Edgar Allen Poe and “tales of mystery and imagination”

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe

“The tell-tale heart and one man’s descent into horror” by Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works)

Edgar Allen Poe’s macabre stories revolve around life and death and evoke a range of raw and extreme emotions.  Many focus on the sheer terror evoked by death, but there is also a grotesque sense of curiosity and fascination that grips the narrator when confronting his own or another’s death. And then there is a frightening sense of urgency  as the victims become ever more tightly controlled by, and at the mercy of, an “over-acuteness of the senses”.

If Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness glimpses the “horror” as he experiences the intoxication of excess and descends into savagery, so too does Poe’s narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart become gripped by the fear and fascination of death as he suffocates the old man and then fails to still the beating of his heart.  Ostensibly, he kills the old man because of the strange fear of the “pale blue eye” that haunts him and that “resembled that of a vulture”. When he later gazes at that “vulture eye” he becomes increasingly furious. It was a “dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones”.  A minute description of the narrator’s and the victim’s unfolding sensations verge on the perverse. In his Preface to the original edition of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Poe asserted that “terror is not of Germany, but of the soul”.

The narrator insists that the murder is without motive; in fact, “I loved the old man”. “For his gold I had no desire.”  Likewise, the past also appears to be discounted as any explanation of the narrator’s obsession: “It is impossible to say how the idea entered my brain, but once conceived, it haunted me day and night.” His crime, then,  appears particularly heinous. Rather he thinks lovingly of the old man and he has no reason to contemplate the extreme act of brutality.

Whilst there is no credible or logical motive, there is the cold, hard terror of the eye that made “my blood ran cold”.  He simply wants to “rid myself of the eye for ever”,  “for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye”.  And indeed it is the “Evil Eye” that lures him to his doom, precisely because it unleashes the impulse to commit evil that is scarcely concealed under the guise of sanity.   Is it the eye of death?   In an increasingly ambivalent and contradictory manner, the more the narrator seeks to justify and rationalise his sanity, the more irrational he appears.  The more successful the crime, the more it spells the narrator’s own demise.

“You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing.”  Adopting a conversational and confessional tone, the narrator invites the reader to reflect upon the premeditated perspective of the crime. “But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded .. with what dissumulation I went to work!”.  The narrator urges the reader to refrain from automatically and intuitively suspecting that one needs to be mad in order to commit such a heinous crime.  Alarmingly, the narrator suggests, one can in fact be quite sane, and develop such a paranoid obsession that it overtakes one’s moral equilibrium – in the blink, in fact, of an “evil eye”.

Rather than resort to an expedient justification of the murder, the narrator asks us to suspend beliefs about madness. He describes his calculated movements, the “caution” and the “foresight” he takes to conceal the crime. He describes just how unnerved he really is as he confronts the object of his terror, and plans the murder, each night, at midnight, opening the latch without making a sound.   In fact he is so patient, and so still, that it takes an “hour to place my whole head within the opening” so that he can watch the sleeping man.

To heighten the complexity and suspense, Poe juxtaposes the calculating patience of the assassin during the midnight hours with the disarming kindness and courage he displays during the day, as he calls him “by name in a hearty tone” and enquires about his wellbeing.

The narrator continues to challenge the notion of madness through his recount of the aftermath. “If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.” The narrator’s blunt, curse tone chills the reader and reminds them of the narrator’s cold-blooded capacity for evil: “First of all I dismembered the corpse.  I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.”  There was not even a “blood-spot”. “I had been too wary for that”.

The setting in this Gothic piece is significant – two small rooms and a small space under a few floorboards. Readers are aware that the narrator opens the door each night into this secret world of darkness as if to wade into the subterranean depths of the sub-conscious. “To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds and thoughts.” The room is “black as pitch”, for the “shutters were close-fastened”.  When finally the intruder makes his presence felt through the slipping of the thumb “upon the tin fastening”, the sub-conscious stirs; it responds, the “old man sprang up in the bed cyring out, “Who’s there?”. In his fury, the intruder silences the old man, by heaving the “heavy bed over him”, kills the Evil Eye and calms the night shrieks. He conceals the limbs, by removing the “flooring of the chamber” and “deposited all between the scantlings”.  He is proud of his perfect crime and the lack of a trace. “A tub had caught all (the blood” – ha! ha!”. But the floorboards cannot suppress the depths of disquiet as the narrator is finally yields: “tear up the planks!”

