Immersed in melancholia and spirits since the death of his child-wife Sissie, Edgar Allan Poe is adrift in Philadelphia until his protégé, Augie Dubbins, 17, arrives with an invitation from Dr. Alfred K. Brunrichter, wealthy head of Pittsburgh’s Quintillian Society. Would Poe be his houseguest while delivering lectures to Pittsburgh’s cognoscenti? Squabbling over Augie’s writing and attempts at independence, Poe and Augie arrive at the Brunrichter mansion, where the doctor, virtually a dopplegänger for Poe, is avid for the two of them to solve the disappearance of six young local ladies, soon to be seven. While Augie makes friends with dock-worker Buck Kemmer and his innocent daughter Susan, the doctor medicates Poe with mind-fogging ether, ending in debauchery after a reading to which Susan had been invited. Augie whisks her home, leaves her, and an hour later she’s been violated and gaffed to death. Though the doctor’s lies quickly land Augie in prison, he approaches Poe with the aid of Susan’s prissy schoolteacher employer and her father, weans him from the ether, and reconnoiters Brunrichter’s estate and the dark doings of Tevis, his valet. Taking axes to secret panels and lighting lucifers to illuminate dark passageways, the men are soon awash in heads bottled in formaldehyde and fighting for their lives against Brunrichter, Tevis, and Brother Jarvis, a wacky monk in thrall to Brunrichter.
Moody, emotionally tortured, and convincingly atmospheric, although two-thirds over before Augie’s premonitions lead to any detective work. A less capable Poe than in On Night’s Shore (2001), but a graphically described descent into his opiate addictions.