Reading Group #36 (Poe: 'The Cask of Amontillado,' 'Ligeia,' 'The Pit and the Pendulum')

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Reading Group #36 (Poe: 'The Cask of Amontillado,' 'Ligeia,' 'The Pit and the Pendulum')

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oct. 25, 2012, 3:56am

Three threads at once? You heard right: 'TIS THE SEASON. So what the hell, why not?

I'm surprised we've yet to tackle these three, since each has had such a remarkable impact on modern lit (not even just Gothic or horror lit) and yet, each also owes a great deal to the Gothicism that came before Poe.

This will be a 'compare and contrast' thread on the stories indicated, along the lines of our previous 'author' threads, so feel free to veer off-topic into other Poe fictions and related work.

For those without a Poe collection, there are links here:

oct. 28, 2012, 12:45pm

I've made a start on this with a re-read of "The Cask of Amontillado". I'm more than a little long-winded, I'm afraid - I'm out of practice!

Here's what I've made of the first page - there will be more to follow, but considerably more concise, I hope.

On the face of it, this short story (only 6 1/2 pages long, including plentiful white space around the title, in the Penguin The Portable Edgar Allan Poe) is a straightforward narrative, in which the narrator tells how he lured another man to his death. It could, I think, be seen as a companion piece to, or maybe a reworking of, "The Tell-Tale Heart" (or maybe it would be the other way around - I haven’t checked the original publication dates).

The setting is Italy. More specifically from the references to the carnival season, I take it to be Venice. I’m not sure of the time period (Does the mention of British and Austrian millionaires set it after the Napoleonic wars, when the Venetian Republic had finally lost its independence? Given that the narrator is telling this fifty years after the event, that would make it ‘modern day’ for Poe, rather than a historical story).

The narrator’s name is withheld from the reader until about the halfway point of the story. The first name we read - almost the first name in the story - is that of his victim, Fortunato (an ironic name, surely, suggesting that he’s someone that fortune shines upon - as indeed he is, when he’s introduced to us: “a man to be respected and even feared.”).

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. We never learn what ‘injuries’ the narrator has suffered. We cannot judge whether we would consider them valid causes of complaint. We have to interpret events as seen through the narrator’s viewpoint. That’s the point. This is not a sensationalised, sadistic recounting of a grisly killing (or it’s not primarily that), it’s a psychological portrait - and a quick impressionistic pencil sketch rather than an oil painting.

It’s the insult that has pushed the narrator over the edge. It’s all about his self-image as a gentlemen, it’s a question of honour. It’s perhaps something of a cliché for Poe to ascribe these feelings to a Southern European nobleman (and one who, if I’ve placed the events of the story correctly in time, would be impoverished by, and chafing under, foreign rule). Of course these traits are also prominent in Poe’s own character.

The narrator goes on to explain that he believes "revenge is a dish best served cold" and has no intention of putting himself at risk. This is where Poe’s pschology differs from his creations. Poe was too hot-headed, I think, to hold these views himself. Again, it may be a rather clichéd view of the ‘southern (European) temperament’ that leads Poe to give these views to an Italian.

So, after explaining why (but perhaps the explanation only satisfying himself), the narrator tells us how he will be revenged on Fortunato.

nov. 4, 2012, 1:42pm

When Montressor (the narrator) springs his trap, it is in the middle of carnival. Fortunato has been drinking. When he sees Montressor he greets him in a friendly manner, although it is interpreted by the narrator as "he accosted me with excessive warmth".

Using psychological tricks to convince him (not appearing too eager, playing to his vanity by suggesting a mutual acquaintance would do the job as well) Montressor gets Fortunato into his family's ancestral vaults/wine cellars in order to judge the quality of a pipe of Amontillado. A pipe is 'a large cask' as a measure of capacity it's 126 US gallons or 105 brit. gallons (Collins English Dictionary, Third Edition (1991)). Amontillado is a type of sherry, although they are described as separate in the story, with sherry being much inferior. I don't know if Poe's made a mistake, or is reflecting local usage, or even undermining his characters claims to oenological expertise.

The Montressor family vaults are huge, deep, hanging with nitre (saltpetre). They seem more like a pre-echo of Lovecraft's cyclopean catacombs than a realistic description of the spaces beneath a palazzo. Poe would no doubt argue that this exaggeration was finely calculated to have a specific affect on the reader.

In general, the heightened emotional states of many of Poe's characters/narrators, the psychological states he explores, the psychological tricks his characters play, the overt attempts to play on the reader's moods, all seem to look forward to the twentieth century.

To digress a moment, US film and television in the '60s can seem very Poe-like. We think of the Corman films, but they are not so different from what was also on the big and the small screen: tv dramas had taken what could be called a psychological turn, William Shatner's angsty Captain Kirk is just one example. The plots, too, take the same turn. When the characters from Bonanza or The High Chaparral are dressed up in their Sunday best and in the middle of one of these dramas, you could be forgiven for thinking, for a moment, that you were watching an overlooked Corman/Poe film.

And of course, that staple of genre television, the detective series, has its origins in Poe's C. Auguste Dupin.

Editat: nov. 4, 2012, 6:22pm

Skipping to the end, Fortunato is manacled in the niche at the 'most remote end of the crypt' and is is being bricked up. He finally realises what's happening and begins to plead with Montressor, which leads to this final exchange:
"For the love of God, Montressor!"
"Yes", I said, "for the love of God!"

I have to confess that I didn't quite understand this when I first read tge story, but I suppose that Fortunato is appealing for mercy whilst Montressor is thinking that justice has been done.

Finally, we learn that the crime has gone undiscovered. There's one last question - who was the story being told to? There's that aside right at the start of the story - 'You, who so well know the nature of my soul' - could it be a priest?

nov. 8, 2012, 5:08pm

Flipping through my copy of 'The Portable Poe' reminded me just how many of Poe’s stories are written in the first person. Should this be surprising?

He was writing mainly for newspapers and periodicals. His world was at least as much the world of journalism as it was the world of belles lettres. We know that some of his works were hoaxes, insofar as they were straightforwardly presented as memoir or reportage, with no hint (apart, perhaps, from internal evidence) that they were fiction.

