Edgar Allen Poe resurrected at Allerton Park

By Jonathan Jacobson

On Halloween evening, after the blood red sun had gone down over the grassy plains of Monticello, Ill., Edgar Allan Poe was resurrected.

The 19th century writer came back in the form of one Jack Kriel, a storyteller and construction worker who came to the Robert Allerton Park and Conference Center for a two-hour event titled “An Evening with Poe.”

“Mr. Poe sends his regrets,” Kriel explained to the audience, who were seated in the vast, dimly lit library of the late Robert Allerton. “He asked me to come in place of him.”

Kriel, an aging man with thick-rimmed glasses, gray hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache, read through seven of Poe’s pieces with his thunderous, baritone voice.

The night began with Poe’s most famous poem: “The Raven.” A crowd of 100 people listened as Kriel, illuminated by two lanterns, spoke from his small podium in the front of the room. His voice bounced off of the archaic, dusty books lining the walls of the library.

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This was the first time Allerton had hosted an event like “An Evening with Poe” and Kimberly Petzing, Program Director at Allerton, was all smiles.

“For our first time, we were very pleased,” she said. “We didn’t expect this many people.”

The library was full, but no one spoke except Kriel. His audience gazed upon him while he began “The Black Cat,” one of Poe’s most popular short stories. At one point, during an especially gruesome scene in the tale, the crowd collectively gasped, causing Kriel to look up and smile.

“It’s really fun to read and enliven the text,” Kriel explained. “It’s a delight to do it.”

Kriel has been a storyteller for eight years, since he met Dan Keding, an internationally renowned storyteller from Urbana. He also studied rhetoric while attending seminary school.

Kriel speaks slowly, drawing out each word, extracting meaning from the stories like juice from an orange.

“I liked the rhythm that he spoke in,” said Julia MacGlashan, junior in LAS. “Slow so you could grasp what he was saying-picture it in your head.”

With a light reflecting on the large lenses of Kriel’s glasses, the audience rarely got a look at the man’s eyes. Kriel rarely looked up from the text, burying himself inside of the stories while he read.

During “The Tell-Tale Heart,” while Kriel neared the end, a loud pulsating heart could be heard over the speakers inside the walls of the library. But the beating of the hideous heart didn’t stop until the story was over, the recording left on repeat.

“I found it amusing and then annoying,” MacGlashan said.

Cheap thrills aside, the evening ended with a poem that took Poe 22 years to complete, “A Dream Within a Dream.” Kriel enunciated each syllable carefully, slowing the poem to a halt with his pauses.

“Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” Kriel asked the audience in Poe’s words.

Erupting in applause, the crowd praised Kriel, who was visibly drained from his two-hour performance. He smiled, happy both for the audience and for himself.

Kriel explained that the peak of the evening, for him, was when he became “the perfect vehicle for that instant, that moment.”

After the reading was complete, and the crowd had given back their empty wine glasses, Petzing announced that there would be a guided, candlelight tour of the house.

Almost all of the lights were turned off, and candles lit up, guiding the way through the Allerton manor. Tour guides showed the crowd through areas of the house like the Butternut Room and the Grand Gallery, eerily lit by the small, glowing flames.

The tour was fast and, when it was over, the crowd headed out of Allerton down the long, leaf-ridden country road back to the highway.

The event was enjoyed by almost all in attendance, including those who were forced by their spouses to attend.

“It was a good Halloween experience,” said Jennifer Steiling of Decatur, looking at her husband Larry for reassurance. “I forced him [to come],” she added.