Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination – Horror

It was with an air of exultation that I turned the last page of The Masque of Red Death and finally finished all of the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. At 763 pages, reading this tome of 19th century writing is not a task that should be considered lightly. The language, while beautiful in an often quite twisted way, is old-fashioned and occasionally outdated. At times, reading through these tales was a slog and felt more like work than leisure.

But it is the kind of work that is incredibly satisfying upon completion. There were some stories of Poe that were not to my taste, yet I could appreciate the way in which they were constructed and also the point that they were trying to make. While many of Poe’s stories, his most famous works in any case, are explorations of mankind’s most primal fears, there are others that act simply as windows into the everyday of the mid-nineteenth century. Standard works of fiction, in other words. This is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Poe’s work, considering his reputation as a horror writer. He offers a selection of different genres to his reader. As most of his work was published in different magazines and periodicals, it can probably be assumed that this was an attempt to fit the tone of specific publications, or perhaps to simply reach a wider audience.

While an examination of his more fantastic writing may follow, it is his most famous works, his Gothic tales, that we will be examining thus. As his collection of short stories is generally regarded as a classic, and very much divided from contemporary literature, the act of reviewing it would be superfluous. Instead, we shall simply examine the themes in these stories, how they are expressed or depicted, and how they instill fear in a reader’s mind. We shall also investigate some modern iterations of these themes in the form of contemporary literature, cinema and even video games.

The Tales themselves

The Pit and the Pendulum:

It should come as no surprise to readers that Poe’s most famous works, the ones that have inspired countless films, TV shows and parodies, are among his best. The imagery depicted in his intensely chilling tale The Pit and the Pendulum is inarguably among the most memorable of the horror genre. Selecting mankind’s oldest and most primal fears, Poe blends them together into a tale that taps into the human psyche and reminds us of the things that terrified us when we were children. The ever-present omen of impending death is symbolized by the slowly descending pendulum, cutting our time shorter and shorter. Reinforcing this metaphor is, of course, the painting of Father Time that the narrator notices on the ceiling. Coupled with the descending pendulum, this image strongly evokes the persona of The Grim Reaper.

“…It was the painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that, in lieu of a scythe, he held what, at a casual glance, I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum, such as we see in antique clocks…”

“…steadily down it crept. I took a frenzied pleasure in contrasting its downward with its lateral velocity. To the right – to the left – far and wide – with the shriek of a damned spirit! to my heart, with the stealthy pace of the tiger!”

The fear of death is so often coupled with the fear of the unknown, of what may be on the other side. If Death was a guarantee of rest, of the Christian ideal of heaven, it might instill less dread. However, the loss of life offers no compromise, no guarantees. This is clearly symbolized by the gaping pit which yawns before the narrator. Naturally, his first reaction to it is one of fear, but as the Pendulum slowly descends, the reader is constantly reminded that this is an Alternative. A possible way out. And both of these options, the choice between certain death and the dark unknown, are equally terrifying.

“…the pit, whose horrors had been destined for so bold a recusant as myself – the pit, typical of hell and regarded by rumor as the Ultima Thule of all their punishments. The plunge into this pit I had avoided by the merest of accidents, and I knew that surprise, or entrapment into torment, formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths. Having failed to fall, it was no part of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss and thus (there being no alternative) a different and milder destruction awaited me. Milder! I half smiled in agony as I though of such application of such a term…”

Other elements at play in this tale reinforce the sense of isolation felt by the narrator and, by relation, the reader. The fact that he is a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition places him in an unenviable position, with odds stacked against him, and cut off from any kind of physical or emotional support. Darkness and rats, the embodiments of unknown threat and disease belittle him to such a degree that, at the beginning of the narrative, he imagines himself trapped in the most helpless position conceivable: buried alive in a tomb.

Modern interpretations
The fear of death and the unknown is central to almost every horror story ever conceived. They often go hand in hand, but can be divided, very broadly and with many exceptions, into: slasher movies = death, and ghost stories = unknown.

Strangely, one of the most faithful adaptations of The Pit and the Pendulum comes in the form of the highly successful Saw movies. Here we see, time and time again, individuals left in a cold, dark and uninviting room, left with two options. In most cases, their choices involve either severe pain or certain death. At its heart, the message is the same. The prisoners are asked to take a plunge if they wish to escape death.

The Premature Burial

The notion of being buried alive, not fully explored in The Pit and the Pendulum, is a powerful phobia that grips mankind even today. It goes beyond reason, as we are reassured constantly that medical tests and autopsies would prevent such a thing from happening. Yet this fear is one that grips us still and it is in The Premature Burial that I personally feel Poe conveys his most powerful imagery, with disturbing accuracy. It tells the story of an unnamed narrator who suffers from a disorder known as catalepsy (very similar to narcolepsy), and fears that this will one day lead to his being buried alive. More of an exercise in descriptive writing than anything else, when the narrators fears are realized, Poe does exceptional work in making the reader feel genuinely uncomfortable, to the extent that it sends his subject into a frenzy.

