

Then he was gone.

As his eyes sealed themselves shut, Aidan heard a faint cry from somewhere nearby. When he opened them again Poe’s pale visage hovered above his own, a man-in-the-moon face surrounded by the glittering firmament of the night sky.

“Time to finish our tale,” Poe whispered, sitting him back up again.

“Your chin,” Aidan mumbled, trying to lift a hand to point at Poe’s glistening black chin. “Whas’ that?”

“Death makes one careless of one’s appearance,” the writer replied while fishing out a handkerchief from within his cloak and dabbing at his chin, “My apologies.”

Placing an arm protectively around Aidan’s shoulders, Poe perched beside him as if they were sitting on a park bench whiling away a sunny afternoon.

“You must have figured out by now how my little story ended,” he resumed.

Aidan shook his head, a head grown so heavy that he was afraid it might snap his neck.

“He kept me drinking until long after the mail packet had sailed, then offered me accommodation at his residence. Obviously, I was in no position to argue and accepted with thanks. As we made our way, he guiding my stumbling steps, we came within the moon shadow of Westminster Church yonder.” Poe pointed to it for Aidan’s benefit. “It seems we had arrived.”

“The church…?” Aidan managed.

Laughing a little, Poe responded, “No, dear boy…the burial ground. Before I could grasp the significance of our surroundings, he fell upon me. I was unprepared for his onslaught, and being drunk to boot, could offer little resistance.”

Aidan struggled to keep up, his academic curiosity warring with the effect of…whatever was happening to him. “But you were found raving, sick, and wearing someone else’s clothes. You died three days later. How…?”

“Yes…there’s a lag, an interval of some suffering before the change…a petite death, if you will. My own clothes were bloody, and Patrick dressed me in some other victim’s togs—someone who would not be coming back—he didn’t want any suspicion of foul play; an investigation. Experience—and he had decades of it—had made him canny.

“The coroner ruled my death a result of apoplexia and I was buried here.” He touched the headstone with a booted toe. “Patrick dug me up before I awoke, thank God. As you might imagine, the author of “Premature Burial” would have died many times in the stifling darkness of that damned box. I was just beginning to stir when he threw open the lid. Timing is everything, they say—I would have emerged quite mad otherwise.”

“Whose body was disinterred?” Aidan persisted. “Who was re-buried in Richmond?”

“The poor unfortunate whose clothes I was wearing. But, he was dead…really dead, of course.”

“But you’re not.”

“Not entirely. You see, Patrick really did love my poems and stories. They spoke to his special circumstances in a way that no other literature ever had. He knew that I would make excellent company for him. And I did…for a very, very long time.”

“What happened?”

“He grew weary. Even with my scintillating company,” Poe explained, a faint smile on his deathly face, “he became sickened, at last, beyond endurance—diseased by the half-life we lead in the darkness—able only to move within a certain time frame, and within a prescribed pattern.

“Did you know that we can only rest on our own earth—the soil that embraced us in our death transition? Patrick did, of course, and was kind enough to carry some of mine away from here when he disinterred me. He made me a new resting place in an obscure corner of the graveyard. We…I rest there still when the sun is up, and the birds sing of a new day. I miss that sometime.”

But how…?” Aidan asked, unable to articulate further.

“How did he die?” Poe replied. “I don’t know that he did really. All I know is that I watched him walk into the Chesapeake Bay until he disappeared from sight. It was a night very like this one, biting cold and crystal clear, a million stars looking down upon our parting.”

“The City in the Sea…” Aidan murmured.

“How kind of you to remember, Aidan, a very fitting poem and one of my best if I do say so.”

Taking his cloak off, Poe rolled it into a pillow and placed it atop the vault. Lowering Aidan’s head onto it, he went on, “Patrick had gotten it into his mind that if God had created any creature in the world that could destroy him, it glided within the hidden depths of the sea where life was first birthed. He determined that he would walk those horror-filled waters until it found him.”

Sighing, he added, “Perhaps it did, as he never returned. He had to come back, as I explained; only he never has. So maybe he was right about his monster—there’s always something worse, isn’t there?”

“The third rose…”

“Yes,” Poe confirmed, “dear Patrick.”


“You are astute Aidan Laurie…that is when he left, and I began this little tradition of mine. I am not sorry to see it end, though.”

Leaning over Aidan, his figure blotted out the risen moon, and Aidan moaned, “Please…”

“It won’t hurt,” Poe promised, “at least not at first. When you come to it will be hellish enough for a few days, and then it will be over. But I’m so terribly lonely these nights, and you were so determined to meet me, it seems like fate has delivered me a companion. Don’t worry, wherever they bury you, I’ll be there in time to bring you up. I’m also taking the precaution of writing a little note and placing it in your pocket that you must not be cremated or embalmed—either would be catastrophic. I’ll be watching as best I may, so don’t worry. I’ll see you again very soon, dear Aidan Laurie.”

And he was right, Aidan felt only a pinch at his throat, the rest was bliss.


After Aidan died, the hospital released his belongings to his parents. When his mother discovered the tiny video recorder, she showed it to her grieving husband and suggested they view whatever may have been recorded; perhaps it would shine some light on their son’s bizarre decline into madness and death.

When they watched what it contained, they were only shown scenes of an ancient graveyard dappled with moon shadows and leaning headstones. The Poe cenotaph was a recurring image, a bottle, and flowers barely visible at its base. Throughout the lengthy video they heard only mumbled, drunken-sounding questions being asked in their son’s unmistakable voice. These questions were never answered; the camera’s eye revealing no one there to answer them.

The annual ritual of the Cognac and three roses was never repeated.




David Dean’s short stories have appeared regularly in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE, as well as a number of anthologies, since 1990. His stories have been nominated for the Shamus, Barry, and Derringer Awards and Ibrahim’s Eyes won the EQMM Readers Award for 2007. His story, Tomorrow’s Dead, was a finalist for the Edgar for best short story of 2011. Inheritance appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of HELLOHORROR. David’s novel of terror, The Thirteenth Child, is available through Genius Books and Amazon.

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