Saturday 3 July 2021

50 Years Without Jim Morrison: A Study on How William Blake, James Frazer and Shamanism Influenced The Lizard King


The American poet, screenwriter, lyricist and rock singer James Douglas Morrison (1943-1971), better known as Jim Morrison, continues to be one of the most influential artists nowadays. Leader of The Doors, Morrison created a unique mythology in the songs of the LA band. Described as ‘Goth rock’ by John Stickney in the late 1960s, the Doors’ sound embodies darkness, transgression, sex and death in contrast with the hippie atmosphere of the West Coast of the time. In his theatrical rock, Morrison depicted his philosophical and literary influences from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, to Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Kurt Weill, the Beat Generation, Joseph Campbell or James Frazer among others. Due to the supernatural elements of his texts and his charismatic persona, Morrison emerges as a model in pieces of fiction connected to the Gothic or horror such as Joel Schumacher’s Lost Boys (1987), Anne Rice’s creation of the rock star Lestat in The Queen of the Damned (1988), or Charles Burns’s Black Hole, collected in 2005.

Jim Morrison

This blog post will not examine Morrison’s scandals as a rock star or emphasise his death at the age of 27 as other relevant musicians, it will explore his work as a songwriter and poet. To do so, I will analyse some of his texts taking into account three sources of inspiration: the British author and artist William Blake and how Morrison echoes his ideas in The Lords (1969), James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) influence on the song Not to Touch the Earth (1968) and Morrison’s myth of the Lizard King, and shamanism as presented in his poetry and different songs. The recent publishing of The Collected Works of Jim Morrison: Poetry, Journals, Transcripts and Lyrics has been really helpful to study Morrison’s work.

William Blake, The Doors of Perception and Cinema

It has been widely written that The Doors took their name from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) , a philosophical essay on Huxley’s psychedelic experience under the influence of mescaline and whose title comes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793). The famous quote Blake penned states: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.” From their first single “Break on Through”, The Doors explored Blake’s conception of the mind’s eye, or reaching to view things through the mind and not the senses. Morrison’s experiences with drugs helped him achieve this goal, yet his interest in the subject was much deeper than the mere consumption of psychedelic drugs.


Plate 14 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

As Greenham claims, Blake’s work provides a guide “for the individual to forge a path to freedom from the constraints of the world” (p. 19), and Morrison, throughout his writing, explores “the disconnective function of vision” and how “through the act of birth and growth, a natural state for humanity, the individual becomes increasingly dissociated from the unity out of which he was created.” (p.19) Morrison, thus, connects with Blake’s ideas of Body and Soul through his notions of vision and desire. For Morrison, the individual wishes to return to the origin, to the body of the mother from which they come from, and this desire should not be impeded. Additionally, Morrison emphasises touching as the means of understanding the objects around us, a sense acquired in his “womb-garden”, where vision is no longer necessary:

“Urge to come to terms with the “Outside,” by absorbing, interiorizing it. I won’t come out, you must come in to me. Into my womb-garden where I peer out. Where I can construct a universe within the skull, to rival the real.” (Morrison, The Lords, XX, p. 98)

This quote is taken from The Lords: Notes on Vision, a collection of unnamed poems commenced while Morrison was a cinema student at UCLA, and which he self-published in 1969. The poems contain the concepts Morrison developed in his songs, and adds short texts on what films and cinema meant to the singer. The poet described the book as “a thesis on film aesthetics”’ (Riordan& Prochnicky, p.57).

Interestingly, the singer relates cinema to alchemy, a philosophy and science in which he was widely interested and well-read: “Early film-makers, who –like the alchemists –delighted in a wilful obscurity about their craft, in order to withhold their skills from profane onlookers” (Morrison, XLIV, p.144) are among the voyeurs the poet associated with filmmaking. For Morrison, the camera is an “all-seeing god,”, who “satisfies our longing for omniscience.” By doing so, we can “spy on others from this height and angle: pedestrians pass in and out of our lens like rare aquatic insects” (Morrison, IV, p.74). Morrison distinguishes two evolutions in cinema: spectacle like the Phantasmagoria, “a total substitute sensory world”, and the “peep show”, which “claims for its realm both the erotic, and the untampered observation of real life” (XXXV, p. 126)

Morrison describes cinema in Gothic terms defining films as “collections of dead pictures which are given artificial insemination” (XXV, p. 108). The illusion of the cinema consists of a game of stories the audience witnesses.