I am a little surprised, when reflecting on it, because on the one hand Poe has an immediately recognisable personal writing style; but on the other, to create successful narrator/protagonists shouldn’t their voices and the psychology revealed by their words, mark them off as separate and distinct characters rather than ciphers ventriloquising the author?

No, I’m not saying that Poe is failing to create such characters, but it’s something to bear in mind when comparing this story with the two others.

As far as this story goes I would say that Poe has successfully put across the true (I’d go so far as to say ‘evil’) nature of Montressor and his acts even though, as he recounts them, Montressor clearly believes he was in the right and his actions were justified.

Here’s a thought: thinking of Poe as a hoaxer (for the newspapers and so on), how much of himself does a hoaxer or a conman put into the lie he’s telling, or story he’s spinning? It’s been said that the successful liars stay very close to the truth.

So, how much of Poe’s true character is in Montressor? He was hot-tempered, quick to feel slights on his honour, conscience of his shaky grip on the status of gentlemen whilst feeling superior to those around him. He was combative and antagonistic (indeed 'The Portable Poe' prints this story among a selection headed ‘antagonisms’) he fell out with friends and attacked rivals in print. Playing amateur psychologist it’s easy to suggest that Poe picked up on some of these traits in his own character and projected them onto Montressor (whilst also projecting poor, wrongly maligned Poe onto the doomed Fortunato? Or is that both too glib and too fanciful?)

In making these speculations, I can’t help feeling that Poe was aware of what he was doing, a good half-century before the birth of psychiatry and modern psychology.

nov. 9, 2012, 5:59am

I heard some writer being interviewed - can't remember who, I'm afraid, but I'm sure it was a male. He claimed that we have all possible characteristics, good and bad, within us and that our 'real' personalities are the combination of the handful that are strongest. So that everything's there, inside, for the good writer to pull up and use.

Of course, there's no guarantee that what a writer tells an interviewer is what he really believes; and it sounds like a crafty way of getting round an awkward question. Interesting to think about, though.

nov. 9, 2012, 7:07am

#6 Of course, there's no guarantee that what a writer tells an interviewer is what he really believes; and it sounds like a crafty way of getting round an awkward question.

To my mind your comment suggests the interviewed author's expressed view is at least partially true as it appears he was pulling up something from within to, as you say, get round an awkward question.

nov. 9, 2012, 7:19am

#5 I must admit that The Cask of Amontilado is one of my favourite stories. (I will leave you to psycho analyse me from your armchair.)

I had the great fortune to attend an event where an actor portrayed Montressor telling this story to the audience. (Telling such a story from memory is quite an achievement IMO.) The atmosphere achieved was remarkable.

His colleague went on to tell The Tell-tale Heart in a similarly impressive fashion.

In terms of Montressor's motivation, I can only suggest, as housefulofpaper says, it was revenge that was heartfeltly considered justified. One might say Montressor considered himself to be doing the work of God. (Now that conjures up many scary comparisons.)

I should cease to comment on my feelings regarding this story pending the psychological report being prepared. ;)

nov. 9, 2012, 9:33am

Just read Ligeia.

Out loud.

Somehow that makes a difference. My style is a combination of Frank Muller (without the breathy sentence uplifts) and Henry Strozier (without the gravel) and I kinda like doing it. Poe's got a rhythm that once you fall into it, makes the purple a bit more bearable. Lovecraft, however, does not reap this benefit.

Anyway...I knew something had to be, you know, up with Ligeia, but then when our narrator started to drift and blame opium it went the way of most of his madness and obsession tales. The turret room is tres creepy though. I forget; is this an arabesque or a grotesque?

So on to Pendulum...

Editat: nov. 10, 2012, 6:50am

I got round to reading 'The Cask of Amontillado' last night. Hmmm, I think I'm going to have to read it again. I haven't read this in a long time and I don't remember it being quite so ... challenging? It's almost as if Poe is saying, "Right, see what you make of that one, then!"

I have one idea - don't know if it really stands up, though:

Fortunato seemed to me quite modern and he struck me as one of the type of the rather-too-pushy, big-headed, not-half-as-bright-or-knowledgeable-as-he-thinks-he-is, slightly-offensive-'cos-he-wants-to-be-alpha-male pest that one occasionally has to endure in social gatherings.

Montreso seemed definitely to belong in the Renaissance or earlier (or literary perception of it) - the aristocrat with the extremely acute and prickly, but quite psychotic, sense of honour. A remote character from another world. He could have been the duke in Browning's 'My Last Duchess'.

I believe that Poe recognised the universality of the Fortunato type and intended the reader to pick up on it.

So, on the one hand, perhaps he was getting a bit of payback on pushy bores. On the other hand, I think he was using the reader's probable familiarity with the type to play tricks with him ('him' because, if I'm right about what's going on, I'm sure Poe was thinking in masculine terms in terms of masculine interrelationships). I think the reader is supposed to cheer on Montreso and then pull up short as he realises what he's been inveigled into doing.

It has some nice, Gothic box-ticking: one of the annoyances of the 'modern' world getting his comeuppance from the worst of old aristocracy - a sort of dark shadow from the long ago.

Of course, all this is probably horse-feathers and I'll likely not believe a word of it when I've read the story again. Which I could have done in the time it's taken me to write this ...

nov. 10, 2012, 5:28pm

> 10

It's interesting, I had My Last Duchess in mind when I was trying to get my thoughts in order and down on the (electronic) page. There are parallels of course: a dramatic monologue to one unseen and unheard interlocutor (is that the right word?) by a nobleman sure of his place in the world and quick to deal with those he sees as undermining it; a sense of increasing unease leading to the - not the confession, just the recounting - of the crime.

With regard to the 'antagonism' (to use the 'Portable''s classification) between Montressor and Fortunato, without wanting to disagree that this is an archtypal situation, would Fortunato-as-pushy-parvenu have any specific relation to the social situation in the US at the time of Poe's writing - both because this is pre-Civil War and bearing in mind Poe was a Southerner? I'm afraid I don't know enough US history to have more than vague impressions of the situation between North and South in those years, and how each one viewed the other (generalising horribly, of course).

