by Christina Sampson
Many teachers will also undoubtedly fail to mention Poe’s abilities as a literary critic or his efforts as a magazine publisher, magazine editor and painter.
Also unlikely to be mentioned is Poe’s history as a bit of a ladies’ man after Virginia Clemm died, and how he was embroiled in several socially dramatic episodes involving multiple ladies, rumor mongering and the questioning of his honor.
Instead, students are given the idea that Poe had only one great love, his very young cousin, Virginia Clemm.
There are more ways to send chills up someone’s spine than simply scaring them with beating dead hearts and repetitive ravens, and Poe deftly handled them all, particularly horror along a more subtle, disquieting vein.
So, if you’re as tired of the same old Poe on Halloween as I am, try reading one of the four following short stories. They’re all pretty easy reading and, although in some there are similarities to his more famous works, these tales are no less enjoyable.
All quotes taken from: Poe, Edgar Allan. The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Random House Modern Library Edition, 1992, United States and Canada. Editors unlisted.
Biographical information: Since I’ve been reading Poe and all about him since grade school, much of the information was taken off the top of my head, as it were. However, confirmation of facts was conducted using the introduction of the above book as well as one other. It was:
Poe, Harry Lee. Edgar Allan Poe: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories, Metro Books, 2008, New York.
The Black Cat
The unnamed narrator starts out as an animal lover who animals naturally gravitate towards. His wife is the same way and the two quickly establish a homestead complete with birds, a dog, rabbits, a monkey and a black cat named Pluto.
At first relieved, and even a little saddened, by the animal’s terror of him, soon the narrator again begins to feel an irrational, burning "perverseness" for Pluto. And so, "in cold blood" the narrator grabs Pluto, puts a noose around his neck and hangs him from a tree in the garden.
Yet again, an irrational hatred of the animal arises within the narrator. The cat, however, nearly suffocates the narrator with affection: when he sits, the cat is immediately upon his lap, when he walks, the cat is always underfoot.
But of course, this does not mark the end of the tale. The narrator does successfully hide the body, and even the cat disappears, but a happy ending is not be had…
This is one of the very rare stories Poe has written that features a happy ending… after, of course, some deeply disturbing events.
This brings him to reflect that when it comes to something horrid happening to the individual, there can be nothing more terrible than to be buried alive. Fair enough, but it soon becomes apparent that the author has an unsettling obsession with the idea of mistaken burials.
He even goes on to give us four mini-macabre tales (which honestly, make this story worth reading in and of themselves).
In the first, the wife of a respected Congressman appeared to have been struck dead by an unknown malady and was thus interred in the family vault for three years. When the vault is opened again to receive a sarcophagus, the chaotic remnants in the tomb tell a ghastly story of a fight against a horrific fate.
The woman, awakening in a coffin, apparently manages to break it open by moving around enough that if falls off the shelf it was on and breaks open. An empty lamp on the floor tells us that, for a little while at least, she had some light.
Using a piece of her coffin, the woman apparently struck against the iron door at the top of the vault’s stairs to attract someone’s attention. She died, but instead of falling down the stairs, her shroud catches on some iron work and she instead rots standing up, a grim hostess greeting those who opened the vault’s door.
The second story is a romantic tragedy with a suitably morbid twist but happy ending nonetheless.
In it, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy family rejects the love a poor Parisian journalist, instead marrying a diplomat. The decision results in forcing her to endure several years of a terrible marriage during which her husbands is horrible to her. One day, she appears to die and is buried in the village cemetery.
The Parisian journalist, ever the romantic, journeys to the grave in hopes of exhuming her body and cutting off her hair so he can keep it. While cutting off the "luxuriant tresses," the woman opens her eyes! Using "certain powerful restoratives suggested by no little medical learning," he manages to restore her to full health.
Saving her from dying in an early grave wins the woman’s heart over to the journalist and the two flee to America. Twenty years later, the couple returns to France, thinking the woman will no longer be recognized by anyone they know. Sure enough, her first husband immediately recognizes her and claims her as his. The issue goes to court and the judges decide that enough time has passed that her first husband has neither equitable or legal claim to her.
Finally, the reader is told about an artillery officer "of gigantic stature and robust health" who is thrown from a horse and fractures his skull. Eventually falling into a coma — despite being bled — he is deemed dead and buried with "indecent haste" in a public cemetery.