There is a strong sense of identification as the Evil Eye of the victim and the persecutor become connected through an overwhelming sense of dread.  (“I knew what the old man felt.”) Likewise, the narrator confesses: “I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with is dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well.”  Fear emerges as the dread of one’s own death, against which any struggle is futile.  Poe uses personification to show the inevitability and extreme power of death as the old man becomes aware of the stalking shadow, precisely as he tries to placate his worst fears.  “Yes, he had been trying to comfrot himself with these suppositions; but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him, had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim”.

Such terror, Poe suggests, arises from the depths of one’s soul when a person is “overcharged with awe”.  The fact that the narrator “pitied him” indicates the degree to which the victim is rendered helpless in the face of death. But the narrator’s inability to act upon, and be checked by, his own feelings of pity, also point to his own vulnerability to an overriding sense of evil. Despite the sense that the emotions render us helpless, the assassin is particularly sagacious during the night of the murder and revels in the “extent of my own powers” and his “feelings of triumph”. He “chuckled at heart”.    During the first seven nights, the Evil Eye, is concealed. On the eighth night, and because the man startled with a sudden premonition, the eye is “wide, wide open”.  The assassin derives a sense of power from the man’s oblivion, from the fact that he is so unaware of the evil that is about to befall him, until, that is, he starts groaning with a very deep pitiable sense of doom. And it is as the very moment as the “vulture eye” chills his bones, that the narrator becomes aware of the slight beating of the heart that incites him to fury and that will eventually lure him to his own doom.   Where formerly, the eye had angered him, now it is the beating of the heart. According to Poe, it would seem that as we become aware of our capacity for evil, so too, do the pangs of our conscience thump ever more fiercely.

It is the same fear of death that overtakes the assassin, and causes him to lose, finally, his presence of mind.   His own fear reveals itself in the repeated rhetorical question, “for what had I now to fear”, which confronts him when he greets the policemen, who arrive upon the summons of the outsider, the neighbour. The imagined heartbeat is persistent: “There came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton”.

This heart-beat grips the narrator and crystallizes into a moment of sheer terror – terror at the horror of his crime. As his senses become ever-more acute, they contrast markedly with the phlegmatic behavior of the policemen, recalling the earlier juxtapositions evident in the assassin’s own scheming mind.  He relates his “violent gesticulations” and his  “heightened voice”;  he is pacing the floor with “heavy strides”.  Short, sharp, urgent sentences register his aggravation: “I foamed – I raved – I swore”.  He appears completely overwhelmed by a sense of his impending doom: “Oh God! what could I do?” His despair and terror connect him, grotesquely, with that of the old man’s previously.

Nowhere is his anger more apparent than his extreme frustration at the fact that the policemen are “chatting pleasantly” while he becomes increasingly more enraged.  If he was previously obsessed with the Evil “vulture eye”, now he believes that they cannot possibly be unaware of the ticking time bomb. For some reason, despite the perfect-crime scenario, he senses that the policemen “suspected”. “They knew!” and what enrages him most is that if they did indeed know, they were now “making a mockery of my horror”. In this case, their pleasant conversation is trivializing and downplaying the significance of the narrator’s angst. This fear of “mockery” and “derision” eventually pushes him over the edge as the “agony” becomes unbearable and the sagacious narrator uncovers the bodies. In an irrational and guilt-ridden spurt of reverse victim-blaming, he accuses the policemen of being the “villains”, and despite the narrator’s earlier boastful confession about the perfect crime, he urges the policement to “dissemble no more!” .

The narrator cannot bear the constant and persistent “beating of his hideous heart”.  “I admit the deed!”.

Once again, we can hear an echo of Kurtz’s final confession, as he too, “cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision: – “The horror! The horror”.

The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe

The Cask of Amontillado was first published in Godey’s in November 1846.  As in Poe’s “sensation tales” the reader becomes privy to the protagonist’s fears and desires. In this case, it is the protagonist’s burning sense of revenge, which is as intense as the narrator’s obsessive fear of the Evil Eye in The Tell-Tale Heart.  Both seek to commit the perfect crime: which is to injure another with impunity.

As John S. Whitley (University of Sussex notes in his Introduction, “it is almost as if the reader is being invited to collaborate with the central protagonist in the extended “joke” being played on Fortunato” (Wordsworth Classics).   The story begins as a conversation between the narrator and the reader/listener, “you”, to whom he confesses his grievances, “you who so well know the nature of my soul”.