> 9

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with either of those gentlemen (though I will try to find examples of their work online). As far as performances of The Cask of Amontillado are concerned, I looked at a clip of Vincent Price on YouTube, and his reading 'tipped off' the listener from the first that there's something - wrong - about Montressor.

I looked back over my last few posts and noticed how wayward my spelling got at times. Sorry.

nov. 10, 2012, 6:03pm

I made a start on Ligeia - I know it's against all Poe's strictures, not reading it at one sitting, and I'll go back and reread it from the start - but a couple of things about the opening struck me.

The epigraph from Joseph Glanvill, about the primacy of the will. I've no idea how this fits into American thought in the early-mid 19th Century, but it does seem to have had some long-term influence (Christian Science, for example). It's also the cornerstone of magical thought for the last 2000 years, if The Secret History of the World is to be trusted.

The opening of the story proper had me thinking "oh, this is one of Poe's overtly 'intellectual' stories; I'm going to be hard-put to say anything useful about his philosophical thoughts here". Then I was brought up short by the passage beginning 'I recognized it, let me repeat' to 'the weakness of his feeble will."'

The list of abstruse, apparently unconnected things, the quotation from an obscure antiquarian source, the air of a strange dispassionate poetry over the whole, all reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges. But it also reminded me of an author who is not well-known in the UK, who I recently read (in English translation) in a collection from the Tartarus Press: Marcel Schwob. The dust jacket copy says Schwob is revered in the French-speaking world and (aha!) discovered Poe when he was still a child. The book's introduction says he was almost certainly a big (but unacknowledged) influence on Borges.

It's probably too much weight to put on this one short passage alone, but sometimes it can seem as though Poe invented everything in modern literature!

nov. 12, 2012, 7:00pm

#4 - There's one last question - who was the story being told to?

Developing a bit further on my idea in #10 about Poe inveigling the reader into cheering on Montresor (I checked the spelling this time!) and pgmcc's comments in #8:

Could the answer be the simplest one, after all; that Montresor is actually addressing himself to the reader?

Suppose Montresor to be writing down his confession for posterity, as it were. Because he thinks his actions are perfectly reasonable (it's actually more boasting than confession), he assumes the reader will find them perfectly reasonable, too. It's a sort of 'us and them' mentality. Narrator and reader, as always, are a cosy 'us' - the good guys - while Fortunato is the evil 'them'. And this works to an extent, we do sympathise with Montresor to a certain extent, though it's actually a reaction to some unappealing touches Poe gives to Fortunato rather than to any virtues we're given for Montresor. But, in reality, Montresor is a psycho. If the reader empathises with him - which, I've suggested, Poe intends us to do - then the reader must be another psycho. Poe's neatly tied us up.

Editat: nov. 12, 2012, 8:23pm

I've just read 'Ligeia'. Gorgeously over-the-top.

I also read it a month or two back, and I was left with the same question then as I am now. How reliable is our narrator? At the very least he's addled with opium.

Editat: nov. 13, 2012, 5:50am

Moved this post to 'Gothic gossip. #108

nov. 13, 2012, 4:31pm

"Montresor" not "Montressor". It's my eyesight - the next time I go to the opticians I'll be fitted with varifocals, I'm sure. (I'm also going a bit deaf. I recently wondered why someone at work was asking me about "the ghost train": it was the post tray. Oh well).

I like the idea that he's simply addressing "the reader" - it almost makes you complicit in some way, but I still come back to that comment near the beginning of the story - "You, who so well know the nature of my soul" - it's only the second sentence of the story, so we haven't had much chance to become acquainted with his character.

nov. 13, 2012, 5:02pm

#16 "the ghost train": it was the post tray

I don't see much difference between the two: scary things jump out at you from both.

#13 alaudacorax So, am I a psycho because I like this story so much? Should I be angry about this? Should I range and rant? Should I throw things around the room and threaten people? Or should I just stay calm and read a book?

In terms of to whom Montresor is addressing his story, could it be to an alter ego? Could Montreso have a split personality and be justifying his actions to his other self, the reader being the other self? This would explain the addressee so well knowing the nature of my soul.

nov. 13, 2012, 5:26pm

In terms of to whom Montresor is addressing his story, could it be to an alter ego? Could Montreso have a split personality and be justifying his actions to his other self, the reader being the other self? This would explain the addressee so well knowing the nature of my soul.

Eureka! He's writing it down in his journal. (Maybe).

nov. 13, 2012, 5:35pm

Taking Veil's suggestion of a compare and contrast approach I have a few thoughts on 'The Cask of Amontillado' and 'Ligeia'. (I have yet to reread "The Pit..." and it is so long since I read it, a period measured in decades, that I must reread before comment.)

An initial thought around the nature of the horror in the two stories: In "The Cask..." I see the horror as twofold. Firstly, if one associates with Fortunato one will suffer the horror of being blocked up in an alcove. This is the lasting memory of the story and is also the "on-the-surface" thoughts of the casual reader. In addition, however, we have the horror of those of us who associated with Montreso beginning to worry about ourselves and whether or not we are sickoes who could brick up an acquaintence in a subterannean alcove, like the one in my cellar, at the very back of the cellar, where no one ever goes. Oh! Sorry! Where was I? Oh yes. The discussion in this thread has demonstrated that the latter horror has registered with us.

In "Ligeia", however, we have a different sort of horror. We have the horror of realisation that our one true love could be deliberately killing our second wife from beyond the grave with the hope of regaining her place by our side. There is also the fear of the narrator that, by his emotional distance from his second wife and his obsessive preoccupation with thoughts of his first wife that he has somehow conjured up her spirit and that his subconscious thoughts and feelings have brought about his new wife's suffering through some form of wish fulfillment. Of course, as BookMarque so rightly points out, or narrator is adled with opium.

A second horror in "Ligeia" is the suffering of the second wife. Her life with her new husband must have been quite a burden. It had struck me that Ligeia was a horror version of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, albeit without Madame Arcati. (I do so love Margaret Rutherford's characters.)

