January 19th is the 213th birthday of one of the 19th Century’s literary lions. In honor of the occasion, I am kicking off a new countdown today, of Edgar Allan Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales…
19. “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845)
What at first appears to be an essay (on mankind’s perverse penchant “to do wrong for wrong’s sake”) turns midway through into the dramatic monologue of a condemned killer. The now-imprisoned narrator originally got away with a fiendish murder via poisoned candle (and thereby inheriting the victim’s estate), but is undone by his own inexplicable, uncontrollable urge to make an open confession. He suffers a “nightmare of the soul” in which he feels haunted by “some invisible fiend” or “the very ghost of him whom I had murdered,” and ends up blurting out the words that consign him “to the hangman and to hell.” The theme of a criminal psyche self-imploded by underlying guilt is a recurrent one in Poe’s work, but “The Imp of the Perverse” distinguishes itself with its overt theorizing and consistently diabolic rhetoric.
18. “The Oval Portrait” (1842)
This brief tale (which references the fiction of Ann Radcliffe) reads like a Gothic novel in miniature. The “desperately wounded” narrator and his valet pass the night in a gloomy, abandoned, mountaintop chateau. Restless during the “deep midnight,” the narrator peruses a book that discusses the paintings hung in his bedchamber. A chance shifting of the candelabrum throws light on a hitherto unnoticed portrait, of a Lenore-like “maiden of rarest beauty” who arrests the viewer with “the absolute life-likeness of [her] expression.” Reading up on the artwork, the narrator learns that the young bride was forced to sit by her painter husband (“a passionate, and wild, and moody man”) for her portrait in a “dark high turret-chamber.” Obsessed with the endeavor, the husband failed to recognize that his painting was uncannily vamping the very vitality of his wife. The tale ends with one of Poe’s patented shocking clinchers: as the painter turned from the completed portrait toward his wife, proclaiming “This is indeed life itself,” he belatedly realized that “She was dead!”
17. “Thou Art the Man!” (1844)
Here’ a variation on the detective story (a genre Poe pioneered) that sneakily turns toward the macabre. It becomes quite obvious early on that good ol’ Charley Goodfellow is the epitome of duplicity and has elaborately framed his wealthy neighbor’s nephew for the man’s murder. The narrator seems to be the only person in Rattleborough to see through the ruse, and his unusual method for forcing a confession is what lands “Thou Art the Man!” on this countdown. In the climax, the opening of a newly-arrived wine crate delivers quite a surprise: “there sprang open into a sitting position, directly facing the host [Charley], the bruised, bloody, and nearly putrid corpse of the murdered Mr. Shuttleworthy himself.” Before toppling over, the corpse fixes its gaze on Charley and croaks the titular accusation. Only after the horrified Charley confesses (and then promptly drops dead), does the narrator explain that he rigged the corpse with “a stiff piece of whalebone” stuffed down the throat so the doubled-up body would spring up when the crate was opened (the revenant’s seeming voicing of “Thou art the Man!” was a bit of ventriloquism by the narrator). At the start of the tale, the narrator asserts that he is about to “play the Oedipus to the Rattleborough enigma,” but plays more like Edward Lee in his resort to such eye-popping grotesquerie.