Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#16, #15, #14

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]


16. “Hop-Frog” (1849)

Despite dealing with imbibing, practical joking, and masquerading, this is hardly a merry tale. The titular crippled dwarf/court jester forms a grotesque in both physical (his monkey-like movements; his “fang-like” and “very repulsive teeth”) and mental (wine-drinking excites him “almost to madness”) terms. When his love interest and fellow court dwarf, Trippetta, is affronted by their drunken, abusive ruler, Hop-Frog concocts a fiendish scheme. The “Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs” is ostensibly a costumed gag to scare guests at the masquerade, but really works toward the grim immolation of the king and his cronies (whom the coaxing Hop-Frog has first coated in tar and flax). The dwarf’s self-professed “last jest” involves not comic comeuppance but dire, “fiery revenge.” And whether one chooses to read the narrative biographically (Poe enacting a measure of literary vengeance against his foster father, demanding editors, et al.) or allegorically (concerning the Southern dread of slave rebellion), there is no denying the horrific nature of the closing image: “The eight corpses swung in their chains, a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass.”


15. “William Wilson” (1839)

The eponymous (and pseudonymous) character here is yet another Poe narrator who feels compelled to confess his misdeeds and account for his present misfortune. He admits to an excitable temperament, is “addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions.” His tempestuous nature doesn’t serve him well when he encounters a perplexing rival (at a Gothic nightmare of an English boarding school): a second William Wilson who mirrors him in physique, voice, dress, mannerisms, and even birth date. This doubling Wilson has a distinct sense of morality, though, and in subsequent years haunts the wayward narrator the world over, repeatedly foiling his intrigues at the most inopportune moments. A climactic confrontation (during a carnival masquerade in a Roman palazzo) with this pestering other dizzyingly results only in bloody self-ruination for the narrator. Poe no doubt achieves the pinnacle of the Freudian uncanny in this bizarre doppelganger narrative. At the start of “William Wilson,” the narrator questions his readers: “And am I not now dying a victim to the horror and the mystery of the wildest of all sublunary visions?” By tale’s end, it is hard to contradict him.


14. “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)

This short and nasty story disturbs with its convincing portrait of criminal madness. The prototypically-unreliable narrator is “very dreadfully nervous,” and suffers from auditory hypersensitivity: “I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.” He recounts his strange fixation on the filmed-over, vulture-like eye of the old man he lives with, and retraces his methodical midnight stalking of his perceived evil-eyed nemesis. The old man groans in “mortal terror” when he senses an intruder in his darkened chamber, and the “hellish tattoo” of his heartbeat incites the narrator to smother the man beneath his own bed. Another Poe story of a successful murderer bested by his own irrepressible guilt, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is famous for the narrator’s closing exposure of his shocking crime, but the most macabre element here is the narrator’s prior explanation of “the wise precautions I took for concealment of the body.” With chilling nonchalance, he admits to a horrific violation: “First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.” This violent hackwork conducted “in silence”–a maniac performing a gruesome act as if it were some mundane task–haunts even more than the alleged persistent beating of the murder victim’s “hideous heart” beneath the floorboards.


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