Well Halloween is here, and what better time to curl up with the works of one of the great masters of terror than on a night when the leering faces of jack-o-lanterns glow from windows and porches across the city and vampires, witches and zombies take to the streets en masse? My recommendation for what to read as you wait for these ghoulish figures to appear on your doorstep: Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 classic: The Tell Tale Heart.
In order to leave us with an abundance of truly creepy tales, Poe had to overcome many losses and hardships in his brief, tumultuous life, from being orphaned at the age of three, to being forced to huddle around the burning vestiges of his furniture for warmth while living in acute poverty, to being robbed by his own cousin, and widowed at thirty-eight years old, but overcome he did, producing a wealth of extremely influential short stories, poetry, one novel, a textbook, a book of scientific theory and hundreds of essays and book reviews until his mysterious death at the age of forty² (more about the mystery surrounding his death can be found here).
Beginning with a libelous obituary written by a big name on the literary scene at the time: Rufus Griswold, who was still fuming from Poe’s biting review of his work, tales of Poe’s life have been so sensationalized and fabricated that it too has become a source of some mystery.² Ironically, Griswold’s slanderous descriptions of Poe’s misdeeds and seedy character had the unintended effect of driving demand for his work through the roof; a final slap in the face from Poe.
As for the Tell Tale Heart, the tale begins with a conversation between the narrator and an unknown person, in which the narrator is most intent on demonstrating his sanity. As he says in the very first lines:
“True! –nervous–very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed– not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in heaven and earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”¹
The crime, our narrator insists, was not motivated by the acquisition of any wealth or by passion (he loved the old man so he says), instead the motivation was the old man’s eye. This eye, he explains, was pale blue, and covered with a film; it was like a vulture’s evil eye and so horrifying that an idea slowly crept into his mind and once there became all-consuming; He would kill the old man, and rid himself of the terrible eye forever.
For seven nights he would carefully tiptoe to the old man’s room, opening his lantern just enough so that a thin beam of light would fall upon the vulture eye, but each night it was closed, making the deed impossible, as it was the eye, not the old man that troubled him.
Finally on the eighth night he found the eye open and after a chilling and tense stand-off, sprung upon the old man silencing him after one shriek and concealed his dismembered body beneath the bedroom floorboards. That one shriek, however, was enough to alert the neighbours, and three policemen arrived at the house. The narrator’s triumph at a deed so cleverly executed and concealed quickly faded however as the policemen lingered, and his head began to ache with the conviction that he could hear the old man’s heartbeat growing louder and louder from beneath the floorboards under the chair in which he sat…
To read the full tale click here.
The “Tell Tale Heart” has been oft-dramatized, even extended to create feature length films and there have been several musical tributes to the tale, including one by the Insane Clown Posse by the name of Ol’ Evil Eye. Poe is considered America’s first great literary critic and theoretician and is widely acknowledged as the inventor of the modern detective story.²
For an animated version of the original Tell Tale Heart tale click here
For a more recent animated version click here.
A biography of Edgar Allan Poe can be found here.
1. Poe Museum. Selected Works; The Tell-Tale Heart. 2010 web. 30, October 2012. http://www.poemuseum.org/works-telltale.php
2. Poe Museum. Poe’s Life. 2010 web. 30, October 2012. http://www.poemuseum.org/life.php
HAPPY HALLOWEEN ALL!!