To sum up, we have the two forms of horror in each story depending on which character we associate with. In both cases there is a somewhat helpless victim and also a wilful character inflicting pain, either directly in the case of "The Cask..." or by proxy and subconsciously, as in "Ligeia". I don't think the horror our narrator in "Ligeia" describes when he hears and sees what is happening, can be taken seriously. We all know it was all his subconscious wish fulfilment that caused that poor girl to die.

Now, "The Pit and the Pendulum". Were did I put those keys for the cellar.

(PS As with many people, my first exposure to the stories of Poe was through the excellent movies starring Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. I really loved those performances. The voices of both actors must have accounted for at least half of the horror.)

Editat: nov. 13, 2012, 7:09pm

#17 - '#13 alaudacorax So, am I a psycho because I like this story so much?

Oh, I think we've all got a touch of the psycho somewhere inside - cold callers (four this week already, and it's only Tuesday) bring mine very near the surface.

I like the 'alter ego' angle: I'm not sure he sees his actions as being in need of justifying to anybody, though; but I can quite see it as a 'Dear Diary' piece of writing.

On 'Ligeia': to tell the truth, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment. I feel I need several more readings to get to grips with it. There's just so much going on.

First of all there's what amounts to a rather over the top love letter to Ligiea, but mixed into it there seem to be hints that she actually might not have been human but some supernatural being - there's the mystery of her origins and I thought the narrator might have been hinting that she was controlling his mind in some way, stopping him even thinking of asking questions.

I'm particularly sure that the whole interaction between the narrator, Rowena(?) and the weird room cries out for several more readings.

And I'm not at all sure what to make of the ending. What happens to Ligeia? Is she still there, alive, looking over the narrator's shoulder as he's putting the story down on paper for us?

nov. 14, 2012, 12:36am

It's amazing how much more this group impacts my studies than University does... That bit about 'Cask' and dual-personality brings up so many fascinating ideas, but I think the notion of him confessing to a priest is even more diabolical...

nov. 14, 2012, 3:52am

#21 Veil, I came on to LT to comment that a simpler solution to the audience puzzle was a confessor, which would also explain the "knowing the nature of my soul" element. You beat me to it.

Editat: nov. 14, 2012, 6:18am

#20 hints that she actually might not have been human but some supernatural being

Yes, I got that sense from the early parts of the story when he was describing how she appeard beside him without his knowing she had even entered the room. At first I thought she was going to be a spirit that came out of a painting, as in one of Edith Nesbitt's stories.

The indication of her being something other than, or possibly more than, human also came from his descriptions of her learning being greater than most people, possibly the accumulation of great age. Perhaps the description of the Egyptian motifs, etc... on the tapestries in his new house were a hint about Ligiea's origins. Of course, she may have simply been an extraterrestrial. Those big eyes point straight to ET.

PS. Was Montresor more of a sociopath than a psychopath? His actions were methodical and calm, not an example of raging violence. If one is to be called names one would at least want the names to be accurate. (I know what you mean about cold-callers.)

nov. 14, 2012, 5:28am

Three points:

I was using 'psychopath' in the sense of having an absence of a sense of right and wrong or of guilt or consience about one's actions. On looking it up, I see that the definition of 'psychopath' is a bit nebulous - I might have expressed myself better.

Just to be clear, when I've used 'over the top', above (or should that be 'over-the-top'?), I don't mean any negative criticism - I mean enjoyably 'over-the-top', delightfully so, as in grand opera, for example.

... and now I've forgotten my third point ...

nov. 14, 2012, 5:47am

Damned ageing short term memory!

My third point was going to be to suggest that Poe might be intentionally offering us the possibility of multiple interpretations - both in 'Cask' and 'Ligeia'.

nov. 14, 2012, 6:18am

#25 intentionally offering us the possibility of multiple interpretations

Agreed. I get the impression that he would love to be playing with the reader's mind, giving false clues, or leaving things fague so the unsuspecting visitor to the tale can have their own subcoscious terrorise them with demons even Poe hadn't thought of.

For some reason this discussion has reminded me of a "Far Side" cartoon. A chicken is shown standing at the curb of a wide road looking at a large billboard on the other side. On the billboard are the words, "Does there have to be a reason?"

I think I thought of this cartoon because I believe the process of trying to interpret what writers meant in certain stories, or with certain words, can be an exercise in chasing something that the author didn't even know was there. This thought will not, however, stop my attempts to fathom the meaning of tales that grab my attention. I enjoy the exchange of views regarding different interpretations of the same story.

nov. 14, 2012, 7:05am

#26 - I think I thought of this cartoon because I believe the process of trying to interpret what writers meant in certain stories, or with certain words, can be an exercise in chasing something that the author didn't even know was there.

I quite agree with that. It's always in the back of my mind, to the extent that sometimes in these threads I'm posting almost tongue-in-cheek. But, at the same time, I'm sure that the exercise, habitually carried out, has trained me to read 'better', as it were; so that I'm not only more sensitive to what subtleties might really be there, but also extract more enjoyment from a particular work.

Editat: set. 28, 2018, 11:13am


Unfortunately I am not always free to keep up with reading the material the group has identified and I only get to post sporadically. However, I do stalk occasionally and I find the discussions very interesting. I have discovered many stories and new authors through LT threads and, mostly due to Veilofisis, I am making the time to read some things that have been on my shelves for years and I've never gotten round to them, as well as getting back to some old friends like "The Cask of..." and "The Pit and the Pendulum". (Thank you, Veil!)

This pursuit of literary phantom meaning is very rewarding and great fun.

Apologies if I have mentioned this before, but I once heard a radio interview in which Samual Beckett's nephew was being asked about his late uncle's work. The nephew was the custodian of Beckett's works at the time.

The interviewer asked what Beckett thought of all the accademic work carried out on his writing and in particular what did Beckett think about the underlying themes and symbolism that this research had thrown up. The nephew said that Beckett was highly bemused when he heard what accademics were saying about his work and was amazed at some of the things they found in his work. Apparently his view was that he hadn't put these things in and that he thought he had just told a story.

I would suggest Beckett was having an element of fun with a response like that. (Oops! There I go again.)