There are no longer “dancers,” the possessed. The cleavage of men into actors and spectators is the central fact of our time....We are content with the “given” in sensation’s quest. We have been metamorphosed from a mad body dancing on hillsides to a pair of eyes staring in the dark (XI, p.88)

The comparison between the ceremonies held by shamans and the lack of participation from the audience who watches the films in emphasised when Morrison describes film spectators as “quiet vampires” (XXVI, p.110) who feed upon an illusion. Morrison’s description of the viewer echoes Nina Auerbach’s analysis of the psychic vampires, who “instead of merely drinking blood, they sap energy, but all twentieth-century vampires suck identity from the psychic vampires who infiltrate the eroticism, the ambition, and the power determinants of ordinary life.” (p.101) Where Auerbach studies literary narratives such as George Sylvester Viereck’s The House of the Vampire (1907) to depict vampiric characters, Morrison relocates the vampires in real life. Viewers drain the energy from the films they see for pleasure in contrast to the ecstasy felt in ancient communal celebrations. The “Lords” Morrison writes about are the controlling forces who set the boundaries in a numb/vampiric society without a connection to the transcendent. We are not free to choose, we are given what we must read, listen to, see and like. Morrison’s role as a shaman to connect back to the instincts will be explained in the last section of my blog post, his attempt to awake the society from their sleep through his poems.

Nevertheless, before I move on, I’d like to recommend this 1970 interview in which Morrison explains some of his views on a diverse range of topics, from technology to cinema:

“Not to Touch the Earth”, The Lizard King and the Lizard Woman

In 1968, The Doors published their third studio album named Waiting for the Sun. The track “Not to Touch the Earth” was included in it, as part of an extended piece entitled “The Celebration of the Lizard”. Morrison attempted to introduce the 17-minute session of the piece in the album, but finally only the track was added, and the poem appeared on the gatefold LP sleeve.

The song starts with the lines, “Not to touch the earth, not to see the sun”, subchapters from the 60th chapter of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Frazer’s text, a comparative study of mythology and religion, contains the chapter named “Between Heaven and Earth” with “Not to Touch the Earth” as the first subchapter, and “Not to See the Sun” as the second one. The chapter develops the superstitions against royalty and priests walking directly on the ground or having the sun shining on them, beliefs common in diverse primitive cultures.

The last words of the song by The Doors relate the Sun, his desire for the Moon, and being the Lizard King:


We should see the gates by mornin'
We should be inside the evenin'
Sun, sun, sun
Burn, burn, burn
Soon, soon, soon
Moon, moon, moon
I will get you
Soon, soon, soon!
I am the Lizard king
I can do anything

“The Celebration of the Lizard”, which can be listened to in the following video, was explained by Morrison himself:


The lizard and the snake are identified with the unconscious and the forces of evil. That piece “Celebration of the Lizard” was kind of an invitation to the dark forces. It’s all done tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think people realize that. It’s not to be taken seriously. It’s like if you play the villain in a western it doesn’t mean that that’s you. It’s just an aspect that you keep for the show. I don’t really take that seriously. That’s supposed to be ironic (The Collected Works of Jim Morrison, p.45)

By being the Lizard King, the poet becomes the leader of the celebration, the guide who encourages his followers to be “insane” and to “break through”:

Once I had, a little game
I liked to crawl back into my brain
I think you know the game I mean
I mean the game called 'go insane'


Now, you should try this little game
Just close your eyes, forget your name
Forget the world, forget the people
And we'll erect a different steeple


This little game is fun to do
Just close your eyes, no way to lose
And I'm right here, I'm going too
Release control, we're breaking through, yeah


The idea of insanity had already appeared in texts like “The End” from the first album, yet, while in that song, madness echoes the constrictions of the human consciousness, in The Celebration it fosters connecting with the mother, the transcendence that can only be reached by breaking the senses.

