Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#1

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]


1. “Berenice” (1835)

This early tale contains all the hallmarks that would make Poe’s fiction famous: a Gothic setting and supernatural atmosphere, psychological complexity and unreliable narration. In many ways, “Berenice” reads like a narrative forerunner of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It is set an a family mansion, and haunting its “gloomy, grey, hereditary halls” is an unnervingly sickly female: the title character, whose epilepsy and tendency to fall into “trance” states compares with the catatonia of Madeline Usher. Just as Roderick Usher’s mind is figured as a haunted palace, the narrator Egaeus here refers to “the disordered chamber of my brain.” Roderick’s hyperacute senses parallel Egaeus’s “nervous intensity of interest”–the “undue, intense, and morbid attention” he fixes upon common objects (his monomania is greatly excited by the sight of his cousin/betrothed’s enigmatic smile). Both tales also deal with a favorite Poe theme, premature burial, but “Berenice” gives the already uncanny idea another disturbing turn of the screw.

After Berenice has an epileptic seizure and is pronounced dead, Egaeus awakens “from a confused and exciting dream” at midnight inside his library (a situation that prefigures “The Raven”). Egaeus, who earlier admitted to being an opium abuser, hears the “shrill and piercing female shriek of a female voice” ringing in his ears, and has a vague recollection of committing some horrific deed. A distraught servant soon arrives with troubling news, whispering “of a violated grave–of a disfigured body discovered upon its margin–a body enshrouded, yet still breathing, still palpitating, still alive!” Attention is then drawn to the narrator’s garments, “muddy and clotted with gore”; his hand is “indented with the impress of human nails.” A spade is propped conspicuously against the chamber’s wall. In the shocking closing sentence, the trembling Egaeus drops an ebony box and sends “some instruments of dental surgery” and “many white and glistening substances” scattering across the floor. The monomaniac, Poe reveals, has not only dug up Berenice’s body, but also hacked out the still-living woman’s teeth.

“Berenice” touched a nerve with contemporary readers, many of whom wrote letters of complaint to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger (the magazine that published the piece). Perhaps this public outcry contributed to Poe’s decision to edit subsequent publications of the tale. He deleted four paragraphs that make for quite a macabre scene. Learning of Berenice’s demise, Egaeus goes to view her presumed corpse (which has been placed atop her curtained bed inside an open coffin). The fall of the “sable draperies” upon his shoulders cuts Egaeus off from the others present in the room and encloses him “in the strictest communion with the deceased.” The “pernicious influence of mortality” causes–or at least Egaeus believes so–“a deleterious odor” to emanate from the body. But he also detects the faint stir of a finger inside the enshrouding cerements, and notices that the band around her jaw has somehow broken loose, exposing her “ghastly teeth” and “livid lips,” “wreathed into a species of smile.” Such unexpected vitality and Egaeus’s frightened reaction to it (he “rushe[s] forth a maniac from that apartment of triple horror, and mystery, and death”) suggest that Poe has scripted more than just a tale of morbid fixation. He might actually have written a subtle variation on a vampire narrative (in which Egaeus’s crude dental surgery on Berenice represents a defensive de-fanging rather than a twisted collecting of tiny ivory trophies).

Especially in its original, uncensored version, “Berenice” packs a wicked bite. Filled with graphic gruesomeness and sinister ambiguity alike, this unforgettable tale earns the honor of being slotted here as Poe’s most macabre work of short fiction.


One thought on “Countdown: Poe’s 19 Most Macabre Tales–#1

  1. On a side note, here’s a strange case of life echoing art. In high school, I dated a girl whose smile (full of tiny, bright, perfectly aligned teeth) fascinated me. At the time, I was working on a paper on Poe’s stories for English class, and I told my girlfriend about Egaeus’s fixation on his beloved’s teeth. I didn’t mention to her the actual title of that particular tale, but imagine my shock when I first visited my girlfriend at her home and discovered the name of the street she lived on: “Bernice”!

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