Reading Group #15 ('The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar')

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Reading Group #15 ('The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar')

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set. 1, 2011, 7:29pm

After reading the story, but only AFTER if this your first time with it, check out Harry Clarke's illustration. It's one of the few cases, for me, where an illustration only seems to DEEPEN the mystery and horror of an already bloodcurdling story...

Editat: set. 2, 2011, 8:28am

I don't really have too much to say about this story. It was creepy and I enjoyed it and what he was able to evoke in such a short story but by the time I got to the last paragraph I was expecting something much creepier to happen. After the build up I felt kind of let down.

Actually I do not think it is so much that the last paragraph was anti-climatic as that I was expecting something else to happen which didn't.

set. 2, 2011, 11:59am

I read this one years ago, but had completely forgotten it. Which is good and bad - good, because re-reading it today it felt fresh again; bad, because the reason I'd forgotten it is it's not among Poe's most memorable works. It's enjoyable when you read it, but it doesn't stick in my mind like various other of his works do (notably "Ligeia", "The Fall of the House of Usher", and "William Wilson").

set. 2, 2011, 5:41pm

Atmosphere is the primary pleasure I took from this story. It epitomises the period when “gentlemen” performed experiments, at least in Gothic stories, which nowadays would be regarded as the domain of learned institutions and would be conducted under the most rigorous of controls.

Also visible in this story is the social snobbery exemplified by the attitude that mere servants and nurses would not be credible witnesses to anything as serious as the experiment to be conducted.

In terms of terror, there was not a lot in the tale for the reader; only the description of the effect the circumstances had on those present and the attempt in the final sentence to shock and awe with the description of the putrid mass left on the bed.

An enjoyable story, albeit not earth shattering.

Editat: set. 3, 2011, 2:53am

I have to say I disagree about the shock value of the story, finding it truly unsettling, but this is with a caveat.

That caveat is that I first read this story at the tender age of ten or eleven years old, long before I had had any contact with more gruesome literary fare or, particularly, films. It stuck in my mind; and now, after a more 'liberal' immersion in the genre, it still seems to pull at the same strings it tightened at ten or eleven. So my caveat, then, is that while I find the story fairly disturbing, this may be more a 'remembered reaction' than a response I'd have were I to have read this for the first time. (Bear in mind I'm not trying to infer that any other reaction to 'Valdemar' is due to 'over-saturation' with nasty imagery in any other reader's mind. That would be pretty pretentious coming from THIS girl, haha!)

For me, though, at a young age, the image of a man suddenly collapsing into a pool of liquid after being held in hypnosis for eight months after death had some serious nightmarishness about it. That leads me to another point I'd make in defense of the story's creepiness: I find this one, as an adult, much creepier when thought of from 'spiritual' or 'metaphysical' angles: that is, I find the aspect that may have haunted Poe the hardest the most interesting thing in the story: that death can be toyed with at all. And then, by such 'rational,' scientific means (though albeit exotic by 19th century standards): no incantations or magic potions here. That gets me on a gut level, even still---puddle of liquid flesh or otherwise.

I can see why this was considered the very height of shock value in (I think) the 1840s. I agree that it's fairly tame by our current standards. Though I'll admit that that's also a fairly broad statement: there are stories with some serious years on them that most of us would agree can still chill the blood. I'd go back to 1907 or thereabouts when Blackwood penned my favorite short story ever, 'The Listener.' I was thrilled when it genuinely creeped most of you out on our group read: no small achievement for a 104-year-old short story. But I can see why this one ('Valdemar') has a different effect. It's certainly a very different kind of story.

Oh also, pgmcc: I agree with everything you said about the social snobbery. Good point!

set. 3, 2011, 5:37am

Good morning, Veilofisis.

I suspect my not finding the story shocking or scary is probably to do with a degree of saturation, predominantly caused by the movies I've seen over the years. Watching Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in various Dracula films, with the corpse decaying to dust in a matter of minutes, probably made the collapse of the body a bit less shocking.

This is not the fault of the story. In fact, one element the story did better than most was the description of the oozing liquid mess remaining on the bed. Big "yuk!" factor there.

By the way, I have become very used to having different views from other people about specific novels and stories. I used to wonder what was wrong with me, but then realised that there was nothing wrong with me (yes, I have a great case of denial) and that my reaction to a story was as valid as anyone else's.

