Edgar Allan Poe’s classic Gothic poem “The Raven” is a pop culture fixture, permeating the realms of film and TV, literature and music, professional football and professional wrestling alike. But little did I know (until I stumbled upon this webpage a few days ago) that the poem has also been transformed into a glorious pop-up book by David Pelham and Christopher Wormell. First published in 2016, The Raven: A Pop-Up Book is now a pricey collector’s item, but this quaint tome can still be pondered on a midnight dreary by watching the video below:
All the lessons I learned from those series [The Haunting of Hill House; The Haunting of Bly Manor] came to a head as I told Netflix I wanted to tackle some of the most important and iconic horror fiction ever written: I wanted to do a series based on the collected works of Poe, and I didn’t want to pull any punches. I wanted to tap into that feeling I had as a child reading his work for the first time; I wanted the show to fly without a safety net. I wanted to make something dark, beautiful, mad, and dangerous.
–Mike Flanagan, Foreword (The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories That Inspired the Netflix Series)
Titles such as Hush, Gerald’s Game, and Doctor Sleep have established Mike Flanagan as a preeminent horror-film director. But his latest streaming effort, Netflix’s The Fall of the House of Usher, furnishes further proof that Flanagan does his best work in the limited-series format.
Perhaps the more apt heading here would be The Rise and Fall of the House of Usher, as the series tracks the changing fortunes of a contemporary American empire–a family that has grown filthy rich from hawking a dubious opioid dubbed Ligodone. Much like The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass, The Fall of the House of Usher presents a fractured storyline. The series jumps deftly back and forth between time periods: the year 1979, when fledgling schemers Roderick and Madeline Usher plot to wrest control of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals, and attend a fateful New Year’s Eve celebration at a Manhattan bar; the present day, when assistant U.S. attorney C. Auguste Dupin has been called to the crumbling childhood home of Roderick Usher to hear the ailing, grieving patriarch confess his criminal trespasses at last; and the weeks just prior, during which all six of Roderick’s heirs perished, each in spectacularly tragic fashion. This achronological narrative approach naturally builds suspense, raising several mini-mysteries: Which of the Usher offspring is the alleged informant working with the Feds to take down the family? What became of Roderick’s beloved first wife Annabel Lee? How exactly did the ambitious Roderick and Madeline execute their hostile takeover of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals? Which hapless character is entombed behind a brick wall in the bowels of the company headquarters? Why is the ominously opportunistic Verna carrying out a vendetta against the Ushers?
Apropos of Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher combines the grotesque and the arabesque, the gory and the ornate. In this modernized-Gothic adaptation, the setting shifts from glossy offices and glamorous New York City apartments to abandoned factories and derelict domiciles (the stormy-night scenes of Roderick’s confession in a candlelit parlor–while Madeline bangs curiously around the basement–are the height of chiaroscuro ambiance and nerve-wracking tension). These locales form arenas of tremendous drama, as Flanagan offers clever updates of a host of traditional Poe motifs: premature burial and postmortem haunting, murder and madness, romance and bereavement, intemperance and terribly reflective doppelgangers.
The series boasts a terrific cast of actors (including recurring Flanagan players such as Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, and Samantha Sloyan), who give uniformly superb performances. Bruce Greenwood excels as Roderick, a modern-day Gothic hero-villain, at once debonair and debauched. Mary McDonnell, meanwhile, isn’t outshined when it comes to revealing dark depths of character: she utterly convinces as the cold and conniving Madeline. Carla Gugino, who adopts various disguises/personae as she stalks the Ushers, is a joy to watch operate. She complexly embodies a sinister supernatural figure whose portrayal could have slipped to the simply campy. Perhaps the standout of the whole ensemble, though, is Mark Hamill as the gruff and gravelly-voiced family attorney/enforcer Arthur Pym (a.k.a. “The Pym Reaper”). Much like the protagonist of Poe’s only novel, this Pym has quite an intriguing personal history, one (had Flanagan not severed ties with Netflix) that would make for a compelling spinoff series.
Undeniably, the source material incorporated here has long since been entrenched in global pop culture, yet The Fall of the House of Usher still manages to give fresh twist to the familiar. The audience has a pretty good idea where episodes with titles such as “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” or “The Pit and the Pendulum” are headed, but surprises nonetheless abound (the series also benefits from unexpected combinations of Poe works–e.g., “The Gold-Bug” and “William Wilson”; “Morella” and “Berenice”). And the fun inheres in the journey as much as the destination: the setup of the episode-concluding set piece kills, which are stunningly visualized. The show consistently serves viewers grim fare, but it is seasoned throughout by a delightful sense of black humor. Poe lovers will be enraptured by the profusion of allusion (and explicit quotation), and fans of Flanagan’s series adaptations of the classics will cherish this masterful mashup of a horror legend’s macabre oeuvre.
[For the October 19th highlight, click here.]
As Graymalk infiltrates the old manse (one candidate for the center of the pattern), Snuff hangs outside and has a lengthy chat with Nightwind. Lots of information is exchanged (some misinformation, too, as Snuff misleads the owl about the “dog” seen lurking around Larry Talbot’s place). We learn that the Good Doctor has a strange giant secreted in his basement (a Frankensteinian monster who nearly throttles Graymalk later in the chapter when clutching her like Lennie petting a rabbit in Of Mice and Men). The motive behind the officer’s murder is revealed: “It was a ceremonial killing–dues [paid by Vicar Roberts] for getting into the Game late.” Nightwind and Snuff also discuss the great white raven seen flying around, whom Snuff suspects is the familiar for the vicar. Albeit albino, this raven recalls the famous black bird of ill omen in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. Furthermore, the raven’s given name, Tekela, suggests “Tekeli-li,” the dreadful cry made by the mysterious white birds in Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (and echoed in later works of weird fiction such as H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and August Derleth’s “The Return of Hastur”). Across nineteen previous nights, Zelazny’s novel has delighted the reader with its broad allusiveness; the additional invocation of Poe represents the highlight for October 20th.