“…and yet it was dark – all dark – the intense and utter raylessness of the night that endureth for evermore…and then, too, came suddenly to my nostrils the strong peculiar odor of moist earth…

“…I felt, too, that I lay upon some hard substance; and by something similar my sides were, also, closely compressed. So far, I had not ventured to stir any of my limbs – but now I violently threw up my arms, which had been lying at length, with the wrists crossed. They struck a solid wooden substance, which extended above my person at an elevation of not more than six inches from my face. I could no longer doubt that I reposed within a coffin at last…”

Modern Interpretations:
The theme of being buried alive has been explored in a number of films, many of which are adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. Kill Bill Vol. 2 saw its protagonist, Beatrix Kiddo, buried alive, but because of the films genre, there is only a very brief sense of terror that is swiftly punctuated dramatic resolve.

The film Buried, released in 2010, explored the notion of being buried alive and examined it for the entire duration of the film. Shot entirely from the perspective of our protagonist, Paul, every single scene takes place inside the small coffin. An interesting premise, it is only in the final scenes that the full implications of this is fully realized, giving the film a chilling ending.

However, the best depiction of being buried alive in film can be seen in the conclusion of the 1988 film, The Vanishing. Rex Hofman spends three years searching for his missing girlfriend before he eventually finds her kidnapper. The kidnapper implies that she may not be dead and that, if Rex accepts the drugged coffee that he used to drug her, he will experience the same fate that she did. After much internal conflict, Rex does so and wakes up in a tiny wooden box, just as the last light disappears through the cracks in the lid. The camera rolls over him lazily as he panics, kicks and screams. Eventually he falls into a quiet sobbing frenzy, with only a dream of death to keep him company.

The Telltale Heart and The Black Cat
On the topic of frenzies and madness, Poe has a great deal of stories that feature characters entering a state of lunacy (often caused by excessive horror or terror…naturally). However, The Telltale Heart and The Black Cat take a different approach to this. Madness is not brought on by excessive fear in these stories. Rather, fear is a by-product, brought on by characters that are afraid that their own grip on sanity is slipping. In both cases, the narrators minds are wracked with guilt. Murder figures into the equation, and the guilt that both characters are feeling manifests itself in the form of hallucinations.

“…Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether my conscience (…) it did not the less fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy…”

“…Oh God! what could I do? I foamed – I raved – I swore! (…) and still the men chatted pleasantly and smiled (…) they were making a mockery of my horror! – This I thought, and this I think. But any thing is better than this agony!”

What is particularly interesting about these tales is how unreliable the narrator is. In The Telltale Heart, it is very likely that the narrator is indeed suffering hallucinations, but in The Black Cat, the events that unfold are of an ambiguous nature. The narrator of that story, after killing his wife’s cat, slowly comes to believe that it has come back to haunt him. Because the cat itself is a very physical being, the idea of this cat being a manifestation of his guilt becomes difficult to prove. In a fit of rage, the narrator also kills his wife when she attempts to protect the cat. Hiding both bodies in the walls of the house, the police reveal his crime when they hear the cries of the cat.

The fact that the returning cat bears an uncanny likeness to the deceased cat is the primary reason for the reader to believe the narrator may be going mad. He is physically identical in every way, including the fact that he has only one eye (which the narrator gouged out in a drunken rage). His alcoholism is also a contributing factor to this theory, making his perspective increasingly untrustworthy. The only difference in the cat’s appearance is a white mark on its chest, which slowly changes to take the shape of a gallows. With hanging being the method in which the narrator killed the original cat, such a coincidence becomes difficult to explain away.

On top of this, Poe links the narrators fear of the animal with guilt. Instances of terror are preceded, proceeded or experienced simultaneously by regret for the heinous act that the narrator has committed.

“…the dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil – and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it…” 

“…I started hourly from dreams of unutterable fear to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight – an incarnate nightmare that I had no power to shake off – incumbent eternally upon my heart…”

“…one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman – a howl – a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in damnation…”

Modern Interpretations:
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James plays on this notion of ambiguity, as does the film adaptation The Innocents. Some of the greatest horror films in cinema have been produced based on the wavering line between madness and the supernatural. The Haunting (and the novel on which it is based) constantly but subtly implies that it’s protagonist is suffering from delusions brought on by the fact that she thinks that Hill House is haunted. This is stressed by the fact that she constantly has arguments with herself and is indeed emotionally unstable. In an admirable move, the director, Robert Wise, refuses to offer his audience any closure.