Although the poet emphasised not to be taken seriously, he is commonly referred to as The Lizard King, and his reptile persona continues nowadays. In his poetry, Morrison not only wrote about snakes and lizards, but also insects; and he did not only mention the Lizard King, he also focused on the less known lizard woman.

As Greenham states, the serpent “crosses the thresholds of life: sex, birth, death and resurrection.” (p. 63) Morrison, separating himself from archetypes in which the serpent woman or lamia depicts vampiric features and embodies a threat especially to men and children, unites the woman and the serpent in his concept of the lizard woman. In his mythology, Morrison blends the reptile and the woman to express how they are the transcendent, and it is the civilization with its rules the one which corrupts the human beings. Through the lizard woman, Morrison expresses the desire to return to the womb of the mother. Besides, the woman has been traditionally associated with the moon, and by linking the serpent and the moon, he reinforces the circle like an ouroboros, the cycle life, death and rebirth.

The lizard woman also emerges in poems like the following from Morrison’s second collection The New Creatures (1969):

Lizard woman

w/ your insect eyes

w/your wild surprise

Warm daughter of silence. (VII, p.12)

This connection between lizards and the transcendent is constantly emphasised by Morrison’s introduction of shamanism in pieces such as the abovementioned “The Celebration of the Lizard” and in other poems and songs. The last section of my blog post will focus on how the poet’s beliefs in the spiritual practice emerge in some of his texts.

Jim Morrison The Shaman

In 1947, when Morrison was three to four years old, he allegedly witnessed an accident while travelling with his family near Albuquerque. The singer commented on several occasions how he recalled that, as their car passed by, he could see some Indian labourers injured on the road. The incident was referred to in the song “Peace Frog” from the 1970 album Morrison Hotel as well as in the spoke performances of “Dawn’s Highway”  with the emphasised lines “Indians scattered on dawn's highway bleeding,
Ghosts crowd the young child's fragile eggshell mind”;
and “Ghost Song”, both collected in the posthumous 1978 album An American Prayer, which included the poems Morrison recorded on his 27th birthday on 8th December 1970.

Morrison considered himself a “natural leader, a poet, a shaman, w/the soul of a clown” (“Road Days”). In the abovementioned collection The Lords, he illustrates his perception of shamanism:

In the seance, the shaman led. A sensuous panic,

deliberately evoked through drugs, chants, dancing,

hurls the shaman into trance. Changed voice,

convulsive movement. He acts like a madman. These

professional hysterics, chosen precisely for their psychotic leaning, were once esteemed. (XXXVII, p.132)

Jim Morrison singing and dancing

Through his poems with The Doors, he attempted to follow the shamanic tradition, yet his frustration increased when he realised that most of his audience attended the concerts to observe his erratic behaviour more than to listen to his message. Shamans are “typically thought to have the ability to heal the sick, to communicate with the otherworld, and often to escort the souls of the dead to that otherworld”, and the term “shamanism” stems from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman. The noun is formed from the verb ša- ‘to know’; thus, a shaman is literally “one who knows.” (Encyclopedia Britannica) In his shows, Morrison attempted to guide his audience towards a higher consciousness with his lyrics and dances. Songs such as “When the Music is Over” from their album Strange Days (1967), depict the aforementioned necessary connection with the transcendent and the primitive his poetry consists of:

What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her,
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn,
And tied her with fences and dragged her down.

Oliver Stone’s film The Doors (1991), in which Val Kilmer excels at embodying the poet, highlights Morrison’s shamanic condition. The film begins narrating the accident mentioned above, and throughout the motion picture the association between the Indian Morrison saw dying, shamanism and himself is present:

As Stanley Krippner explains, The Village Voice named Morrison a “sexual shaman”; Vogue magazine commented that his songs were “eerie, loaded with somewhat Freudian symbolism, poetic but not pretty, filled with suggestions of sex, death, and transcendence.” In a Rolling Stone interview, Morrison described a ritual as a “human sculpture. In a way it’s like art, because it gives form to energy, and in a way it’s a custom or a repetition, a habitually recurring plan or pageant that has meaning. It pervades everything.” Therefore, his references allude to shamanism as performance.