The new film Raven’s Hollow (now streaming on Shudder) no doubt conveys autumnal ominousness (e.g., supernaturally gusting leaves, human scarecrow sacrifices). Not only in its title, but also in its very plot–which has West Point cadet Edgar Poe investigating a series of bizarre murders in the remote, specter-haunted New York village of Raven’s Hollow–the film evokes Tim Burton’s 1999 classic Sleepy Hollow. Unfortunately, such parallels only accentuate how much Raven’s Hollow pales in comparison to its illustrious Gothic-horror predecessor.
Whereas Sleepy Hollow is steeped in charming ambience and wicked wit, Raven’s Hollow proves bleak and joyless. The film gets off to a gripping start, but then bogs down in a sluggishly-paced, folk-horror-style plot (involving a legendary local entity called the Raven). The cast, led by William Mosely as Poe and Melanie Zanetti as Charlotte Ingram (echoing Christina Ricci’s role as romantic interest/suspected witch Katrina Van Tassel in Sleepy Hollow), gives largely lethargic performances. The climax underwhelms, in terms of both its revelations and its visuals. Suspect use of CGI creates the feel of a made-for-Syfy movie, aligning Raven’s Hollow more with the ridiculous (2007”s Headless Horseman) than the sublime (Sleepy Hollow).
Disappointing on several levels, Raven’s Hollow employs facile allusions to the work of Edgar Allan Poe throughout (e.g., a stable hand who is named Usher just because; a mutilated body that is hidden under the floorboards for no reason really relevant to the plot). Also, the film’s positing that Poe’s experiences in Raven’s Hollow inspired him to produce his masterpiece poem decades later is unconvincing and arguably nonsensical (considering the actual content of “The Raven”).
Raven’s Hollow gets the fall season of spooky viewing off to a lackluster start. Hopefully, there will be much better fare to sample in the weeks ahead–and also later this year, when another film featuring Poe as a young cadet/murder investigator (The Pale Blue Eye) lands in theaters and streams on Netflix.
[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]
“The Coffin” (1947)
Mr. Charles Braling is a “badly dying” man of 70, feverishly engages in “a carnival of labor”: constructing an unusual version of a burial casket. His lazy, grasping, scheming younger brother Richard, meanwhile, scoffs at Charles’s bizarre efforts. When Charles drops dead upon completion of the coffin, Richard vindictively orders for his brother to be buried in a meager pine coffin instead of the “Braling Economy Casket.” But this is exactly what Charles had expected of his wretched sibling. When Richard gets into Charles’s creation (believing that Charles has hidden his riches somewhere inside it), he discovers that the coffin has been designed to entrap him. Charles has married robotics with mortuary science: the Braling Economy Casket begins to replace Richard’s blood with formaldehyde. It conveniently conducts (via organ music and Charles’s voice recording) a funeral sermon. Eschewing pallbearers, the coffin transports itself out into the yard, and then completes the proceedings by digging a grave and burying itself underground.
Drawing upon Poe’s favorite theme of premature burial, Bradbury offers a clever variation on the tale of comeuppance. This Dark Carnival story (which combines elements of horror, crime, and even science fiction, with its futuristic coffin) also furnishes early proof of the versatility of Bradbury, a writer destined to transcend the shudder pulps.
[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]
“The Smiling People” (1946)
Mr. Greppin is obsessed with noise, to the point that it has become a phobia with him: “Every sound was a fear. so each sound had to be muffled, gotten to and eliminated.” He rigs his house to maximize the “sensation of silence,” from double carpeting to a stilled grandfather clock that is described as a “glass-fronted coffin.” This quiet-as-the-grave-approach extends to Greppin’s relatives (Aunt Rose, Uncle Dimity, cousins Lila and Sam) who share his home. They form a strange tableau around the dinner table, static as mannequins in their placement there. It soon grows quite apparent that Greppin is mentally unbalanced, and that the others’ pronounced silence is not merely the result of diligent training. Greppin (whose thoughts recur to a fateful day two weeks earlier) was determined not only to quiet his nagging relatives, but also to transform “their solemn, puritanical masks” into smiles. The tale concludes in savage fashion: the multiple murderer Greppin has slit his family’s throats “in a half moon from ear to ear,” giving “the horrid illusion of a smile under their chins.”
For all its jaw-dropping violence, “The Smiling People” disappoints because it might have been crafted to be even more shocking. Bradbury gives away the game too early, leaving little doubt that Greppin is a knife-wielding maniac (given Greppin’s criminal insanity, the tale could have misdirected the reader by presenting imagined dialogue from the dead relatives). But what is even more plainly evident in this tale of deadly obsession is Bradbury’s literary debt to Edgar Allan Poe (the climactic break-in by policeman and discovery of the viewpoint character’s crimes parallels the endings of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”). As the deranged Greppin also anticipates Psycho‘s Norman Bates, “The Smiling People” falls squarely within a tradition of American Gothic horror and thus stands as a historically significant work within the Bradbury oeuvre.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.