I’ve loved Poe’s work ever since I was introduced to him as a kid. Bedtime reading has always been a thing for me, so you can imagine what happened the first time I read “The Pit and the Pendulum” before bed – parental shouting to “Go the hell to sleep!” followed by threats of what would happen if I didn’t go to sleep, followed by nightmares. Ah, childhood.
Needless to say, I had to have more. Some of that “more” included these tales which quickly became favorites. Re-reading them for this assignment made me realize something I’d never noticed before – they are all written from the killer’s perspective. Also, that “The Black Cat” is basically a re-write of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Both of those two stories involve a nameless protagonist who is bopping along, being a normal human being until one day he develops a twitch – he becomes obsessively, bitterly irritated by something he’d previously professed to “love” – a cat, and an older man, who may, or may not be, his father. In the cat’s case, the cat became too attached to him, practically tripping him by winding around the narrator’s legs. The old man never did anything to the protagonist, he just had a pale “vulture’s eye” that annoyed, and then infuriated, him.
We watch, helplessly, as he becomes more and more obsessed with the objects of his obsession until he finally, brutally kills them. The cat he leaves hanging in a tree – after having gouged one of its eyes out – oh, and the narrator’s wife gets killed too, then buried behind the wall. The old man gets dismembered, and then buried beneath the floor boards.
Both these tales of madness and murder are told by unreliable narrators who refuse to believe in their own madness. Could a madman describe horrors like these in such perfect detail? Could a madman exercise such monstrous patience, and cunning? Could a madman appear so cool and calm even after the police appear?
The short answer: Yes. Yes, he could.
Poe’s narrators go to great lengths to convince us they are not mad, they could never be mad, while the whole time they are very, very obviously mad.
The third story, “The Cask of Amontillado”
– even though it too is told from the perspective of the murderer – is different from these two stories for a number of reasons:
- There is no obsession over some minor point, developing into a monomaniacal hatred over time (unless you count whatever “slights” Montresor has suffered, which I suppose we can)
- The atmosphere of this story is light, even witty at times; it takes place during a carnival (and not during the Dark Ages, at night, which is how the other stories feel)
- The killer’s motives are somewhat more apparent to both him, and us – he seeks revenge for some former slights at the hand of a social superior (the murderers in “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” both insist there was “no reason” for their crimes, they just happened)
- The narrator of this story appears to have gotten away with his crime! (unlike the other two killers who are so overcome with guilt they give themselves away just when the police arrive)
However, the ending is familiar in one important way – the murderer walls up his victim. Only here, the victim, poor Fortunato, is not dead when he ends up in the wall. He is still alive! Poe has been leading us from murder to murder to murder. Each one more awful than the last, until finally, he reveals his ultimate horror – it’s not getting accidentally killed like the wife in “The Black Cat”, and it’s not being deliberately killed and dismembered as in “The Tell-Tale Heart. For Poe the worst kind of death is a long, lingering one; where you’re trapped in a dark, forgotten place, and where no one can hear you scream.
And that’s why we’re still reading Poe more than a hundred and fifty years later.