Unlocking the Poe Code

Prompt Day #196: Reveal something terribly shocking in a library.


Unlocking the Poe Code

Autism, biology and literary history come together to solve a medical mystery

A mock article by yours truly.


It wasn’t until the strange events were well underway and beyond containment that government officials were able to trace the inception back to January 19, 2009. What was even more alarming was the discovery of what seemed to be thousands of patient zeros scattered equally all over the country. This virus did not begin in a single host in a single location, but was introduced to a number of individuals in multiple locations all at once. Making the virulence of the strain almost impossible to determine.

Initially dubbed “The Talking Dead” virus, its victims first showed symptoms of a manic type disorder. Pressured, rapid speech patterns, insomnia, paranoia, sweating and rapid heartbeat soon gave way to confusion and disorientation leading to patients to wandering the streets muttering nonsense, sometimes even yelling incoherently. After several days of delirium, victims of the talking dead virus died of exhaustion, dehydration or myocardial infarctions.

The term virus was a misnomer however as no bacteria, virus or prion was found to be the cause of the rapidly debilitating disease. Once diagnosed, all victims of the disease were placed in isolation but new cases continued to be identified with seemingly no connection to other contaminated individuals. In every town or city where clusters of cases were found, water supplies, grocery suppliers, restaurants, schools, and administrative buildings were tested for both biological as well as environmental contaminants, yet no source for the strange outbreaks was discovered.

What the CDC could not put their finger on, an autistic high schooler named Shaun Winters solved in a week. Shaun’s autism had become disabling throughout his teenage years and at the age of 16, he was removed from school and placed in a home. He struggled with social interactions of any kind, unable to understand basic facial and tonal cues so that he could not communicate successfully outside of those closest to him. What Shaun lacked in basic person to person communication, he made up for in his ability to solve complex coded messages called cryptograms. For Shaun’s mind, letters were the equivalent of numbers and words, phrases and the like simply equations needing to be solved. This was how Shaun viewed the world. He had little time for anything else.

Shaun’s oldest sister Tiffany was eight years his senior and her interests lay in the arts and literature. She was also the closest to her brother of anyone in the family and often struggled to find common ground. It was she who introduced Shaun to the genius of Edgar Allan Poe. She used Poe’s penchant for cryptograms to entice him.

“I can’t say it wasn’t for my own selfish reasons.” She admits. “My thesis was on Poe’s use of complex cryptograms in many of his stories that got me thinking of Shaun and I wondered if I showed him some of Poe’s forwards—many of which were supposed quotes from other works cited by the author which turned out to false citations—if he could puzzle out messages Poe may have left for anyone intelligent enough to find them.”

Shaun did just that. Discovering ciphers and cryptograms all through Poe’s works, even ones within the texts themselves. It was about this time that Tiffany had found in her own research that Poe often changed lines and passages in his works with each publication.

“This got me thinking about showing Shaun multiple editions of the same work, to see if the changes lead to ongoing messages. That’s when Shaun and I began to search for Poe first editions.”

Shaun dove into the research with a vigor his family hadn’t seen since he was young. It was during his initial search that Shaun found libraries all over the country announcing the recent donation of Poe first editions all just one week prior to what would have been Poe’s 200th birthday. Shaun found chat rooms discussing these newly discovered and anonymously donated first editions and noted the rapid decline in online discussions after January 19. It was Shaun’s autistic mind that immediately overlaid the map of libraries that had received these anonymous donations and the map of concentrated outbreaks of the Talking Dead virus.

Dr. Brandon Sternworth, the CDC’s lead investigator on the Talking Dead outbreak, discusses Shaun’s discovery.

“When Tiffany Winters first contacted us, we blew it off. There was no way there could be a connection, but then when we viewed the maps her brother had made, we knew we needed to look into this further.”

That’s when Dr. Sternworth and his team made contact with Dr. Jeremy Thompson, Poe expert and author of a dozen biographical works on the writer.

“Dr. Thompson took one look at the map and laughed. He said there wasn’t that many known first editions of all of Poe’s published work put together, let alone the same one and declared it a hoax. When we contacted the libraries, it turned out they all had indeed received this very generous donation of Tales of Mystery.”

Several libraries agreed to cooperate and hand the books over to the CDC for analysis. Dr. Thompson was brought in to examine the books themselves once they’d been cleared from any biologic threat.

“We were able to clear two books pretty quick and get them into Dr. Thompson’s hands. I received a frenzied call from him the next day. He went on for some time without stopping explaining the many ways the books were faked. I sent my team back to his office to collect them from him but it was far too late. He’d been infected with whatever it was. He died three days later.”

Dr. Sternworth’s team was able to obtain government permission to collect all the Poe books from every library that had received the books and shut them down before anyone else came into contact with the books. Upon further questioning, it was discovered that with each donation was a stipulation that the books be advertised as Poe first editions and placed into general circulation. This explained how so many people were able to be affected.

“I mean, how often does someone get the chance to read a first edition of a book by someone like Poe? He’s an American legend. And unlike many of his contemporaries, he has a cult following. He’s probably one of the only classic writers you’d find on the bookshelves of today’s youth and not be surprised.” Sternworth says “The only problem was, we still didn’t know how the books were causing deaths.”

That’s where Shaun Winters re-enters our strange tale.

“We knew Shaun’s brain worked differently than ours, and we had notes from Dr. Thompson’s examination of the books which found multiple word changes throughout the manuscript. Every page had differences. So we made copies and sent them off to Shaun assuming the danger was in the book itself and potentially the answer had been encoded in the word changes.”

It took Shaun one look at the pages to realize what was going on.

“There was a virus in the words.” He says. “Just like a code built into a computer virus, this code was built into the words on the page. So when someone reads it, even in his head, the combination of words and letters start turning switches on. Like all the brain switches at once. I could see it pretty fast, but I couldn’t show anyone because their brain would read it like someone without autism and then the virus would get in them. I don’t read like that. My brain takes the letters in all at the same time and calculates them. I don’t understand the story but I understand the code of the story. That’s how I saw it and that’s how I knew someone, probably someone like me, put that virus out there in those books.”

While it is difficult to comprehend, what we do know is that once the books were off the shelves and locked into vaults at the CDC, no further cases of the Talking Dead have been diagnosed. Tiffany Winters points out that the symptoms of the virus which she calls the Poe Code mimic those experienced by Poe on the last days of his life.

“His death was just as mysterious. After disappearing for some days, he reappeared at a tavern being used as a voting station. He was delirious and muttering incoherently. Friends took him to a local hospital where he lived for 5 more days never regaining full consciousness before he died. Whoever developed this literary equivalent of a computer virus seems to have done it to honor Poe on his 200th birthday. I mean you can’t ignore the fact that the libraries received these donations on his birthday and the victims died in the same way he did. It’s too weird. I still can’t understand how they did it.”

It would seem no one but Shaun Winters can truly understand how it was done. And until we learn more about the autistic brain, we will likely never know. It is too dangerous for anyone with what is considered normal brain function to read the pages and those who can are trapped in their own minds by the very disease that protects them from this new threat. Our only hope for the future is to open our minds to what autistics can teach us about the past and allow them to aid us in the present.