Edgar Allan Poe (as embodied by Marin County’s Lee Presson), rifling with a kind of reluctant amusement through a clutched sheaf of pages, proclaims “I’ve been asked to present something in the spirit of the Christmas season.”
He is addressing a standing-room-only audience at the Adventurer’s Club, in a bustling corner of the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, now in its 20th year at the Cow Palace in Daly City. It’s opening day of the annual celebration of Victorian culture and Dickensian storytelling, and this—the highly anticipated daily appearance by the famous American author—is one of the Fair’s most popular events; the presentation of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart,” as recited by the author himself.
The 30-minute show began with Poe’s gleefully unsettling recitation of “The Conqueror Worm,” before moving on to his grief-stricken reading of “Annabelle Lee.” After his deliriously entertaining, audience-participation performance, he will conclude with a delightfully macabre reading of “The Raven.” But first, by special request of his fellow historical figures Oscar Wilde, Lady Ada Lovelace and the Rev. Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll), Poe is preparing to present something “Christmassy.”
“Well, all right … this is the most ‘Christmassy’ piece I have,” he says with a kind of sinisterly you-asked-for-it warning on his face, and launches into a gradually escalating performance of the initially light but increasingly frantic and terrifying poem “The Bells.”
“Hear the sledges with the bells—silver bells!” he begins. “What a world of merriment their melody foretells! How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, in the icy air of night! While the stars that oversprinkle all the heavens, seem to twinkle, with a crystalline delight. Keeping time, time, time, in a sort of Runic rhyme, to the tintinnabulation that so musically wells from the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells—from the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.”
As the poem continues, Presson masterfully builds the pace of the piece, gradually escalating its intensity and volume, practically shrieking the final lines, as the poem that began with a sleigh ride turns into a ghost- and ghoul-filled description of eternal damnation.
“Keeping time, time, time, in a sort of Runic rhyme, to the throbbing of the bells … of the bells, bells, bells … to the sobbing of the bells … keeping time, time, time … as he knells, knells, knells … to the rolling of the bells … of the bells, bells, bells … to the tolling of the bells … of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells! To the moaning and the groaning of the bells!”
After absorbing a mighty cheer from the electrified audience at the Adventurers Club, including many folks outside who are now peering in with astonishment, Presson/Poe takes a deep recovery breath, reaches for his glass of “absinthe,” tosses off a quip about alcohol being “medicine,” and continues.
Presson as Poe has become, over the years, as much a tradition at the fair as is a procession by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the appearance of Fagin and the Artful Dodger, a chance to waltz at Mr. Fezziwig’s, and a chance to chat with Mr. Dickens himself.
“This is year 31 of me playing Poe at the Dickens Fair,” says Presson, of San Rafael, when no longer in character. “I’ve technically been playing Edgar Allan Poe longer than I’ve been playing Lee Presson.”
The multi-talented performer is, of course, the founder and leader of the goth swing band known as Lee Presson and the Nails, which just released its 25th anniversary album, a swing-based celebration of Halloween titled “Last Request.” The band will be appearing on New Year’s Eve at the Uptown Theatre in Napa, as part of the club’s annual presentation of The Hubba Hubba Revue’s New Year’s Eve Burlesque Bash.
But first, he’s got five more weekends of the Dickens Fair.
“Many, many years ago I was dating a woman whose mother operates the Dark Garden corsetry store at the Dickens Fair,” Presson says, explaining how this annual Poe impersonation began.
“It was suggested that, to give me something to do that was appropriately dark and creepy, I play Edgar Allan Poe, as if the guy was visiting London at Christmastime,” he recalls, noting that Poe was very much alive during the Victorian era, and was, in fact, a friend of Charles Dickens. “At the time, I was not a big Poe fan,” he continues. “I knew about him, of course. I hadn’t read a lot of his work, but it sounded like something I could do, so I contacted to Leslie Patterson at the Fair, and said, ‘I believe I’d like to play Edgar Allan Poe for you!’ And Leslie said, ‘Edgar Allan Poe? Don’t you think that’s a little depressing for a Christmas fair?’ And I remember, I paused a moment and then said, ‘Depressing? You’ve READ Dickens, right?’”
That year, he put on a historically accurate Poe-esque outfit, based on portraits of the famously glum author, and he’s been doing it every year since.
“I’ve basically come up with a happy-go-lucky version of Poe,” says Presson. “In addition to my daily presentation at the Adventurers Club, where I spend a lot of time hanging out with Mary Shelley and Oscar Wilde and other historical figures, I enjoy singing and dancing once a day at Mad Sal’s Dockside Alehouse. The only way we can get away with putting Poe on stage there, of course, is to act like he doesn’t want to be there, so we’ve come up with a story in which he’s sort of coerced into singing a song. Occasionally, you can even find me accompanying the singing sailors on piano, but I just play along as a sad, silent drunk, which is more what people expect from Edgar Allan Poe.”
Asked about favorite moments from his years of playing Poe in a vast hall filled with Dickensian characters historical and fictional, Presson mentions an encounter he had years ago with the Ghost of Christmas Present, from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
“I decided that Mr. Poe can see spirits, though he’s not very comfortable with it,” Presson says. “When the ghosts of Christmas escort Ebeneezer Scrooge through the streets of the Fair, Poe can see them. So one day I tipped my hat to one of them, and said, ‘Spirit.’ And he said, ‘You can SEE me?’ ‘Yes I can,’ I said, and he answered, ‘That’s wonderful!’ Later that day, after Scrooge has been redeemed, he’s running through the streets saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to everyone, and I saw him and said, ‘An eventful night, Mr. Scrooge?’ He said, ‘Yes, a VERY eventful night, Mr. Poe.’ That’s one of my favorite moments I’ve ever had at the Dickens Fair.”
Having began as someone with only a minimal knowledge of the life and work of E.A. Poe, Presson has evolved into a full-on Poe expert, having read countless books on the man, and nearly everything he ever wrote.
“I still read new books on Poe, all the time,” he admits, “because there’s always something new coming out.”
Spending months of every year playing Poe at a Christmas Fair does put Presson in a pleasantly “Christmassy” mood each year, he allows, though by the time the Fair concludes a few days before the 25th of December, he’s generally had his fill of Christmas.
“On Christmas Day, I’m often at a loss for what to do,” he says with a slightly Poe-ish laugh. “I’ve just been celebrating Christmas for a month, so what I do with the actual day? I usually think, ‘I don’t have time for Christmas! I have a New Year’s Eve show to do!”
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair runs Saturdays and Sundays (and the Friday after Thanksgiving) through Dec. 22 at the Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva Avenue, Daly City. Tickets $14–$32. DickensFair.com.