The theme of madness even finds itself into video games. Due to outdated preconceptions of the medium, games are often shunned as being incapable of having artistic merit. Like so many artistic works, this is a matter of opinion, but its argument is certainly aided by games such as Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness. In the Silent Hill series, characters are forced to fight their way through the town of Silent Hill, battling aggressive surroundings and demons. These demons have a tendency to manifest from the fears and guilt of the main character. This is reflected most poignantly in Silent Hill 2, which has you play as James Sunderland. While the vast majority of demons in the game appear to be of the female persuasion, the most aggressive monster, Pyramid Head, is inarguably male. He spends the majority of the game killing female monsters and James’ female companions.
In the final scenes of the game, it is revealed that James killed his wife and that Pyramid Head and the demons are a manifestation of his guilt.

The idea of these V.G. characters being mad is also addressed. In Silent Hill 3, our main character, Heather, asks another where all of these ‘monsters’ came from. The response is “Monsters? They look like monsters to you?”. You are also given the option of two separate endings in this game. One depicts Heather finishing off the demons and going home happily. The other depicts her wearing a dreamy expression and holding a knife in her hand. Her comrade, Inspector Douglas, lies dead before her, several stab wounds in his chest.

This idea of not knowing what to believe is integrated into the very gameplay of Eternal Darkness. In this game, sanity is very much a factor and, if you undergo too much stress, or fight too many demons without respite, you will begin to hallucinate. Statues begin to move of their own accord, your character bleeds for unknown reasons and attacking enemies vanish into this air when you try to defend yourself. The fact that supernatural activity is happening around you makes all of these events that much more terrifying.

In the 2007 film, The Orphanage, the madness/supernatural formula is shaken up significantly. Laura, our protagonist, loses her son to, what she believes to be, supernatural entities. While the events that unfold can be explained away as a case of dementia, this isn’t done specifically by the characters. Instead, the director, Juan Antono Bayona, encourages the audience to come to these conclusions themselves. He is extremely careful to ensure that every single unusual occurrence has a logical, and in some cases, obvious explanation, but again, does not offer us closure. In this way, we are not grasping at straws for an explanation as it lies in front of us. It is simply a case of whether or not we accept it.

William Wilson

Intellectual uncertainty can be a cause of distress. Indeed, the uncanny resemblance between two separate entities is generally a cause of unease or, in extreme cases, terror. It is for this reason that we can sometimes be unsettled by wax figures or twins, as seen in horror films in particular. Freud, in one of his less controversial works, wrote a paper on the subject of The Uncanny, on why it is that we find it so unsettling, breaking the topic down to almost a mathematical equation. He describes the Uncanny as ‘that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.’ These complicated feelings of longing and defensiveness are easily applicable to the tale of William Wilson.

“…I could not bring myself to hate him altogether (…) It is difficult, indeed, to define, or even to describe, my real feelings towards him. They formed a motley and heterogenous mixture;- some petulant animosity, which was not yet hatred, some esteem, more respect, much fear, with a world of uneasy curiosity…”

Poe embodies this very notion beautifully in his tale of William Wilson, a man who, over numerous stages of his lifetime, encounters his own doppelgänger. This identical twin, who shares both his name and birthday, appears intent on bringing misfortune to William Wilson, preventing him from undertaking his mischievous schemes such as cheating at card games and seducing aristocratic women. It can be argued that, by preventing these actions, the double could represent Wilson’s conscience, an entity willed into existence (son of will? As the narrator openly admits that William Wilson is a fictitious name, it could easily be a pseudonym).

Modern Interpretations:
An excellent example of The Uncanny in horror often comes in the form of the doll, or automaton. Lifelike dolls or figures, non-living beings that give the appearance of life, these are the epitome of the Uncanny. For this reason, films such Andrè De Toth’s House of Wax or James Wan’s Dead Silence are regarded as unsettling due to the sense of the Uncanny that they invoke.

The most grotesquely beautiful example of the Uncanny, in my opinion, comes from the 1945 classic Dead of Night, and echoes another theme that runs through William Wilson. In Dead of Night, there is a supernatural tale of a ventriloquist who becomes jealous of his dummy, believing him to be alive. In one of the final scenes, after he has destroyed the dummy, the ventriloquist wakes up in a hospital bed. After a struggle, he eventually clears his throat enough to talk, but he does so in the squeaky distorted voice of the dummy.

This is, of course, both familiar and unfamiliar, allowing for an incredibly haunting final scene. A similar event occurs in the closing paragraphs of William Wilson. After attempting to kill the doppelgänger, Wilson looks into a mirror on the wall to find that the doppelgänger he has killed is in fact himself and, in essence, always has been.

Closing Comments
The stories that have been outlined here are those which resonated strongest with me, and not necessarily a reflection of what I consider to be the best of Poe’s work. There are many other terrific tales, such as Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of Red Death and Murders in the Rue Morgue, all of which exact their own specific brand of horror on the reader. The reason that Poe is famous for his Gothic tales rather than his other fiction is because it is in this area he was the most creative and talented.

Ideally, modern artists may pay tribute to his work by taking some mankind’s primal fears, as listed above, and continuing to depict them in increasingly creative ways. And not by making a film called The Raven that basically craps all over the great mans work.

Thank you for reading.


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