In terms of "social snobbery", one of the things I love about reading older works of fiction is the glimpses one often gets of what attitudes and society were like when the novel was written. Authors will often have inserted this without realising it, thinking they were merely describing what was happening. This is not so valid for historical fiction where the author has not been living in the time they have set their story.

set. 3, 2011, 5:49am

Speaking of 'rationality', does anyone know what Poe himself thought of the scientificness or otherwise of mesmerism? (Personally, I have some difficulty thinking of it as very different from incantations and potions.)

set. 3, 2011, 6:41am

AndreasJ Interesting point. I haven't a clue what Poe thought of it.

I thought it interesting that his character in the story was still in the mode of thinking that mesmerism was something to do with magnetism or some other force eminating from the mesmeriser and that hand movements were an integral element of the process. There was no hint in Poe's story that it had anything to do with the mind of the subject.

set. 3, 2011, 8:15am

I found a wander around Wikipedia quite fascinating here.

The story is described as a 'hoax' in that Poe published it as a 'true story' and only later admitted it was fiction.

This was at a time (1840s) when James Braid's researches on hypnotism were still very controversial and subject not only to scepticism but to attack from at least one member of the clergy - so the story was very much on a 'hot potato' subject of the day. Quite an evil sense of humour, there, with his 'true story' business.

Also, if you read up on Mesmer and mesmerism, Poe, in some of the detail of the story, is clearly referring back to that stuff and, as Andreas suggests, in the popular imagination at least, there would very much have been a suggestion of the supernatural about what the narrator is doing (I think). The narrator is presenting it as strictly a scientific experiment but I suspect Poe was anticipating his audience regarding the narrator with an element of quite superstitious suspicion and horror.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I come to see the narrator as quite a horrific character. I have to ask myself how he got the two doctors to go along with what he was doing for all those months. When veilofisis writes about "'spiritual' or 'metaphysical' angles", I imagine Poe's contemporaries would have been rather more likely to automatically read the story from these angles than 21stC types and would have found the doctors' and narrator's behaviour seriously problematic. Which the narrator does seem to hint at in the opening lines.

I found the story kept developing and working itself out in my mind after I'd read it. I think Poe was deliberately giving the contemporary readers a lot of food for thought in this one and it's quite fun to try to put myself in their mindset.

set. 3, 2011, 9:25am

I must say all this background adds an enormous amount to this, what some of us would consider to be, rather pedestrian story. AndreasJ, thank you for the question. Rankamateur, thank you for the research. Veilofisis, thank you for prompting the reading of the story.

The contextualising of the story is brilliant and Poe's hoax angle is just wonderful.

set. 3, 2011, 10:06am

I agree that the hoax adds a lot to the tale. I find it humorous to think that once people actually believed this story.

set. 3, 2011, 10:35am

#11 I find it humorous to think that once people actually believed this story.

What? You mean it's not true? :-(

set. 3, 2011, 12:48pm

#1 - I was going to have a bite to eat. Then I looked at veil's illustration. I'm having second thoughts, now ...

set. 9, 2011, 3:02am

Alright, time to move on, I think. And also time for some more Blackwood. Another of my all-time favorites: 'The Kit-Bag.' I'll be curious to know if you guys find this one as effective as 'The Listener.' It's some marvelously creepy stuff...

New thread is up.

Editat: set. 27, 2018, 8:22pm

Fun to read this one again. Fun to find out about the 'alleged' hoax =D and that Poe knew how to stir it up by pressing the right buttons. Also, not my favourite by any means, because it lacks the melancholy longing in some stories, and the psychological torture in others. In this one, the concept alone is what's creepy, the how is interesting, as is the ending, but it's the furrowed brow I have throughout the reading experience that's different from the heart palpitations provided by most of his work. That image is a knockout punch for after the tales ends. Wowsa.

This tale is a rare one that I did not read as a young person. I came to it maybe 8 or 10 years ago for the first time, and something tells me I'm glad it unfolded that way.

set. 28, 2018, 7:51am

>15 frahealee:

I was going to comment but then thought it's probably been too long since I read any Poe and I might go awry. I really must re-read some of his stuff soon.