Editat: nov. 14, 2012, 9:43am

Didn't Stephen King say something like 'sometimes they're just stories'? I agree about looking for meaning and manufacturing it when the author didn't explicitly come out with it. Sometimes a story is just a story and therein lies its power. They hook our imaginations like almost nothing else. They engage our sense of reason, too, and we have to fight our disbelief and put it in its place when it comes to a story. We're programmed to find patterns, reasons and a sense of order and so we try to project this onto even the lightest flight of fancy. Or in Poe's case, the darkest.

nov. 14, 2012, 5:47pm

It's difficult for me not to believe that Poe was driven in some way to keep revisiting certain themes in his stories, especially given the details of his biography (mother dead before he was two years old, abandoned by his father, eventually disowned by his foster-father, married to a (very) young wife dying of TB, etc.). At the same time, I wouldn't want to suggest either that it was either on the one hand wholly unconscious, or on the other a cold-blooded and detached reworking of his own history.

All the same, I was reminded of some lines from Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective: "You don't know writers. You just don't know. they'll use anything and anybody. They'll eat their own young."

nov. 14, 2012, 6:04pm

My take on "Ligeia" - possibly a credulous one - was that it was a supernatural tale concerned with the power of the will (or Will). On a second reading I might well decide, instead, that the narrator is insane. I don't think there are definite clues one way or the other in the text.

In fact, in the Roger Corman film The Tomb of Ligeia (screenplay by Robert Towne) Corman/Towne try to have it both ways, although I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen the film, or have forgotten exactly how it ends.

Interestingly, the screenplay brings in the idea of mesmerism - of course in the 1830s-40s hypnosis (as we'd call it) was thought to centre around the will of the "mesmerist" rather than the susceptibility of the subject. In bringing together mesmerism and the survival of the personality after death they have also borrowed from or echoed "The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar".

Editat: nov. 16, 2012, 4:17am


I agree. With Poe, though, it works either way: the seemingly 'deep' or allegorical tales, like 'The Masque of the Red Death,' are often actually just stories, without any moral or deeper meaning whatsoever; however, in the simpler pieces, like 'The Black Cat,' 'Cask,' etc, there are often layers of meaning to wade through, which is why he's such a confusing, almost maddening, author to analyze. I think it's inarguable that 'Ligeia' and 'The Fall of the House of Usher' are meant to be analyzed, but I'll agree with you that, for at least a sizable portion of his work, they really are just stories. Which is why I haven't bothered to have us read, say, 'The Balloon Hoax' or 'The Gold Bug.' With the stories selected, though, I think there are shades of meaning to (attempt to) throw some light on. But, of course, all opinions are welcome and I think your note is something to always keep in mind when reading the Gothic: this literature was meant, first and foremost, to entertain; deeper meaning, with the Gothic, is the exception, not the rule (in my very humble opinion).

Editat: nov. 16, 2012, 6:09am

#32 - While going along with that, I'd just like to add that it's often very difficult to distinguish between subtexts that might either have been deliberately plotted by the author or have been unconscious products of his particular mindset and the concerns of his particular time and and society (or, at least, I often find it very difficult). I've noticed that particular choice evident in writings on Stoker and Dracula, for instance. I suspect that Poe always new exactly what he was doing; but, I'm not sure I'd be confident enough to argue the point if you backed me into a corner.

nov. 19, 2012, 3:57pm

I have now read all three stories for this thread and I must congratulate veilofisis on the selection. In previous posts I have outlined my views on the different types of horror involved and that in each story there are two types of horror. The Pit and the Pendulum presents us with another scenario involving two types of horror, the horror of the victim faced with choices none of which gives hope, and the horror of there existing beings that will do this sort of thing to other beings.

Again following veil’s suggestion to compare and contrast, I must mention not just the different types of horror in each story, but the differing viewpoints. In The Cask of Amontillado the narrator is the villain of the piece (if you believe Montresor to be a villain and simply a grossly misunderstood citizen ridding the neighbourhood of a dreadful bore), while in Ligeia we are, if we take the narrator at face value, looking at the horror from the position of a voyeur watching the second wife being destroyed by the ghost/spirit/ka/whatever of the first wife, whereas in The Pit and the Pendulum we are very much in the shoes of the victim.

Returning to the types of horror involved, The Cask presents us with the horror born from madness. Ligeia, depending on the interpretation drawn, involves either supernatural elements or mental instability brought about by drug usage. The Pit and the Pendulum gives us good old “man’s inhumanity to man” and, as is often the case, it is justified by religious dogma.

I see yet another horror in The Pit and the Pendulum, and it is a horror that makes this story the most terrifying of the three for me. While all three stories have a villain and a victim, The Pit and the Pendulum presents us with a subject of horror who is in the position of making choices regarding which way he is to suffer. Unfortunately this is the most realistic horror of all those presented in the three stories.

Having lost a friend in the Piper Alpha North Sea oil rig explosion in 1986 I found it very upsetting when I attended a programme on Change Management in which the presenter used the burning oil platform analogy to make the point that a person will at some point either decide to stay on the rig and burn or jump into the freezing waters of the North Sea where, even in a survival suit, their life expectancy would be no more than a few minutes. This is the choice faced by our protagonist in The Pit and the Pendulum and we have all seen news reports relating to building fires in which people make this same choice, and many have made their choice in front of TV cameras.

It is the very fact that the horror of hopeless choices described in The Pit and the Pendulum is a very real horror that could face any of us caught up in an emergency situation that makes this story the most horrific of the three for me.

For those who ask, “Why did Poe have the victim rescued?” we must answer that it was necessary for the narrator to survive to tell us the tale.

nov. 19, 2012, 5:54pm

> 33

Poe may well have always known exactly what he was doing, but he may not have known why.

I'm thinking of his long essay "The Philosophy of Composition", in which he sets out in great technical detail how he composed "The Raven". In setting out how he chose the theme of the poem, he states that "the death...of a beautiful woman, is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world".

