NEW YORK — As she takes in the despair of her in-laws’ one-room apartment in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Blanche Dubois exclaims: “Only Poe! Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do it justice!”
Years earlier, Tennessee Williams channeled Poe for an entire story.
Williams’ “The Eye That Saw Death,” appearing in the spring issue of The Strand Magazine, is a feverish, 4,800-word horror tale clearly inspired by the patron of the genre. Recently unearthed by Strand managing editor Andrew F. Gulli, “The Eye That Saw Death” is narrated by an unnamed man who has suffered from a seemingly incurable disease that has left him nearly blind. At age 30, he receives an eye transplant that restores his sight but leaves him with ghoulish side effects. The narrator is afflicted with visions that begin as a “chaotic blur,” then become more focused and traumatizing, whether “huge, black, bulging eyes” or “terrible, tusk-like teeth.”
The new eye, it turns out, belonged to a convicted killer. The narrator begs to have the surgery reversed.
“It is true that the pleasures of the blind are few and frugal,” Williams writes. “They live apart from the world and participate little in its affairs. But I do not regret that choice I made the day I fell, raving mad with horror, to the floor of the oculist’s office. Oh, never! Far, far better to be blind than to see with the eye that saw death!”
Gulli, who has previously published little-known works by Graham Greene and John Steinbeck among others, found “The Eye That Saw Death” at one of the country’s leading literary archives, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Williams scholar George Crandell says the undated work is a “pretty good story” and surprisingly polished for a piece never published before. Crandell is especially impressed because he thinks Williams was likely in high school when he completed it.
“The story has a similar feel to ‘The Vengeance of Nitocris,’ kind of a horror story that was published in Weird Tales in 1928 (when Williams was 16),” says Crandell, the associate dean of Auburn University’s graduate school and a member of the editorial board of the literary journal the Tennessee Williams Annual Review.
“The Eye That Saw Death” has a fable-like quality even as its plot recalls Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It reads like an inversion of Greek mythology, in which the blind are not prophets or wise men, but those who truly will not see — or like an allegory for creative expression, when the artist is almost literally tortured by his vision.
Williams had good reason to be preoccupied with eyesight. He had poor vision in his left eye and would undergo four cataract operations, one of which he describes in “Memoirs,” published in 1975. In a humorous but unsettling scenario that his early short story seemed to anticipate, Williams remembers agreeing to a procedure for which the doctor waived his fee in return for Williams allowing the operation to be the basis of a lecture to observing student ophthalmologists.
“The patient is now in position, apply the straps,” Williams remembers, roughly, the doctor saying.
“Tighter, tighter, he has a history of vomiting during the surgery. Eyelids secured against blinking, pupil anesthetized now. The needle is now about to penetrate the iris. It is now into the iris. It has now penetrated the lens. Oh, oh, vomiting, nurse, choking, tube in esophagus. My God, what a patient. I mean very good, of course, but an unusual case.”