The motive for the crime

Fortunato appears as a character who is oblivious to the “thousand injuries” that may have been inflicted upon his friend,  and when Fortunato “he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge”.  Adamantly, and with absolute conviction, Montreso brooks no opposition, when he avers that “at length I would be avenged”.   The task though is to “punish with impunity”.   In other words, just as the old man is perfectly dismembered and concealed beneath the floorboards, Montreso also aims for the perfect crime in the depths of the family vaults.

If the old man in The Tell-Tale Heart is unaware of his attacker, Montresor wishes his victim to suffer, for “when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong” there is no sense of satisfaction for the “redresser”.    So it becomes a power play between he, who has unwittingly offended another, and the other who takes his chance to inflict the ultimate wound.

Their similar names —  Fortunato and Montresor — suggest a close bond or an inextricable link.   On his behalf, Fortunato implicitly trusts Montresor; he has “no reason to “doubt my goodwill” and the follows him to the family wine cellar, despite his appointment with Luchesi.   And the more Montresor protests against the inconvenience of the journey, the more willing the increasingly bronchial Fortunato becomes.

As Whitley asks, “Is Montresor the cold, rational part expelling that which causes chaos in his brain? – in  other words the “hated other”. “Together they move remorselessly towards their doom.” “A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated – I trembled. I replied to the yells of him who clamoured. I re-echoed – I aided.  I surpassed him in volume and strength.”

However, despite their similarities, it is the difference between them that begins to eat away at Montresor.  There are the thousand and extra insults that he can no longer tolerate.  He feels that he is being treated with contempt, which undermines his equanimity. “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was.” Foreshadowing his victim’s demise, he adds: “you are a man to be missed.”

Although “respected” and “even feared”, Fortunato is boastful as well as contemptuous.  On some subjects, “he just pretended to be wise.”  He is conceited and this weakness leads to his downfall: “He prided himself on his connoisseurship” of wine which leaves him vulnerable to Montresor’s overtures towards friendship and his appeal for his friend to distinguish the Amontillado cask from sherry.

As in The Tell-Tale Heart, the “locked room” setting is highlight significant.   Fortunato is walled up in the deepest, darkest and smallest recess of the Montresor vaults.  The vaults are “insufferably damp” and they have to descend a  long and winding staircase. They pass through a “range of low arches, descended, passed on,  and descending again arrived at a deep crypt”.    As Whitley notes again, “as in the Gothic imagination, Poe’s vaults are images of the subconscious/unconscious where aspects of the protagonist’s life lie, or refuse to lie, buried.”

Puns and ironies

As Montresor lures Fortunato to his doom, this extreme act of revenge is overlaid with puns and ironies.  Montresor insists that Fortunato drink from the bottle of Medoc – a French wine with therapeutic value.

And as Fortunato drinks “to the buried that repose around us”, he protests prophetically, “the cough is a mere nothing, it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough”.

Fortunato interprets as a “sign” that Montresor is also a mason and is relieved when he produces the “trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire” which ought to be about “brotherhood” but becomes an instrument of death.  Later Fortunato will put his masonry skills to the test and walls up the entrance of the vault.

As they penetrate the “inmost recesses of the catacombs” Fortunato becomes alarmed at the extent of the nitre from the river bed above. (The vaults are “encrusted with nitre” – a white webwork which gleams from the cavern walls.  Under different circumstances, nitre has a  medicinal effect, but in this case, Fortunato is muddled and intoxicated.

Ironically, Fortunato is dressed for Carnival, a mask of black silk, a tight-fitting parti-striped dress” and a “conical cap and bells” on his head.   Montresor puts on a knee length cape.   Catching him completely unaware, Mon manages to quickly chain For, who is so astounded, that  he does not resist.   He then conveys Fortunato’s  response in chilling terms.  Fortunato cries out, but it is “not the cry of a drunken man”, and then he hears the “furious vibrations of the chain” followed by a “succession of loud and shrill screams”. The terror is akin to the old man’s groan. But even more chilling is the “low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head”, upon which Montresor hesitates and trembles, but plasters up the final layer, nonetheless.  And just before he has finally plastered the last layer, Fortunato is still trying to come to terms with the macabre joke: “ha ha ha – he he”  and the fact that Montresor has all but completed the perfect crime upon the ancient site of human remains: “I re-erected the old rampart of bones”.   “For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat.” (rest in peace).  And we are reminded once again that no one injures Montresor with impunity: nemo me impune lacessit.


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