Morrison’s interest in the religious practice was so intense that he even met the Peruvian anthropologist Carlos Castaneda in an attempt to secure the film rights to The Teachings of Don Juan (1968), the first of the books Castaneda wrote in order to portray the train in shamanism he received under the tutelage of the Yaqui Don Juan Matus. Although the book is widely known in the studies of shamanism and it influenced the 1960s, the truth is that there is no consensus whether the book is a real study or fiction.

As the abovementioned William Blake wrote in The Marriage Between Heaven and Hell, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” — (Proverbs of Hell line 3 (Plate 7)) Morrison combined all the excesses he found in Blake, shamanism and his surroundings with psychedelic drugs and especially alcohol. There are many theories about his death on 3rd July 1971: he may have died of a heart attack, a heroine overdose, or, as some claim, he even faked his death. What cannot be denied is the huge influence his songs, his poetry and his charisma had on future generations.

In conclusion, this blog post has analysed some of Jim Morrison’s songs and poetry taking into account the connections between his work and the visionary lines of William Blake, the mythological study by James Frazer The Golden Bough, and his deep relationship with shamanism and how he embodied it in his character of the Lizard King. Rest in peace, Jim.


The Doors. (1967). Los Angeles: Elektra/Asylum Records.

Strange Days. (1967). New York: Elektra/Asylum Records.

Waiting for the Sun. (1968). New York: Elektra/Asylum Records.

Morrison Hotel. (1970). New York: Electra Entertainment Group.

An American Prayer. (1978). New York: Elektra Entertainment Group.

Auerbach, N. (1995). Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Blake, W. (1793).  The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. [Accessed 20 June]

Castaneda, C. (1968). The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. New York: Penguin Books.

Encyclopedia Britannica. Shamanism. [Accessed 20 June]

Frazer. J. (1890) The Golden Bough. [Accessed 20 June]

Greenham. E.J. (2008) “Vision and Desire: Jim Morrison’s Mythography Beyond the Death of God”. Master of Arts Thesis.  [Accessed 15 June]

Huxley, A. (1954). The Doors of Perception. [Accessed 15 June]

Krippner, S. “Jim Morrison : A Failed Shaman?”  [Accessed 30 June]

Lisciandro. F. (Ed.)  (2021) The Collected Works of Jim Morrison. New York: Harper DesignX

Morrison, J. Las Nuevas Criaturas. Los Señores. (2008, 9th edition). Madrid: Espiral.

Riordan, J., & Prochnicky, J. (1991). Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison. London: Plexus

Stone, O.  (1991). The Doors [DVD]. In B. Graham & S. Harari (Producer). U.S.A.: Tri Star

Thomas, T. (1970). CBC interviews Jim Morrison.








Tuesday 19 January 2021

Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead: A Disturbing Paris for the Last Adventure of Poe and Dupin


Karen Lee Street

The Australia-based author Karen Lee Street finishes her trilogy on Edgar Allan Poe with
Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead (2019). On this occasion, she focuses on the last months of the American storyteller, after his wife Virginia dies of tuberculosis. Set in Paris, Poe receives a letter from his friend Dupin asking for his help and they both initiate an investigation in the subterranean tunnels beneath Paris to find some clues of the Dupin’s nemesis Ernest Valdemar. Several crimes are triggered once they begin to investigate, and, once more, Street wisely leads her reader to the tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

The originality of this last book is the influence of Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-43), an incredibly popular novel at the time which Poe reviewed. Street, thus, combines both authors in her plot and introduces charismatic characters as well.

Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead

This blog post will analyse the connection Edgar Allan Poe’s work has with some French authors and his influence on them, how it is present in Street’s work, and the main setting she employs, that is, the suburban Parisian tunnels and the catacombs. Finally, the female characters will be studied in connection to both Poe and Sue.


