Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#4, #3, #2

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]


4. “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842)

Poe is well-known as a pioneer of detective fiction and science fiction, but here in his ultimate tale of sensation he also furnishes an ur-example of torture porn (that would later serve as the basis for a graphic Saw movie scene). The reading audience, though, doesn’t just observe the narrator’s torment at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition; it gets immersed in the complete sensorium of the harried protagonist (even an “intolerable thirst” is evoked, after the imprisoned narrator is deviously fed “pungently seasoned” meat). Awakening from his swoon following his sentencing, the narrator dreads he has been entombed alive–“the most hideous of fates,” he designates it, perhaps hastily, considering the threats soon presented to his existence. Agonizing suspense mounts as the strapped-down narrator watches the “fearful scimitar” steadily arc down toward him. Even his clever plan of escape (by enticing the rats in his vault to gnaw through his bandages) proves a smothering nightmare: “They pressed–they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. They writhed upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own; I was half stifled by their thronging pressure; disgust, for which the world has no name, swelled my bosom, and chilled, with a heavy clamminess, my heart.” The narrator renders matters even more sinister by filling the account of his ordeal with underworld overtones: the pit is “typical of hell” and the pendulum is a “hellish machine”; a “sulphurous light” burns at the base of his prison, whose walls feature “spectral and fiendish portraitures” flashing “demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity.” Yes, the tale suffers from a deus ex machina ending, but Poe provides a quite devilish adventure leading up to that last-second reprieve.


3. “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842)

Poe’s tale horrifies right from its opening lines, which detail a plague unprecedented for hideous fatality: “Blood was its Avatar and its seal–the redness and horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.” The guests secluded within Prince Prospero’s “castellated abbey” attempt to pass the plague-time by attending “a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence,” but their desperate revelry is checked by Prospero’s “ghastly” and “barbaric” sense of decor and the arresting, unnerving hourly chimes of a “gigantic clock of ebony.” However “grotesque” the celebrants might appear, their “masquerade license” is exceeded by a figure whose dress smacks of disgustingly poor taste. This midnight party-crasher is “shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave,” a “blasphemous” get-up too reminiscent of the scourge raging without: “His vesture was dabbed in blood–and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.” Outraged, Prospero confronts this “spectral image” and promptly drops dead, and the throng that tries to seize the mysterious figure ends up levelled as well after “finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask, which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.” Unfortunately for all those who’ve come into close contact, the costumed figure was no spooky approximation but rather represented the Red Death itself. Poe’s own life was marked by the repeated loss of loved ones to terrible disease, and here he scripts a gory, apocalyptic allegory whose concluding line (“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all”) bombards readers with a thudding sense of universal doom.


2. “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839)

This most famous of Poe’s short stories is a Gothic extravaganza, starting with the titular “mansion of gloom” (and its “vacant eye-like windows”) that has prefigured countless haunted houses over the centuries. The narrator suffuses his account with eerie atmosphere, from the “pestilent and mystic vapor” created by the “black and lurid tarn” to the “unnatural” luminosity that “enshroud[s]” the mansion during the stormy climax. Both the residence and its residents are perfectly matched in terms of haunting effect: the cadaverous Roderick with his “disordered fancy” and dark artistic interests; his twin sister Madeline, a wasted figure of walking death who strikes “dread” in the narrator long before her premature entombment and revenant-suggesting return. No less macabre is the “constitutional and family evil” that afflicts the Ushers, “a morbid acuteness of the senses” that makes everyday life a terrible struggle for someone like Roderick: “the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.” The drawn-out coincidences between reading matter (“The Mad Trist” of Sir Lancelot Canning) and events overhead in the dungeon below seem a bit hokey, but this ostensible misstep does not spoil the narrative’s powerful conclusion: that unforgettable image of the low, “blood red moon” shining through the edifice’s fissure just prior to the spectacular collapse of the House of Usher.


Which tale beat out “The Fall of the House of Usher” and claimed the #1 spot on the countdown? Venture back to the Macabre Republic next week for the reveal.

Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#7, #6, #5

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]


7. “The Premature Burial” (1844)

Delving into one of his greatest–and gravest–themes, Poe writes: “To be buried alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes [of agony] which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.” After cataloguing various cases of living inhumation worldwide, the narrator renders such condition in horrifically vivid terms: “The unendurable oppression of the lungs–the stifling fumes of the damp earth–the clinging to the death garments–the rigid embrace of the narrow house–the blackness of the absolute Night–the silence like a sea that overwhelms–the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm.” Prone to falling into cataleptic trances, the narrator has developed a pronounced dread of being “consigned alive to the tomb.” He relays a nightmare of a fiendish variation of Judgment Day, in which “the graves of all mankind” are thrown open and the struggles of countless figures prematurely buried are made evident. Then he proceeds to give his own first-person account of hasty sepulture; fortunately, his senses deceived him (he’d awakened disoriented, in the dark confines of a sloop’s cabin) and the short shock actually serves to cure him of his longtime “charnel apprehensions.” Such overtly positive ending, though, does nothing to diminish the “grim legion of sepulchral terrors” conveyed throughout this harrowing tale.


6. “The Black Cat” (1843)

This fictional forerunner of “The Raven” features a speaker of questionable reliability tormented by a black beast connected with superstitious lore (the “ancient popular notion” that “all black cats are witches in disguise”). Speaking from a “felon’s cell” on the eve of his execution, the narrator recounts how “the Fiend Intemperance” contributed to his perverse mistreatment of his allegedly adored housecat Pluto (who first had an eye gouged out with a knife and later was strung by its neck from a tree). After bringing home a stray cat –an uncanny feline double of Pluto–the narrator developed an awful dread of the replacement pet: “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!” Sunk into deeper insobriety and insanity, the narrator finally attempted to slay the creature, but his wife’s staying hand led to a fatal blow nonetheless: “Goaded by the interference into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain.” He then attempted to conceal the crime by walling his wife’s body up in the cellar, but his foul deed was subsequently exposed in terrifying fashion: “The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the [police] spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb.” Besides providing shivers with its suggestion of supernatural vengeance, this confessional tale also hints darkly at Poe’s own battles with the demons of alcoholism.


5. “Ligeia” (1838)

Time and again in Poe’s work, the grief over the loss of a beloved female transforms into something more dreadful because of the figure’s seeming refusal to stay dead. This highly representative tale (which Poe often regarded as his personal best) starts off slowly–as the widower narrator dwells upon the late Ligeia’s strange beauty and curious studies–but grows steadily more macabre. After Ligeia succumbs to illness, her surviving mate purchases and renovates a quintessentially Gothic abbey in remote England, a building of “gloomy and dreary grandeur.” Taking the fair-haired Rowena as a second wife, the narrator decorates a “bridal chamber” (in a high, pentagonal-shaped turret) that feels more like a burial chamber, complete with funereal black drapery and Egyptian sarcophagi propped up in the corners. What transpires within this tomb of a room proves even more unnerving. Falling mysteriously ill, Rowena complains of a spectral intruder, a presence that the (admittedly opium-doused) narrator also senses. Rowena soon dies, and the narrator watches over her body, which throughout the night fitfully enacts a “hideous drama of revivification” (one that Poe stages in a sequence of thrilling paragraphs). On her deathbed, Ligeia (she of the “gigantic volition”) had spoken of the will to overcome mortality, and a momentary triumph over the Conqueror Worm appears to be achieved in the tale’s climax. Rowena’s corpse rises (looking oddly taller), and the falling cerements reveal Ligeia’s signature dark hair (“blacker than the raven wings of midnight!”) and wide, “wild eyes.” Whether interpreted as madness, drug-induced hallucination, or dire reincarnation, this closing image no doubt is supremely haunting.


Lore Report: “Time Will Tell” (Episode 192)

But the most fascinating aspect of stories like these is what they do to our perception of time. They wow us because they seem to break the rules. They put the impossible on display, and they expose just how brief and fleeting all our lives seem to be in the face of history. Time might move at the same speed for all of us, but if we break the rules we risk inviting dangerous consequences.

In the latest episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke takes the time to tackle temporal matters. He opens with an informative account of time measurement (discussing, for instance, the religious influence on the creation of clocks, and explaining how such devices got their name). Naturally, the narrative turns to that ever-fascinating subject of time travel, and besides referencing classic works of fiction (by the likes of Washington Irving, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, and Jack Finney), Mahnke shares the real-life story of two woman who claim they stepped back through time and encountered a famous French historical figure while touring the gardens of the Palace of Versailles in the summer of 1901. The most entertaining bits of lore, though, are reserved for the closing segment: an account of the Orloj, a medieval clock (pictured above) in Prague that has acquired an ominous reputation over the years. All told, “Time Will Tell” is well worth the investment of a thirty-minute listen.


Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#10, #9, #8

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]


10. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845)

While Poe himself passed this off as a literary hoax, his mesmerist narrator labors to present his efforts (of suspending the dying title character in a trance state) as a true, scientific account. The description of Valdemar’s “death-bed horrors” is harrowing enough, but even more unnerving is the man’s pronouncement, in “gelatinous,” “unearthly” voice, “I am dead.” When the mesmerist attempts to awaken Valdemar after seven months of inanimation, he fails shockingly: Valdemar’s “whole frame at once–within the space of a single minute, or less, shrunk–crumbled–absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome–of detestable putrescence.” The reader senses that the story’s tongue (a “swollen and blackened” one at that) is planted in its cheek, as the previous rhetoric about Valdemar’s “approaching dissolution” prefigures an actual dissolving at tale’s end. Still, that closing paragraph forms one of the most morbid and strikingly grotesque moments in the whole Poe canon.


9. “Shadow–A Parable” (1835)

This short (three-paragraph) tale sports a ghostly, haunting opening, as the narrator Oinos calls across the centuries: “Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write have long since gone my way into the region of shadows.” His unholy parable is set in the “dim city” of Ptolemais, in “a year of terror” when “the black wings of the Pestilence were spread abroad.” The “gloomy room” that Oinos and his six wine-drinking companions occupy–a black-draped chamber in which a heavy atmosphere hangs like a “dead weight”–seems quite funereal, and Oinos belatedly reveals that the group shares the confines with the corpse of their young friend, the recent plague victim Zoilus (whose open eyes appear to observe the memorial “merriment” with terrible bitterness). As if all this weren’t creepy enough, a vague shadow detaches from draperies, crosses the room, and settles by the chamber door (cf. “The Raven”). Oinos demands “its dwelling and its appellation,” and receives a frightful reply: “I am SHADOW, and my dwelling is near to the Catacombs of Ptolemais, and hard by those dim plains of Helusion which border upon the foul Charonian canal.” Not just the content but also the tonality of the response terrifies, as Oinos and the other attendees hear “the well-remembered and familiar accents of many thousand departed friends.” Poe is a preeminent writer of horrific sounds, nowhere more evident than in this narrative resonating with ominous implication.


8. “Metzengerstein” (1832)

Poe’s first published tale goes heavy on Gothic atmosphere; it’s set in feudal Hungary and features looming castles, an “ancient prophecy” and an apparent act of supernatural vengeance. The young but debauched Frederick, Baron Metzengerstein torches the beloved stables of his neighbor and rival Wilhelm, Count Berflifitzing. As the fire rages next door, Frederick fixates upon a tapestry scene depicting a slain Berlifitzing figure, whose horse suddenly seems to turn its head and take on a menacing aspect (complete with blazing eyes and a flash of “sepulchral and disgusting teeth”). Soon thereafter, a “gigantic and fiery-colored horse” is discovered on the palace grounds, with the “W.V.B.” branded on its forehead hinting at a grim metempsychosis (Wilhelm having perished in the burning stables). Frederick develops a “perverse attachment” to this creature of “ferocious and demon-like propensities,” mounting it for habitual nocturnal forays. “One tempestuous night,” the terrified Frederick races back home, helplessly struggling to rein in the steed as it plunges straight into the strangely flame-engulfed (lightning-struck?) Metzengerstein castle. There hasn’t been a more horrific instance of horse-riding this side of Sleepy Hollow.


More Than a Monster

I just watched the 2021 documentary Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster (currently streaming on Shudder). Any fan of the actor’s work should hasten to do the same.

The documentary doesn’t dwell on the biographical, presenting just enough detail to bring Karloff–born William Henry Pratt–to life (interestingly, he appears to have grown up in a household terrorized by a monster). Instead, the focus here is on Karloff’s professional life, an acting career that was both long and varied, featuring standout roles in film, theater, and television. The audience gets to glimpse behind the scenes of such classic productions as Frankenstein, learning, for instance, how director James Whale’s vindictiveness left a lasting mark on Karloff. More positively, viewers are shown how a Karloff TV appearance helped inspire the smash novelty song, “The Monster Mash.”

Copious clips of Karloff’s acting are included, interspersed with commentary by directors (Guillermo del Toro, Roger Corman, John Landis, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich), fellow actors (Christopher Plummer, Stefanie powers, Ron Perlman, Dick Powell), and film scholars (David J. Skal, Christopher Frayling, Gregory Mank, Leonard Maltin). The documentary doesn’t just offer a career retrospective, but also an analysis of the skills and traits that led to Karloff’s acting success. For all his embodiment of monsters and menacing criminals, Karloff had an uncanny knack for eliciting sympathy and conveying elegance. Underneath all those famous makeups applied by the likes of Jack Pierce was a dedicated thespian; perhaps more than anything else, Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster sketches a portrait of the consummate professional.

