Edgar Allan PoeOf course I have always been aware of Edgar Allan Poe, but I was never really interested in reading any of his works. That was until last year- when the film 'The Raven' hit cinema screens. Recently released on DVD, the Raven provoked me to read some of Poe's short stories.
The Pit and Pendulum (1843)
The pit and pendulum is one of Poe’s short stories.
An unnamed narrator opens the story by revealing that he has been sentenced to death during the time of the Inquisition (an institution of the Catholic government in the 15th/16th century Spain that persecuted all Protestants and heretical Catholics).
When the narrator reveals he has been sentenced to death he faints. When he wakes he faces complete darkness. The narrator is confused as the usual fate of the Inquisition normally takes the form of hanging.
Walking around the walls leads the narrator to think he has been captured and is being prisoned in Toledo, an Inquisition prison. When attempting to explore the tomb and see how wide it is the narrator stumbles and collapses to the ground.
Waking to water and bread the narrator continues his exploration of the tomb in complete darkness. He trips and falls again finding he is on the edge of, what he assumes, is a pit in the centre of the tomb. He finds a stone and throws it into the abyss, believing it to be quite deep- the narrator explains the pit is a function of surprise. After finding more water the narrator passes out again.
He wakes up to find the prison dimly lit, and remarks that he overestimated its size. The narrator finds he is now bound to a wooden board by a long strap wrapped around his body. Looking up the narrator sees the figure of time painted on the ceiling. Time has been made into a machine, a pendulum- which swings from the ceiling- however it is not like any ordinary pendulum. The pendulum is constructed with a razor-sharp crescent and is its descent towards him.
Rats begin to swarm up out of the pit and surround him and the food which was left out for the captive. The narrator remains hopeful as the pendulum is swinging and descending very slowly. The rats climb on top of the narrator and chew through the strap keeping him on the table. As the pendulum nears his heart and tears some of his clothing- the rats break through the strap. When he gets up the pendulum retracts the narrator is positive he is being watched…
…and that’s when the walls of the prison begin to move inwards. The narrator realises it will move him towards the pit in the centre. However, the walls stop moving inwards just as the narrator begins to fall- to his great surprise someone latches onto him and prevents him falling any further.
The French general Lasalle and his army have successfully taken over the prison in their effort to terminate the Inquisition.
The Masque of Red Death (1845)
A disease known as the Red Death plagues the fictional country where this story takes place. The Prince, Prospero, instead of mourning the plague – like many others, he instead feels hopeful. He decides to lock the gates of his palace in order to fend off the plague, ignoring the disease ravaging the land.
After several months he decides to throw a masquerade ball. For the celebration, he decorates seven rooms in his house, each having a different theme- Blue, purple, green, orange, white and violet with the final room being black. This room also contains an ebony clock, when is chimes each hour the sound is so loud that everyone stops talking and the orchestra stops playing. When the clock is not sounding the rooms are filled with people enjoying the masquerade, the black room is the only place not filled with people.
At midnight a new guest appears, dressed in a mask that looks like the face of a corpse and his garments covered in blood suggesting that he is a victim of the Red Death. The prince is angry at the guest and finally catches up to the guest in the black room. As soon as he confronts the figure the prince dies. As soon as rest of the party guests enter the room they find there is nobody underneath the costume. The entire party soon dies, for the Red Death has infiltrated the castle.
‘Darkness and decay and the Red Death’ have at last triumphed.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue
This is one of Poe’s detective fictions- the story centring on who killed Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter Mademoiselle Camille.
An unnamed narrator begins this tale of murder and criminal detection with discussion of the analytic mind. He describes the analyst as driven paradoxically by both intuition and the moral inclination to disentangle what confuses his peers. He adds that the analyst takes delight in mathematical study and in the game of checkers, which allows the calculating individual to practice the art of detection—not only of the moves integral to the game, but also the demeanor of his opponent. The narrator argues, however, that analysis is not merely ingenuity. He states that while the ingenious man may, at times, be analytic, the calculating man is, without fail, always imaginative.
The narrator describes how he met C. Auguste Dupin- both men were searching for the same book at an obscure library, in Paris. We soon see Dupin’s great understanding of the mind- as he describes what the narrator is pondering over in his mind.
Soon, thereafter the narrator and Dupin read the newspaper headlines about a horrible murder at the Rue Morgue. One night at three a.m the neighbours hear L’Espanaye and her daughter screaming from their apartment. The neighbours hear the voices of two people and then silence.
The story moves on from here, showing the newspapers witnesses and how they remember the scene of the crime. The narrator and Dupin then begin to take a look around the L’Espanaye’s apartment for clues as the police are at a loss. The two men that the witnesses heard were unable to hide the body of the daughter up the chimney as it impossible for only two men to perform such a physical task.
Dupin summarizes that no human could have performed these acts and upon summoning a sailor to the scene he learns he is right…
Learning that a sailor has lost an ape- it soon becomes clear who is responsible for the murders in the Rue Morgue.
The Oval Portrait
‘The Oval Portrait’ is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe involving the disturbing circumstances surrounding a portrait in a chateau. It is one of his shortest stories only filling two pages in its initial publication in 1842.
The tale begins with an injured narrator seeking refuge in an abandoned mansion in the Apennines- we have no explanation of his wounds. He spends his time admiring the works of art decorating the strangely- shaped room. He eventually discovers a painting which shocks him which he refers to as ‘absolute life-likeliness of expression’. He spends a moment in silent awe until he cannot bear to look at it anymore- then he consults a book which describes the paintings found in the house.
The reminder of the story is a selection from the book which discusses when it was created etc. The painting was by an eccentric artist depicting his young wife, but he grew more and more obsessed with the painting to the point he forgot about his wife’s personal needs. When he finishes the painting and looks up at his wife he discovers that she is dead and her spirit was transferred into the lifelike painting.