[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.”]