An endearing man who gave fearful performances, Karloff has left an enduring legacy, one that this wonderful documentary perfectly captures and will only help to perpetuate.

Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#13, #12, #11

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]


13. “King Pest” (1835)

For an ostensibly comic tale, “King Pest” features some strikingly macabre imagery. A pair of drunken, bill-dodging sailors are chased off into one of London’s shunned plague districts, a place of “gloom, silence, pestilence, and death.” Decay is the dominant motif here: “Fallen houses choked up the streets. The most fetid and poisonous smells everywhere prevailed”–these coming in large part from the rotting carcasses of those who foolishly ventured into the area. The sailors enter the ruins of an undertaker’s shop, only to discover a group of grotesque imbibers inside. Poe yokes together the potable and the funereal, showing King Pest and his Death-worshipping court draped in borrowed palls and burial garments (one member actually wears a “mahogany coffin”) and drinking from skulls. These ghoulish boozers soon threaten to drown the sailors in a “hogshead of October beer,” and while the tale ends on a positive note (the sailors run off, in quest of further libation, with two of King Pest’s female followers), there is a dark undercurrent flowing through the narrative that suggests the author’s own awareness of the fatal dangers of alcoholism.


12. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841)

Although hailed as a seminal detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” cannot be segregated from Poe’s Gothic tales. The nocturnally-bent narrator and C. Auguste Dupin haunt a place the Ushers would feel right at home in, “renting and furnishing in a style which suited the rather fantastic gloom of our common temper, a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions.” Even the puzzling crimes of the title are marked by the “excessively outré,” the “brutal ferocity of these deeds.” A victim’s hair has been ripped right out of the scalp in clumps, her throat so savagely slashed that the head falls from the body. The upending of reason by madness and death is signaled by the fate of the other victim, stuffed head-down up a chimney. Dupin ultimately restores order by discovering the cause of the late-night carnage, but the grim nature of the crime scene lingers in the reader’s mind just as much as the ingenious solution of a locked-room mystery.


11. “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846)

Merriment capitulates to the macabre in this dark carnival tale of excessive vengeance. Hellbent on redressing some unspecified slight, the devious, dissembling Montresor lures his “friend” Fortunato down into the catacombs beneath his Italian palazzo. Montresor’s short narrative is long on black humor and verbal cleverness (e.g. the trowel-brandishing narrator’s insistence that he is belongs to the brotherhood of masons). A bravura performance, to be sure, yet one can’t help but wonder what the drunken, jester-dressed Fortunato could possibly have done to justify ending up walled up alive inside Montresor’s vault. Still, Poe offers more than a portrait of a remorseless sociopath, as can be seen in the closing paragraph when Montresor references his own heartsickness. His very compulsion to tell (confess?) his story–to shed light on his dark crime a half-century after the fact–hints at his being haunted by his past act of fiendish retribution and now fearing (while facing his own mortality) the fate of his soul. [Incidentally, this suggestion of guilt and dread is what I picked up on and developed in my 2009 sequel (Pseudopod #166) to Poe’s story, “Something There Is.”]


Lore Report: “Throwing Voices” (Episode 191)

There are a lot of deeper concepts that can be discussed in relation to the tradition of John Frum, but the thing I want us all to notice is right on the surface: it took just a couple of generations for an entire community to buy into a whole new piece of folklore.  And it makes you wonder: if something new can be that influential, how much more so would a tradition that’s thousands of years older and much more terrifying?

The devils are in the details in the latest episode of the Lore podcast, as host Aaron Mahnke deals with stories of demonic possession throughout history. Refreshingly, Mahnke takes a predominantly non-Catholic approach to the subject. A good portion of the narrative is devoted to John Darrell, an ostensible exorcist working his cures in 16th Century England. High art (a connection to one of Shakespeare’s plays is established) as well as the lowbrow (an accusation of witchcraft via flatulence is somewhat cheekily referenced) are treated here, and Mahnke also invokes pop culture by relating the impact the film The Exorcist had upon him as a teenager. This a strong podcast right through the closing segment, a tale of alleged possession that proves just how appropriate a choice was made for the episode’s title. “Throwing Voices” is an episode that Lore listeners will certainly hearken to with rapt attention.