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.


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