 Edgar Allan Poe and French writers

For any reader familiar with Eugène Sue’s work, Street’s novel is incredibly interesting. There are constant echoes to Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, first published serially from 1842 to 1843. In the third chapter of Street’s work, the postmaster Mr. Quinn confesses to Poe that his wife enjoys reading Sue’s narrative: “All those miscreants and murderers —she revels in their awful needs.” Sue’s novel follows the adventures of Rodolphe Durand and his friend Walter Murphy in the notorious Île de la Cité in Paris. The story’s protagonist shows great empathy towards the lower classes, and Sue depicts the Parisian nobility as unconcerned about the misfortunes of the common people. Sue, himself a considerably wealthy man and socialist in his beliefs, developed a text in which he portrayed the socialist position which led to the Revolutions of 1848. Sue’s work was an instant success as it was the first novel which merged characters from diverse environments, and eminent authors such as Émile Zola, George W. M. Reynolds or Paul Féval were inspired by his fiction.

The Mysteries of Paris

Street echoes Sue and some of her characters are named after those in Sue’s work.

As Linnie Blake states, “in November 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published a review of a new translation” (38) While he noted it to be “a work of unquestionable power”, “to Poe’s horror, the novel’s sentimental treatment of the nineteenth century’s core conceptual notion of ‘nature’ and ‘the city’, its titillating exposé of urban prostitution and its populist popular concern with proletarian hardship” (38) was already present in the United States.

In his story “The Man in the Crowd” (1840), Poe depicts his vision of urban life. Set in London, the tale commences with “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul. —La Bruyère.” (The great tragedy is that it is impossible to be alone). In this story of doubling, an unnamed narrator scrutinizes the inhabitants who pass by the window of the café he is in and describes them by their professions: “They were undoubtedly noblemen, merchants, attorneys, tradesmen, stock-jobbers — the Eupatrids and the common-places of society.” (85) He continues to depict clerks, gamblers, pedlars… by doing this, Poe dehumanizes these characters, he treats them as urban animals. Blake explains how Poe asserts “in ‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una’ and ‘Some Words with a Mummy’ that the ‘evil’ of ‘omni-prevalent Democracy’, that ‘most odious and insupportable despotism that ever was heard of upon the face of the Earth was a cosmological abomination.” (40) These ideas will also emerge in the work of the French Charles Baudelaire, who was greatly influenced by Poe and is also present as a character in Street’s text.

Baudelaire appears in one of the most relevant chapters in Street’s novel, chapter 10, a section in which Sue and Poe’s fictions are deeply intertwined. In it, Edgar Allan Poe, Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin and the prefect of police Monsieur Gondureau visit Madame Legrand at her imposing house as she reports an important letter has been stolen from her, echoing Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” (1844), and later on, Legrand echoes “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1845), both stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin .

Street depicts Madame Legrand as “famous for her willingness to play the muse”, who “poses for artists— all for posterity, of course”, and who has the “nom de guerre Undine’.” She is remarkable for her beauty resembling a water nymph, yet she is called that way “because it is said that she was born without a soul and has an inhuman heart”, as Dupin explains to Poe in chapter 11.

Chapter 10 follows how Eugène Sue depicted nobility in his novel, as Undine, not only “recites mixed-up scraps of Longfellow” (chapter 11) in front of her guests, who include George Sand and Sue himself, but also humiliates Poe by accusing him of writing about the death of a beautiful woman time and again after Poe recites “Annabel Lee”. Her cruelness is repeated throughout Street’s text with the ingratitude she expresses towards her servants and the suspicion that she may be smuggling expensive objects and selling them in London. Her evil nature is something natural in her family, as she is a descendant of the woman who inspired Marquise de Merteuil in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). Moreover, to emphasise Sue’s influence in the plot, Street introduces Eugène François Vidocq as one of Undine’s guests, and in reality, Vidocq’s Memoirs (1828) were a source of inspiration for Sue’s novel.

Charles Baudelaire

Nonetheless, one of the most significant moments of the section is the appearance of the abovementioned Charles Baudelaire: “Monsieur Baudelaire is quite the supporter of your work”, Dupin claims to Poe (Chapter 10). In reality, Baudelaire discovered Poe’s fiction in 1846 (Samuel), and “published extensive translations of his work from 1852 until 1865” (Brown University Library). Although the subjects of their poems were not exactly the same, in his “Notes Nouvelles sur Edgar Poe”, the introduction to
Nouvelles Histories Extraordinaires (1857), “Baudelaire’s poetic philosophy is identical with Poe’s Poetic Principle (1850).” (Samuel 94)

