Nor unto death utterly…
In the first story in the British Library’s new anthology of vintage horror stories, Cornish Horrors, Poe takes us to Cornwall for another delightful tale of a probably mad narrator, and definitely dead wives. Or are they??
by Edgar Allan Poe
I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia. Long years have since elapsed, and my memory is feeble through much suffering.
Yeah, see, I’m already thinking he’s probably mad. Who doesn’t remember where they first met the love of their life? But I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until he told me…
…a recollection flashes upon me that I have never known the paternal name of her who was my friend and my betrothed, and who became the partner of my studies, and finally the wife of my bosom.
Highly unlikely, if you ask me! Wasn’t he listening during the wedding vows? Didn’t they get a licence? Anyway, whether he’s mad or not, he’s obsessively in love…
In beauty of face no maiden ever equalled her. It was the radiance of an opium-dream—an airy and spirit-lifting vision more wildly divine than the phantasies which hovered about the slumbering souls of the daughters of Delos.
Aha! Opium! That explains a lot! Kids, if you’re listening, just say no!
After raving about every facial feature for a bit, nose, cheeks, chin, teeth (the man’s got a thing about teeth, seriously), he then takes several paragraphs to describe the one feature that sets Ligeia apart from all other women… her eyes!
They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race. They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad.
Perhaps he met her in a zoo?
But it’s not just physically that she outshines her sex, the girl has brains too…
I said her knowledge was such as I have never known in woman—but where breathes the man who has traversed, and successfully, all the wide areas of moral, physical, and mathematical science? I saw not then what I now clearly perceive, that the acquisitions of Ligeia were gigantic, were astounding…
Don’t know about you, girls, but I kinda hate her already. So it came as something of a relief to me to learn that she was not long for this world…
Ligeia grew ill. The wild eyes blazed with a too—too glorious effulgence; the pale fingers became of the transparent waxen hue of the grave; and the blue veins upon the lofty forehead swelled and sank impetuously with the tides of the gentle emotion. I saw that she must die…
But Ligeia isn’t going to give up so easily. Can her superior, gigantic, astounding will not somehow allow her to cheat death? She cries out…
“O God! O Divine Father!—shall these things be undeviatingly so?—shall this Conqueror be not once conquered? Are we not part and parcel in Thee? Who—who knoweth the mysteries of the will with its vigor? Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
… and dies.
Or does she?
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This is so Poe-ish, it’s almost like a parody of Poe! It has all his favourite things – unreliable, possibly deranged narrator, Gothic setting in spooky old Cornwall, high melodrama, exalted passion, Classical references and quotes from philosophers, and not one but two beautiful dead women! (Or are they??) And I wasn’t at all sure that Ligeia was real – she seems almost as if she has been created in one of those opium dreams that Poe is so fond of, a figment of the narrator’s deranged imagination. Poe is so full of horror tropes it’s easy to forget he invented most of them. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I must admit I felt it ended on a kind of cliff-hanger… I was desperate to know what happened next! But in a way that was even more chilling because it left it up to my imagination…
If you’d like to terrify your own imagination, here’s a link…
(The porpy reckons that if this sets the standard for this year,
he’s not so sure he wants to come out of hibernation after all…)
Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮 😮 😮
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
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NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall story rating is for the story’s quality.