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.

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