Furthermore, Baudelaire also focused on the idea of the city and its dwellers. In his essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) (in which he mentions Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd”), Baudelaire perceives the artist as

this solitary mortal endowed with an active imagination, always roaming the great desert of men, has a nobler aim than that of the pure idler, a more general aim, other than the fleeting pleasure of circumstance. He is looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call ‘modernity’, for want of a better term to express the idea in question (6)

Besides, in the twentieth-century, Walter Benjamin analysed Baudelaire’s term of the flâneur, that is, an aesthete and dandy who wandered the streets and arcades of nineteenth-century Paris looking at and listening to the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the life of a modern city”, in his The Arcades Project (1982) (Psychogeographic Review)

Nonetheless, though both Poe and Baudelaire focus on the life in a city in the abovementioned stories, Street’s novel is spent for a long time, beneath Paris, and the catacombs play an important role in her story which the second section of my blog post will analyse.

The City Beneath Paris

Relevant moments of the plot in Street’s novel occur beneath the city of Paris. Poe and Dupin enter the subterranean world beneath the metropolis and Poe discovers a macabre underworld used by smugglers to hide and transport their goods.

As Dupin explains to Poe,

Tunnels are the remnants of mining operations that produced the stone from which the city was constructed. The Romans began to work, using limestone to build the place they called Lutetia…A subterranean city exists beneath Paris, tunnels mirroring the streets above, mysterious chambers carved out beneath our most noble buildings. (Chapter 7)

The Catacombs of Paris

While walking in the darkness of this underground zone, they witness the
Catacombs of Paris, ossuaries which hold the remains of more than six million people created to eliminate the city’s issue of oversaturated cemeteries. While Dupin seems to be at ease in the catacombs, Poe’s fear reminds of “The Premature Burial” (1844), a tale in which an unnamed narrator who suffers from catalepsy is terrified of being buried alive. The sensation Street’s reader feels is the same, as victims are mentioned to enter but never to leave the catacombs and the main characters seem lost in the tunnels on different occasions. The fact of being buried alive is common in Poe’s tales: stories such as “Berenice” (1835), “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and “The Black Cat” (1843) illustrate this trope.

Poe and Dupin enter the tunnels beneath the city by pushing hidden entrances with the symbol of an owl. As Poe states, the owl “is associated with Athena, goddess of wisdom—but the screech owl is sacred to Hades, god of the underworld” to what Dupin answers: “Death and darkness, wisdom and, we might add, magic and mystery. So a cogent symbol for an entrance to the underworld.” (Chapter 9)


The tunnels are also connected to the figure of Ernest Valdemar, Dupin’s nemesis, and who they consider to take advantage of the tunnels for his smuggling operations.  As the reader discovers, Valdemar is connected to The Great Berith, a magician who uses mesmerism in his shows and who is both admired and feared by the citizens of the Île de la Cité. His stage name is taken from the demon Berith, who, according to Collin de Plancy in his
Dictionnaire Infernal (1818), rules 26 legions and shows himself as a young soldier dressed in red riding a horse of the same colour, and who is considered the demon of the alchemists, something the Great Berith also performs in his shows. The fact that the demon is connected with both mesmerism and a horse echoes Poe’s story “Metzengerstein” (1832), in which the rivalry of two families is depicted, as Valdemar is the enemy of Dupin, and the fact that Frederick, Baron of Metzengerstein, is orphaned at a young age, inheriting the family fortune at age 18, resembles Dupin, who should have inherited a fortune and blames Valdemar for stealing it from him and murdering his grandparents.

