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Baltimore celebrates 200th anniversary of Poe's birth

BALTIMORE — It was the perfect way to spend a slightly drizzly Saturday afternoon — immersing myself in Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of revenge and murder, The Cask of Amontillado.

I shivered anew as the sinister Montresor lured the unsuspecting Fortuna to his wine cellar on the pretext of tasting an expensive Spanish sherry, only to wall him inside the cellar in retribution for some unspecified insult.

I wasn't comfortably ensconced in an armchair with a Poe anthology on my lap. Instead, I was at Baltimore's Westminster Hall, watching as renowned Poe impersonator David Keltz took us on an afternoon odyssey into the mind and works of the author.

Billed as a "Wine Tasting Among the Bones," it was indeed a gruesomely festive affair. We toured the spooky catacombs beneath the hall (now a museum), greeted the Red Death (making a rare public appearance to spread good will and cheer), and enjoyed a wine tasting, courtesy of an expert who gave us tips on which vintage to serve at our next live entombment.

At the end of the afternoon, I even had a chance to pay my respects to Poe at his grave in the small cemetery on the grounds of Westminster Hall. Poe was buried here along with his wife/cousin, Virginia Clemm, and — in a twist worthy of one of his plots — his mother-in-law.

Other cities might claim Poe — Boston, where he was born; Richmond, Va., where he lived for a time with his guardian after the death of his parents; Charlottesville, Va., where he spent a brief, undistinguished stint at the University of Virginia; New York and Philadelphia, where he toiled in obscurity as a magazine writer — but it is Baltimore that is mostly closely associated with Poe.

Poe is to Baltimore what Tennessee Williams is to New Orleans, Studs Terkel is to Chicago and Dashiell Hammett is to San Francisco.

Don't think Baltimoreans aren't appreciative. For that reason, they are holding a yearlong celebration, Nevermore 2009, marking the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth. Throughout the year, the city will host events ranging from scavenger hunts and art exhibitions to mock trials and candlelight vigils, all in honor of their adopted son.

This is the year when ravens will usurp orioles as Baltimore's favorite bird; those with the last name of Usher will be given keys to the city; black cats will be a symbol of good luck; and oblong boxes and gold bugs will be sold in souvenir shops.

On June 13, Poe fans can return to Westminster Hall — this time not to the catacombs, but to the cemetery for a performance of The Fall of the House of Usher among the gravestones.

Beginning June 15 and continuing through September, the Greater Baltimore History Alliance will present the Tell-Tale Tour Scavenger Hunt. Poe will live again in programs and exhibits at seven of the city's historical attractions.

From Sept. 21 to Oct. 4, Keltz will take center stage again for his one-man show, Poe in Person, at the Baltimore Theatre Project. On Sept. 25, a performance of Berenice, Poe's tale of a man's obsession with his betrothed's gleaming white teeth, will be at — where else? — the National Museum of Dentistry.

October will be a banner month for Poe fans planning a Baltimore visit. From Oct. 4 to Jan. 17, the Baltimore Museum of Art will present a major exhibition, Art of Darkness: Inspired by Poe. It feature rarely seen prints, drawings and illustrated books that explore the effect of Poe's dark fiction on modern artists.

Poe's death, on Oct. 7, 1849, at age 40, remains as mysterious as the eerie plots of his works. Depending on whom you are listening to, he died of alcoholism, brain congestion, drug abuse, cholera, heart disease, rabies, tuberculosis or suicide. Whatever the cause, locals and visitors will meet at midnight Oct. 7 at Poe's grave in Westminster Graveyard for a candlelight vigil.

That will be followed Oct. 10 by a dramatic staging of his funeral service at Westminster Hall. A horse-drawn hearse, preceded by a drum and fife corps, will bring Poe's "body" from his home on Amity Street for burial. Guests at the funeral will include celebrities from the literary, stage and film worlds, and "eulogies" will be given by many who were influenced by Poe's works, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells and Alfred Hitchcock (impersonators, of course).

The yearlong tribute to Poe will wrap up in November with "The Tell Tale Heart Court Case." The audience will decide — after hearing all the facts — whether the narrator of this chilling short story will be found guilty of murder or innocent by reason of insanity. The dates, times and location are still to be determined.

Baltimore's permanent Poe sites include the Edgar Allan Poe Collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library (400 Cathedral Street, and the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum (203 Amity Street).

The Poe Collection includes a lock of his hair, a piece from his coffin and important letters offering clues to his mysterious death, along with images, personal letters and memorabilia.

The Poe House is where he lived with his aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virginia, later to become his wife. He was thought to have occupied the room in the attic, and some of his personal items on display include a telescope, sextant, a traveling desk he used while a student at UVA and the only known portrait of his wife.

If you plan to visit the Edgar Allan Poe House, a word to the wise: Get detailed directions before starting out, lest you wind up, as I did, as lost as Poe's enigmatic Lenore. The small house is in the middle of a public housing project, and its identifying plaque, according to one of the city's tourism officials, was stolen a while back and never replaced.

Poe was known more for his melancholy than his merriment, but on my last night in Baltimore, I had a chance to see his whimsical side. Enjoying a dozen oysters on the half shell at Ryleigh's Oyster Bar, I was amused by a poem on a wall placard that never made it into any of the Poe anthologies I've ever seen. It reads:

Fill with mingled cream and amber,

I will drain that glass again

Such hilarious visions clamor

Through the chambers of my brain

Quaintest thoughts ... queerest fancies

Come to life and fade away:

What care I how time advances?

I am drinking ale today.

Poe wrote it for the proprietor as payment for a bar tab he didn't have the cash to settle.