Despite its presentation as the result of Dupin-like ratiocination this is really no more than an assertion. A different personality-type would not agree with it at all.

nov. 20, 2012, 6:37pm

I think there may be a clue to the ambiguous ending of "Ligeia" in Poe's review of Dickens' Barnaby Rudge. It boils down, I think, to the same idea as that expressed in relation to horror films - that the film makers shouldn't show too much gore, because nothing they can present on screen can match what an audience can be made to imagine if the tension is racked up sufficiently. The relevant passage is too long to quote, but Poe mentions that the story is set up with, among other things, the "expression of countenance which is so strikingly attributed to Mrs Rudge - "the capacity for expressing terror" - something only dimly seen, but never absent for a moment- "the shadow of some look to which an instant of intense and most unutterable horror only could have given rise." This is a conception admirably adapted to whet curiosity in respect to the character of that event which is hinted at as forming the ground-work of the novel; and so far is well suited to the purposes of the periodical story. But this observation should not fail to be made - that the anticipation must surpass the reality; that no matter how terrific be the circumstances which, in the denouement, shall appear to have occasioned the expression of countenance worn habitually by Mrs Rudge, still they will not be able to satisfy the mind of the reader. He will surely be disappointed."

Granted that Poe worked with short stories and concentrated on what he called "unity of effect", and did not have to construct cliffhangers, I still think this comment sheds some light on his ambiguous story endings. Perhaps he can be contrasted with H P Lovecraft here. I only recently read criticism of Lovecrafts propensity for climaxing a story with "a titanic elbow" or something of the sort - and you do (or I do, at least) have to be fairly indulgent not to find this kind of "final twist" or "reveal" fairly bathetic.

I haven't been able to put my thoughts about "Ligeia" into any sort of order or synthesis, but it's time to move on to "The Pit and the Pendulum", although pgmcc has pretty much covered it already, I think - and I feel I should say what a horrible thing to have happened to you, and how sorry I am to hear about the loss of your friend.

nov. 21, 2012, 4:42am

#36 Thank you for your kindness, housefulofpaper.

Your post is very interesting and I think the phrase, "the anticipation must surpass the reality" summarises the point for me. It explains what is so wrong with many of the so-called horror movies I've seen where they insist on showing gore, probably in an attempt to demonstrate their special effects skills. I much prefer the Hitchcock approach of letting the viewer scare themselves to death with their own detail.

Editat: abr. 12, 2014, 8:32am

I've read 'The Pit and the Pendelum Pendulum' this evening. This is another story where I'm suffering from acute vincentpriceitis. I've read this quite recently, a matter of months ago at most; yet it's still the Roger Corman - Vincent Price film that seems to be lodged in my mind rather than the actual story!

nov. 22, 2012, 5:18pm

#29 - Didn't Stephen King say something like 'sometimes they're just stories'?

'The Pit and the Pendulum' is a case in point, I think - doesn't really give you much opening for dreaming up subtexts - straightforward, single-minded depiction of horrors.

But he does it so well. There's much more 'reality' to Poe's writing than to that of so many other - often quite good in their own way - writers. I was particularly impressed by the way he captures the reader with that stuff towards the start about dreams and waking. Superficially, it seems a bit of a digression; but, we've all experienced what he's writing about and, in fact, it's a quite intimate part of our reality - so, almost from the start, Poe's got into our minds and we into the narrator's.

Having written that last paragraph, it occurred to me that, perhaps, Poe was doing the same thing, albeit much more economically, in 'Cask' with his, "You, who so well know the nature of my soul" - a direct address to the reader having the effect of immediately bridging some of the distance between reader and narrative voice?

nov. 25, 2012, 2:09pm

The more I try to get to grips with Poe's writing, the less I seem to understand it. There's a good New Yorker article I found today which, as far as I can judge (knowing much less than I supposed about 19th Century US history) offers a good, if brief, sketch of the economic background that is presumed, with some evidence, to have directed the course of Poe's writing career.

It also raises the question of exactly how serious Poe was in writing his gothic stories. The analysis of "The Gold Bug" makes me wary of taking anything he wrote at face value.

Here's a link to the article:

With regard to "The Pit and the Pendulum", what puzzles me at the moment is Poe's choice of setting the story during the Peninsular War, and why he chose the Latin epigraph ("Quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House at Paris", as the editorial note in the Everyman edition of the complete stories has it).

Here's my thinking: this is like "The Cask of Amontillado" in that it appears to be set in the Middle Ages but actually is set in almost contemporary times. I got from Wikipedia that the "French intervention" occurred between 1808 and 1813 (interestingly, the roughly 30 years into the past that M. R. James suggests somewhere as the best setting for a ghost story). The Inquisition was abolished during this time (but briefly reinstated with the restoration on the Monarchy).

The same Wikipedia entry states that Poe's "elaborate tortures" have "no historical parallel". The actual Wikipedia article on the Spanish Inquisition dates its last victim to the 1820s - a schoolteacher garrotted for "heresy". Given that the trials, tortures and deaths continued into Poe's lifetime I don't feel he's unjustified in setting them in the 19th Century (especially if his comment on some minor characters in Barnaby Rudge can be applied to a religious/legal institution (and if it can be trusted to straight-forwardly reflect his true beliefs): "{they} cannot be properly called caricatures - for there is a well-sustained exaggeration of all their traits, which has the effect of keeping - but they are obviously burlesques."

So, we have a repressive regime overthrown by French forces. But the epigraph refers to the Jacobin Club House where the political club most influential in the development of the French Revolution met (Wikipedia again). The Portable Edgar Allan Poe translates the epigraph as "Here the furious, insatiable mob long embraced a hatred of innocent blood. Now that the nation is saved, and the fatal cave destroyed, life and health shall be where fearful death has been."

Is this story "really" about the Reign of Terror rather than the Spanish Inquisition? It would not be contradictory to have French forces as "the good guys" if Poe's thoughts about Napoleon were, roughly, the opposite of Beethoven's (who famously scratched out the dedication to Napoleon in his copy of the 3rd Symphony when Napoleon assumed the title of Emperor (and made it hereditary). For many, I imagine, how the French Revolution played out soured them towards left-wing political thought or confirmed them in their opposition to it. Further, I imagine that, if your country was not under the threat of invasion by the French forces, such a person need not be unhappy that Napoleon had changed the whole character of the Revolution and in many ways reverted back to a familiar and conservative political model.