Nonetheless, one of the most important moments between The Great Berith and Dupin takes place in the tunnels. Street introduces the Bal des Victimes which appeared in her Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster (2016), and for which the “invitations are sent out anonymously to aristocrats descended from Madame Guillotine’s victims” and  which “is organized by someone who is paid extremely well by the host or hosts” (Chapter 27). Dupin receives his invitation to attend the ball at the Cimitière du Sud, and Poe accompanies him. This time the abovementioned story of “Metzengerstein” is directly addressed when Poe quotes “‘Living, I was your plague. Dying, I shall be your death’” from the tale (Chapter 28), yet the persecution both Poe and Dupin suffer from Valdemar and Reynolds in this suburban carnivalesque ball clearly echoes “The Cask of Amontillado”, in which Montresor takes revenge on Fortunato (Italian for “the fortunate one”) while the latter is drunk and wearing a jester’s motley. As commented on in my first blog post on Street’s novels, Dupin’s coat of arms is a snake surrounding a foot, just as Montresor’s is “a huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel” (291), and Dupin’s motto is Nemo me inpune lacessit, just as Montresor claims his is. Montresor states that the walls of his family vaults “had been lined up with human remains, piled to the vault overheard, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris.” (292) Although the tale is set in Italy, John Freehafer considers that “Montresor apparently chooses to regard himself as a Frenchman, for he speaks of the Italians as a group to whom he does not choose to belong:”

Few Italians have the virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity, to practice imposture upon the British and Austrian millonaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack (Poe in Freehafer 135)

Dupin expresses an enormous pride when referring to his city, his country, his family background and his inheritance. In Street’s text, Dupin and Valdemar are alter egos, their line of distinction blurs and the reader is given more similarities between the two men as the story is developed.

Nevertheless, men are not the only main characters of the novel. As Street did especially in the second book of her trilogy, Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru (2018), powerful women are relevant to the plot. The last section of my blog post will focus on the two main women in this novel: Virginia Poe and Madame Morel.

The Female Characters in Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead

There are two main female figures in Street’s text: Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, and Madame Morel, whose name also echoes a character from Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris.

Virginia Poe

When the novel begins, we find a desolate Poe who lives with his mother-in-law. It is October 1849, and the author has few days of life ahead. Yet while walking in the street in Baltimore, he feels the presence of his deceased wife. Throughout the novel, Poe depicts dream-like sequences in which his partner appears as a guide and warns him of possible dangers. As Poe states, “When one loves acutely, the pain of loss is correspondingly acute.” (Chapter 3) As I explained in my previous
blog post, Sissy (Virginia) died of tuberculosis when she was only twenty-four years old, and her passing besides Poe’s own mother’s death when she was young  are considered to be the major influences for Poe’s concept of the death of a beautiful woman as “the most poetical topic in the world” (Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”). Virginia is usually regarded as the inspiration for “Lenore” (1843), “The Raven” (1845), “Ulalume” (1847), and especially “Annabel Lee” (1849), all of them focusing on the narrator’s loss of his beloved and an idealisation of an otherworldly female figure. Street explains Poe’s feelings when witnessing a presence he considers to be Virginia: “I had dreamt so many times that Sissy had come home again, that a diabolical error had been reversed and she was revived. I had dreamt that our life together would resume, even more perfectly, for she was alive and fully well again.” (Chapter 2) Interestingly, Street makes Poe recite “Annabel Lee” in front of Madame Legrand and her guests when she criticizes the repeated topic of his fiction. His idealisation of missing the perfect woman is mocked by the superficial salonnière.

As Street’s plot develops, Dupin and Poe maintain a conversation in which Dupin asks the author whether he believes it is possible to make the spirit of his wife inhabit another body. Poe reflects upon his tale “Ligeia”  (1838), in which the narrator’s wife Ligeia dies and, when he remarries, Lady Rowena, his second partner, also succumbs. The narrator then believes Rowena has come back from the dead in the shape of Ligeia. This concept of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul, is also present in Poe’s abovementioned tale “Metzengerstein” and “The Oval Portrait" (1842).

While Sissy embodies sweetness, home comfort and Poe’s idealisation of a woman, Madame Morel represents an independent female. Taken from Eugène Sue’s novel as aforementioned, the original character is “Louise Morel, daughter of a working-class family, who is taken into service by one of the novel’s leading villains, M. Ferrand, a notary, a thorough-going hypocrite with a public reputation for rectitude and piety and a private life steeped in vice and crime.” (A Course of Steady Reading).

