Supernatural and Non-Supernatural Revenge - Edgar Allan Poe - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Supernatural and Non-Supernatural Revenge
Edgar Allan Poe
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The notion of supernatual revenge is perhaps the oldest topos in the realm of supernatural horror, and we have already seen that it animates any number of Gothic novels, as it would animate an incalculable number of novels and tales in the subsequent two centuries. As a means of linking the use of the supernatural to a satisfying moral outcome, the theme has undeniable appeal, however much it may contradict the actual workings of human society, where the guilty all too often escape the punishment that is their due. A substantial number of Poe’s tales utilise this topos, and at least a few of them do so in a way that infuses them with a novel moral and aesthetic element. But what really saves these stories is the high artistry and emotive power with which he expresses the idea in tale after tale.

We have already seen that supernatural revenge is the underlying theme of “Metzengerstein”: right from the point when the baron Metzengerstein is called a “petty Caligula” (CW 2.21) his fate is sealed, even if it requires the metempsychosis of his victim to effect it. A far more ingenious, perhaps even paradoxical, use of the supernatural revenge motif can be found in “William Wilson” (The Gift, 1839), for of course the revenge in this imperishable tale of a doppelgänger is effected by the protagonist upon himself—if we assume that the double he encounters throughout his life is merely an aspect of himself. But the greatness of the story rests precisely in our inability to pinpoint the ontological status of this double. Does the fact that the double speaks only in a whisper indicate that he is merely Wilson’s conscience? Does the fact that both men, implausibly, share the same date of birth (19 January 1813—Poe’s actual birthday and four years after his date of birth [earlier texts gave the year as 1809 and 1811]) mean that the double has no independent existence? At the end the protagonist stabs the double with a sword, and the latter, finally abandoning his whisper, declares (the italics are Poe’s): “You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead—dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me thou didst exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself!” (CW 2.448). Now it appears that the protagonist is the double rather than the converse; and his “death” is not literal (for he is still there to tell us the tale of his “unpardonable crime” [CW 2.426]) but, as the second sentence makes clear, moral and social. “William Wilson”—full of provocative autobiographical details, ranging from the description of Poe’s early schooling at Stoke Newington in England to numerous points of character—is a masterwork in its ambiguity, its dancing on either side of the boundary separating supernatural from psychological horror, and in its unwavering progression from beginning to cataclysmic conclusion. Aside from “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” it would be difficult to find a better instance of the “unity of effect” than this tale.

Much the same could be said of “The Tell-Tale Heart” (Boston Pioneer, January 1843), even though it employs what has now become the hackneyed “first-person insane” trope. But Poe should not be held responsible for the overuse or incompetent use of this trope by clumsier hands; his own handling of it is unexceptionable. The root question in this well-known narrative is: Is this tale psychological or supernatural? That is, does the heart of the old man, whom the protagonist has killed for the most irrational of reasons (even though he “loved the old man,” he finds that “my blood ran cold” [CW 3.792] when he sees the old man’s eye—a reflection, presumably, of the ancient superstition of the evil eye), actually beat to such an extent that the protagonist is forced to pry up the floorboards under which he has buried the murdered corpse? It may all be very well to note that the protagonist’s assertion that “Above all was [my] sense of hearing acute” (CW 3.792), so that his detection of the heart beating, combined with his general mental disturbance, caused him to betray himself to the police. But observe the fact that the police themselves “chatted pleasantly, and smiled” (CW 3.797) at the very time when the heart presumably begins beating louder and louder. The protagonist later declares that “they were making a mockery of my horror!” (CW 3.797), but this is as implausible as the makeshift excuses of the protagonist of “The Black Cat” to account for the presence of the cat-shaped shadow on the wall of his burned house. I think we are obliged to believe that the beating of the heart is in fact in the protagonist’s mind, and that this tale is one of pyschological horror. In this sense, it too—like “William Wilson,” although in a very different manner—is a case of (non-supernatural) revenge perpetrated by the victim upon himself.

Poe’s triumph of non-supernatural horror, however, is “The Cask of Amontillado” (Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, November 1846). I have already noted that, in spite of the relative lateness of this tale in Poe’s corpus of fiction, it appears to betray a residual influence of Gothicism in its Italian setting and its apparent temporal setting in the Middle Ages or Renaissance. The plot of this story is too well-known to require exposition, but perhaps some subtleties in Poe’s handling of the revenge theme have escaped some readers. The crux of the tale is not the unspecified “thousand injuries” (CW 3.1256) Montresor has endured from Fortunato, but whether in fact the former has committed the “perfect crime” and gotten away with it. It would seem that he has; but then, what do we make of the final paragraph, just as Montresor is about to place the final brick that will seal up Fortunato forever in his makeshift tomb in the catacombs: “My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!” (CW 3.1263). So Montresor is telling his story fifty years after the fact; but to whom? When he says at the outset, “You, who so well know the nature of my soul” (CW 3.1256), it can scarcely be doubted that he is talking to a father confessor—probably (as the last paragraph suggests), on his deathbed. But it is Montresor, not Fortunato, who has failed to “rest in peace”—not only because he experienced a twinge of remorse at the very time he committed the act (“My heart grew sick”—followed by a patently absurd attempt to account for it), but because, half a century after the fact, he still tells his story in a manner that reveals his own psychological trauma. Here again, the author of revenge has unwittingly bestowed it upon himself.

From the mastery of “The Cask of Amontillado” it is a bit of a fall to the crude physical horror of “Hop-Frog,” but the story is not to be entirely despised. Here there is no ambiguity as to why the grotesque dwarf of the title exacted his revenge upon the king and his courtiers. All too obviously they ridiculed him and humiliated him—once making him “swallow this bumper to the health of your absent friends,” even though Hop-Frog “was not fond of wine; for it excited the poor cripple almost to madness” (CW 3.1347), a matter that Poe knew all too well—although the immediate trigger of Hop-Frog’s plan of revenge is his rage at the mistreatment of his beloved Trippetta, a beautiful female dwarf who had attempted to intercede with the king when Hop-Frog was being forced to consume the wine, whereupon the king “pushed her violently from him, and threw the contents of the brimming goblet in her face” (CW 3.1349). What is more, the king and his courtiers reveal a certain dimwittedness in allowing themselves to be covered with tar and flax in order that they may look like ourang-outangs, allowing Hop-Frog to set them aflame. The symbolism here is very obvious: since the king and his men treated Hop-Frog as somehow subhuman because of his dwarfism and other physical deformities, Hop-Frog has now returned the favour by reducing them to the level of apes, so that (in Hop-Frog’s mind, at any rate) there is less moral culpability in killing them.

Nevertheless, it can be noted that Poe reinvigorated the already stale motif of supernatural (and non-supernatural) revenge by infusing it with moral subtleties whereby the perpetrator of the revenge became its unwitting victim. The same cannot, regrettably, be said for the great majority of Poe’s successors.