Plus, of course, Britain and the United States had gone to war in 1812, one of the principal causes being trade restrictions because of Britain's war with France. So around the time of the story the US and France were allies.

None of this, though, takes away from the power that the story has as "just" a story. I honesty don't know if it matters whether or not Poe at some level mentally distanced himself from his stories.

nov. 25, 2012, 5:55pm

Because I was beginning to have second thoughts while I was writing it, I'm not sure that my thinking is entirely clear in my previous post.

Briefly, taking the view that the Inquisition was a spent force by the 19th Century I wondered why Poe had set this story so late. I also wondered about the epigraph, which celebrates the destruction of a site important to the left-wing political thought that fed into the French Revolution.

Was Poe's target "really" the Reign of Terror that the Revolution descended into so quickly? And would he broadly speaking be pro-Bonaparte, such that he could cast the French forces of the Peninsular War as the heroes of his story (heroes in a saving-the-day sense). I can imagine British writers and thinkers of broadly a conservative viewpoint, who would be comfortable with an Emperor replacing a left-wing revolution in France, if that Emperor was not at war with Britain (and threatening British colonies and threatening to invade).

However, as I referred back to Wikipedia to confirm names and dates, I saw that the Inquisition was longer-lived, and was a nastier proposition, and for longer, than I'd supposed. I began to think maybe the Inquisition WAS the target, after all.

nov. 25, 2012, 7:51pm

I've been puzzling for a while about the setting and why that epigraph was there. I'd tentatively come to the conclusion that those times and circumstances were the only way Poe could creditably get his narrator rescued to tell the story - I suspect that there wasn't much of a history of people getting rescued from the Inquisition - so they were just a handy device. The epigraph still bothers me, though. Surely, he couldn't have put it there simply because he thought the actual lines rather apposite for his story - or could he?

The thing is, Poe's stories seem to me so carefully crafted and thought through that I find it difficult to believe that Poe didn't anticipate all the questions and puzzlings we're coming up with now.

I have more to say, and I'm trying to read that article; but my eyes won't stay open.

Editat: nov. 27, 2012, 4:56pm

#40 - Just been reading that article. It was enjoyable in parts, but I was a little annoyed by it, too.

Lepore's summing-up question, "Was the man an utter genius or a complete fraud?", sums up for me what was wrong with it. It's a stupid, journalist's question and, as an academic, Lepore will be perfectly well aware that the work of a writer of any stature can't be characterised in simple black and white like that - a pointless and redundant question.

If Poe didn't have a fair amount of genius Lepore would not have been writing this article about him a century and a half after his death. And why this conceit that genius must necessarily entail an absolute commitment to 'the exacting demands of a philosophic Art'? I don't think that even in literary studies courses people really believe that the workings of great writers' minds are that straightforward. Why on earth can't Poe have been writing from genius and have been 'virtuosic, showy' and have been desperately writing for money to eat and have held the reader in contempt and have been calculating as to what would sell well, all at one and the same time? Incidentally, I quite agree with her that Poe can do 'virtuosic, showy' stuff - the point being that Poe does 'virtuosic' and 'showy' so brilliantly.

I suppose that once she'd chosen to entitle the article 'The Humbug', she felt bound to return to that theme to neatly tie up the article, and thus the 'genius-fraud' question. It seems to me that she wrote this wearing her journalist hat rather than her academic hat, and was more concerned with producing a showy, clever little piece to earn a few bob than with intellectual rigour. Pots and kettles, lady - pots and kettles.

nov. 27, 2012, 5:12pm

> 43

I pretty much agree with you. As a general rule, the closing paragraph of a piece of literary journalism like this is barely worth reading. They rarely manage to sum up their subject in any meaningful way or rise to a sort of aphoristic truthfulness.

I found it valuable for the reasons I mentioned above (although, in fairness to myself I had already remembered "How to Write a Blackwood Article/A Predicament" when pgmcc wrote that the narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum"had to survive to tell his story. In "...Blackwood.." the narrator's head is chopped off, and then she writes about it!)

Editat: feb. 28, 2014, 8:43pm

Montresor just popped into my mind as I was doing something unconnected.

I'd assumed the name - if not a real name that Poe had borrowed from somewhere - was a construction on the principle of those names taken from geographical places, with the important bit being the 'Mont ...', as in mount, mountain.

It's I've just realised that it might more convincingly be read as mon tresor - my treasure.

At the moment, I don't have time to re-read the story and whether Poe intended this and, if so, what significance it might have for the reader are rather beyond me; but I thought I'd put it out there for somebody else to think about if they care to.

feb. 28, 2014, 3:28pm

> 45

That's interesting, and Poe wasn't above giving his characters names that described their character ('aptronyms', according to the internet, although I can't help feeling there must have been an older word for it, as this one seems to be of relatively recent coinage).

març 1, 2014, 2:40am

WP tells me that Montresor is a real surname, apparently derived from Montrésor, France. A Claude de Bourdeille, comte de Montrésor was a 17C French political figure and memoirist. Randall's Island, NYC, was once called Montresor Island, after John Montresor, a British military figure who took part in the American War of Independence.

Fortunato's name is clearly an inaptronym!

març 1, 2014, 6:04am

Hmmm - now I don't know where I am.

On the one hand, what Andreas writes seems to mitigate against the name being an 'aptronym' (there has to be a better word than that, surely!); on the other hand, I'd forgotten Fortunato's name and now I'm wondering if there's any significance to the 'treasure-fortune' similarity; on the third hand (!), from what Andreas writes and from reading the John Montresor Wikipedia page, I'm wondering if there was any 'popular history' allusion in Poe's use of Montresor which would have been picked up on by contemporary Americans.

I think I might re-read the story this evening.