Illustration by Harry Clarke

Nonetheless, Street wisely combines the fact that Madame Morel works as Dupin’s housekeeper (and with her disastrous service she creates more than amusing scenes), with Edgar Allan Poe’s
“Morella” (1835). With the Morel-Morella creation, we see a character who is “about forty years old, with brunette hair” and “large gray eyes” (Chapter 5), who knows “the best vintage wines and is surprisingly informed about art, music and literature” (Chapter 5), and who reads Marie de Gournay, as Morel clarifies to Poe:

She is a very important French scholar, writer and translator of the early sixteenth century. She translated Sallust, Ovid, Virgil and Tacitus into French, and Montaigne, for one, admired her greatly. Marie de Gournay was an autodidact who strongly supported education for women. She believed—quite correctly—that men and women are intellectual equals. (Chapter 9)

With her intellectual interests, Madame Morel equals Poe’s Morella, a woman with great scholarly knowledge who delves into studies of the German philosophers such as Schelling, dealing with the question of identity. Morella, as well as Morel, enjoys spending her time reading.

In Street’s text, Poe’s initial reaction is to wonder as how a housekeeper answers Dupin and how she treats him when he arrives at Dupin’s apartment. Her rebel nature and controversial attitude shock the American author since his deceased wife personified domestic life in a more submissive behaviour. Nevertheless, Poe is intrigued and tries to converse with her about her studies. The reader understands that Poe finds the housekeeper rude, and that she may hide something against him, yet he maintains cordial conversations about literature with her.

The controversial subject of women’s literacy in Poe’s time is depicted in his tales, as his intellectual female characters reveal against a patriarchal order in traditionally male settings such as a library. In the case of Morella, Poe pens that her “erudition was profound” and “her powers of mind were gigantic.” (Poe, 21)

As Debra Johanyak claims, “in his personal life, Edgar Allan Poe found himself ground between the domestic and intellectual edges of feminism…It is perhaps the intellectualism of female acquaintances that Poe sought to repel in destroying knowledgeable women of his stories” (63)

Much has been said about the female characters in Poe’s fiction, and some of the hypotheses are completely opposite, yet the echoes of intellectual voices such as Morella are observed in Madame Morel.

In conclusion, this blog post has analysed Karen Lee Street’s Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead taking into account the connection the author maintains with diverse French authors, especially with Eugène Sue and his Mysteries of Paris, then the setting of the underground tunnels and catacombs in Paris, and, finally, the depiction of two of the female characters in the plot, characters that embody the dilemma Poe experienced between the domestic life and the intellectualism women can lead.


A Course Of Steady Reading, “The Mysteries of Paris”, Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Blake L. (2008) Edgar Allan Poe in Paris: The Flâneur, the Détournement and the Gothic Spaces of the Nineteenth-Century City. In: Horner A., Zlosnik S. (eds) Le Gothic. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Brown University Library Exibris. “Baudelaire and the Arts”  Accessed 16 Jan. 2021.

Collin de Plancy, Jacques-Albin-Simon. Dictionnaire infernal, ou Recherches et anecdotes sur les démons. Accessed 15 Jan. 2021.

Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, The. “Marginalia - part 08,” Accessed 19 Jan. 2021.

Freehafer, John. “Poe's ‘Cask of Amontillado:" A Tale of Effect.” Jahrbuch Für Amerikastudien, vol. 13, 1968, pp. 134–142. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Dec. 2020.

Johanyak, Debra. “POESIAN FEMINISM: TRIUMPH OR TRAGEDY.” CLA Journal, vol. 39, no. 1, 1995, pp. 62–70. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Jan. 2021.

Psychogeographic Review, “Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur”, Accessed 17 Jan. 2021.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe Selected Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Samuel, Dorothy J. “POE AND BAUDELAIRE: PARALLELS IN FORM AND SYMBOL.” CLA Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, 1959, pp. 88–105. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Jan. 2021.

Street, Karen Lee. Edgar Allan Poe and The Empire of the Dead . Oneworld Publications. Kindle Edition. 2019.


Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris. Accessed 10. Jan. 2021.

Charles Baudelaire by Georges Rochegrosse and Eugène Decisy, Accessed 5. Jan.2021.

Catacombs of Paris by Djtox,, Accessed 10. Jan. 2021.

The Demon Balam as depicted in Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal, 1863 edition,, Accessed 17. Jan. 2021.

Virginia Poe,, Accessed 17. Jan. 2021.

Illustration for “Morella” by Harry Clarke,, Accessed 17. Jan. 2021.