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.

 

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