By odd coincidence, I'd been intending to re-read Ligeia in the next day or two in connection with some lit-crit I'm trying to get to grips with (does anyone else get the impression that Freudian and psychoanalytical systems of lit-crit never go together with precision and clarity of writing?) - so perhaps I'll just have a 'Poe evening'.

set. 28, 2018, 10:28am

Dusting this off too, just because. And posting my quick online reference for ease in getting at the meat of the matter, for flipping back and forth between stories and online audiobook versions on YouTube. Just boggles the mind how far reaching this is. Although I love Shakespeare, I have not yet come close to reading every single one of his plays, stories, poems, essays, critiques. Poe, yes.

(link forthcoming, since my cut and paste isn't currently working)

but it is the university of Adelaide online literary resource, which has both authors and titles of books listed alphabetically with quick click links to each, which makes flying around their site oh so easy !

set. 28, 2018, 11:32am

>41 housefulofpaper: I saw that the Inquisition was longer-lived, and was a nastier proposition, and for longer, than I'd supposed.

No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Editat: set. 28, 2018, 6:05pm

>10 alaudacorax: Your comment brought The Great Gatsby to mind, the old money vs. the new. The old money (Daisy's husband) did not even feel threatened, their 'noble role' importance intact, unruffled by new or illegal ventures, by newly minted 'city' rich or immigrants who fix baseball games, turned into would be new neighbours. The family reputation/power reached too far back for that panic. That's why Daisy is disgusted by what happens in the wilting hot hotel room. Although tempted by an old love, he had no people, thus unreliable. She needed what he offered, in whatever package it was wrapped in. They just weren't sure how best to get rid of them (new money trespassers).

I agree that Poe was ultra sensitive to criticism and lashed out on his foes unrelentingly not caring a fig for his reputation. He obviously felt, as many writers do, that his talent speaks for itself. Problem is, not many were willing to overlook the social faux pas that erupted, the living torment that came into every salon he was forced to attend. The trip to Boston to face off against the establishment of critics, he used a poem from childhood, that left them dumbfounded. Blowing chances, left right and centre, helped set him further apart from his contemporaries. He would never call them friends or even colleagues, no one was allowed to penetrate his own brick wall. He felt superior to them in talent and mind, but without a balanced lifestyle, his should nots outweighed his shoulds. This is how I see the narrator. The victim very likely was a buffoon.

I read something similar in my Faulkner research, that he knew he was the smartest guy in the room although he had no credible formal educational accolades to toss around, and was frustrated when he was questioned about the simplest things. I know his writing style was unnerving to some initially back in the 20s/30s as he developed it, but the Nobel came in 1950 so somebody sure caught on quick! His shyness, need to retreat from public scrutiny, also in part due to binge drinking, reminds me of the 1840s with Poe. Rise to fame after years of effort, spotlight, cringe.

Ligeia = two words ... wild longing.

P&P? now that I remember from my pre-teen days. Heart/Pit/Cat/Raven. Hop-frog also due to my intense fear of fire as a kid, dreams the whole caboodle. Seared into my skin for life. Didn't need a tv or a movie theatre ever again after that kind of writing. Visceral, vivid, permanent impact. Usher/Cask/Mask/Rue Morgue came later. My favourite will always be his poetry now that I'm older and can appreciate what it took to write it, recite it, reveal it. I always say poetry is easy to write but hard to share, and fiction is hard to write but easy to share.

set. 28, 2018, 6:48pm

>23 pgmcc: Pictured X-Men Apocalypse (2016) when reading your comment, since I thought of Poe when watching the movie. Very simple image of Ligeia body hopping, like Oscar Isaac's character in the movie. When one body is close to death, the spirit possesses another, through ritual, done by loyal henchmen (perhaps under mind control) and it would not be surprising to me that the narrator had no way of knowing what would happen, he did not mean to cause the second wife to die, even in an opium haze. He did not want to be alone, but the difference was that Ligeia could have picked any body (literally) but wanted to remain with HIM, tired of wandering, floating, purposeless just for the experience ... her wild longing was all encompassing in how she felt about HIM so wanted to stay in the only way she could. Difference between Poe's tale and movie was the moment of death. It was just an impression I had at the time.

I can count the horror flicks I've seen in my life on one hand. I have never seen the old darlings from Universal, etc. except perhaps in movie trailers or online bits. Vincent is a childhood hero from tv, and Cushing came along as mentioned before in Baskervilles, alongside Lee.

For the record, I think they were; The Howling, Scanners, The Firestarter, Poltergeist, Frankenstein?? I have not seen Draculas or Mummies or Zombies or any such thing. Lightweight pure and simple, gaining tolerance with age likely, finally building up a thicker skin, but will never be bullet proof. That is why books led the way, always. My imagination only goes as far as it needs to for full impact. Not taking anyone else's opinion of what I can handle or not. Might have seen Sarah Polley in a zombie movie on tv once, but that was because it was Sarah Polley. Doesn't count.

Editat: set. 30, 2018, 2:15pm

>30 housefulofpaper: I felt the same way about Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) when I read about his own life, his early experience with death, and how it shadowed him in his writing, as he likely tried to process his thoughts and memories and impressions. Isn't that what all writers do? Try to find the best way to describe what they're feeling, in hopes that others find it relatable/unifying? That's why the 'community' is so tight, so interested, so invested. It might be the reason I like poetry even above fiction, since there is not supposed to be any one answer. It's interpreted through your own personal lens, and that can be very hard to explain to someone else, who has lived a dissimilar life. They get what they get, you get what you get, we all go home happy. In fiction, long or short, the ambiguous endings are the most memorable because they eat at you.

I might have Mark Twain on the brain thanks to Val Kilmer in Twixt, since he's writing/directing/starring in another Twain project. His third greatest character, after Doc Holliday and Jim Morrison.

ETA: This was a forgotten post in another forum, so would like to transplant it here for further reference. Southern Literary Messenger, July, 1836.

Excerpt: A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with in definite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very 'definitive-ness'.

set. 30, 2018, 2:30pm

>53 frahealee:
I don't know very much about Mark Twain, and I haven't read very much either. We read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at school when I was 11 or 12.

I recorded Twixt off-air from a satellite channel before my DVD recorder gave up the ghost (and I found out you can't buy them anymore because "you can stream whatever you want"). I'll push it further up the To Be Watched pile!