A passing villager, insisting that he felt the soil moving beneath him as he sat on the grave, rushes to the village to tell him. Finally, the villagers, persuaded by his insistent terror, dig up his "shamefully shallow" grave and find him alive. He is taken to the hospital and, after recovery, is even able to explain how he heard people walking on his grave and as such tried to make a commotion from within his coffin. (Poe does account for the one hole in this tale, explain that air was admitted to the "loosely filled" grave through the "excessively porous soil."
Ironically, the poor officer is then subjected to the "galvanic battery" (which, from what I can gather from this and other stories, is kind of like the pads used to shock a person’s heart back into beating… only, without either the knowledge, technology, or voltage control we have today), which kills him.
The galvanic battery plays a role in the next mini-horror story, but that one I will leave to be read by you. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Moving on to our narrator, we soon discover he has "catalepsy," a condition which essentially causes him to fall into mini-comas. We also learn that his obsession with being buried alive has taken over his life. He needs to be around people all the time, he thinks of nothing else all day and dreams of it at night. He makes his friends literally swear they will never allow him to be buried until or unless his body has actually begun to decompose.
And then, one day, he awakens to find himself surrounded by a structure on all sides, no more than six inches above his face… surely, a coffin. He either hallucinates in his terror or perhaps really does glimpse the horrors of a Hell in which every grave in the world is simultaneously flung open and millions of souls were buried too early and rustle in misery.
The ending is rather surprising, given that this is a Poe story. However, it is not unwelcome and does nothing to detract from the disquieting thoughts reading this story may lead one to have, the vivid horror imagery, or the signature way in which Poe leads the reader slowly led into the ruffled mind of his narrator.
Translation of opening quote: "The great misfortune of not being alone." – La Bruyere
Don’t let the French, German, and possibly Hebrew — or perhaps ancient Greek or Arabic — sprinkled throughout the beginning of this story scare you away. After all, Poe even translates the German for you (a courtesy not often extended by him to the reader).
As evening falls, he becomes absorbed in watching the throngs of people outside the window, at first just watching them as a group, and then slowly classifying them into classes (clerks, gentry, pickpockets, etc.). Fittingly, as the day grows late, the less genteel, more harsh-featured working class citizens begin to appear while making their way home.
Then, just as a fog envelops the street, the narrator’s attention is arrested by a face of a man so fiendish, so devilish, our friend is immediately captivated by him. So much so, in fact, that he grabs his coat and hat and rushes after him.
He notices the mysterious man is dressed in dirty, but beautiful, clothes and that he is carrying both a diamond and a dagger.
The man goes to a street that is slightly less crowded and seems to aimless cross the street and change direction for no apparent reason, at one time even almost catching the narrator in the act of following him.
After following the man for a while, it becomes apparent that the man prefers to be immersed in a crowd and that; actually, being apart from a throng of people seems to cause him almost physical pain.
Our narrator follows and follows the man, finally realizing that the man literally cannot be left alone. He must be within the midst of people to be spared an agonizing pain. Having realized the horrible, personal, eternal torture of the man, he abandons his quest to follow the man.
The Corneille quote that begins this story translates to: "Weep, weep, my eyes water and melt you! Half of my life put the other to the grave."
Or so I thought, when I first read it in sixth grade. But somehow, I kept thinking back to it, images from the ending lingering in my brain, and the more I thought of it, the more I became aware of being a little disturbed. After all, it was possible, wasn’t it…?
I read it again. I realized that, yes, this was definitely Poe using a very wry sense of humor. It was almost like Mark Twain in the way it poked a bit of fun at the tightly regulated social rules and rituals of the gentry (I didn’t know it in sixth grade, but that makes sense: Poe was a southern gentleman, and took that station very seriously). But the image in my head at the end of the book, of that lump by the door… that wasn’t really funny at all when you thought about it. Actually, it was pretty creepy, at least to me.
But I digress.
The two men enjoy a wonderful conversation during which the general rhapsodizes about the "mechanical age" in which they live and all the convenience machines offer.
Smith quickly sets about finding the answer the way most gentry would — by seeking out any gossip about the general from his friends. He attempts to whisper with a friend in church but the pastor — Dr. Drummummupp (get it? Drum ‘em up?) — gets so angry he almost breaks the pulpit in half by banging on it.
Everyone seems to agree on one thing: something positively horrid happened to the general while he was fighting against the Bugaboos and the Kickapoos (who we know only as "Indians"), the general was extraordinarily brave, and for some reason everyone also tends to starts babbling about modern times and technology.
--- Christina Sampson