Tuesday Terror! Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe

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??

Ligeia
by Edgar Allan Poe

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.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

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?

Illustration by Byam Shaw

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?

Illustration by Harry Clarke

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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:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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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.

Tuesday Terror! Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe

Don’t forget to floss…

When discussing classic horror stories, it’s not possible to omit Edgar Allan Poe. Plus his stories are always great. Aren’t they? Time to find out in this week’s…

Berenice
by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

 

Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch, as distinct too, yet as intimately blended. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow! How is it that from Beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? — from the covenant of Peace a simile of sorrow? But thus is it. And as, in ethics, Evil is a consequence of Good, so, in fact, out of Joy is sorrow born.

After this cheery start, we learn that our narrator is Egaeus, the last of his line (thankfully), who grows up in the family mansion with his cousin, Berenice. He suffers from a mental condition, monomania he calls it though the opium might have something to do with it, that causes him to focus excessively on whatever grabs his attention to the exclusion of all else. She, once beautiful and agile, now suffers from an unnamed illness that causes her to waste away whilst having epileptic-style fits that leave her in a kind of trance. So they decide to get married. It’s a true romance…

During the brightest days of her unparalleled beauty, most surely I had never loved her. In the strange anomaly of my existence, feelings with me, had never been of the heart, and my passions always were of the mind. . . And now—now I shuddered in her presence, and grew pale at her approach; yet, bitterly lamenting her fallen and desolate condition, I called to mind that she had loved me long, and, in an evil moment, I spoke to her of marriage.

However, Berenice does have one feature which takes our dashing hero’s fancy…

The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupilless, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to he contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!


Unfortunately, he does not die. The same cannot be said for poor Berenice, who having smiled her ghastly smile, quietly goes off and becomes deceased. But a little matter like death isn’t enough to undo the effect of her toothiness on our lovely narrator. He carries out a horrific deed, and then, like so many before and since, pleads amnesia…

Yet its memory was replete with horror—horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity. It was a fearful page in the record of my existence, written all over with dim, and hideous, and unintelligible recollections. . . I had done a deed—what was it? I asked myself the question aloud, and the whispering echoes of the chamber answered me,—“what was it?”

Harry Clarke illustration

* * * * * * *

Well, if you want to know what it was, here’s a link – but take my advice and don’t! Ugh! I reckon Poe must have been having a bad day when he wrote this one! I can’t say it scared me exactly, more disgusted me. Apparently it also disgusted the first readers too, and even Poe himself later said “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste…” Approaches?? It walks right up and punches it on the nose!

Combine that with his constant insertion of bits of untranslated French and Latin…

Of Mademoiselle Salle it has been well said, “Que tous ses pas etaient des sentiments,” and of Berenice I more seriously believed que toutes ses dents etaient des idees.

Quite so!

The words were the singular but simple ones of the poet Ebn Zaiat:—”Dicebant mihi sodales si sepulchrum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas.” Why then, as I perused them, did the hairs of my head erect themselves on end, and the blood of my body become congealed within my veins?

Why indeed?

On the upside, there’s lots of traditionally Gothic stuff about the gloomy old mansion and the library filled with ancient, unspeakable tomes and so on. But I’m afraid this won’t figure in my list of top Poe stories. His narrator was opium-sozzled throughout and by the end of this I was kinda wishing I was too…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😐 😐

The porpy’s teeth are nearly as lovely as Berenice’s…

NB I read this in the anthology Horror Stories, which was provided for review by Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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Tuesday Terror! The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

Heart of darkness…

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tales of mystery and imagination

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No October would be complete without at least one story from the master of horror himself! So join me, if you dare, for this week’s journey into madness with…

 

Tuesday Terror

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

 

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 the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell…

And to prove his sanity, our narrator sets out to tell us the story of why he is now locked up in an asylum. He had lived with an old man, whom he loved. It was not insanity that caused him to do the thing he did, not hatred, nor jealousy, nor greed…

I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

But this will be no insane, unplanned act – no, no! Our narrator acts with caution, giving never an indication of his intention…

I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.

the tell-tale heart illustration 4

Each night at midnight, our narrator sneaks to the old man’s room and slowly, very slowly, opens the door and peers in. But each night he is disappointed – the old man is asleep and thus his eyes are closed. The act must be done when the eye is open…

…for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye.

Upon the eighth night, the narrator accidentally makes a noise as he stands at the door, and the old man starts awake. He sits up, but the darkness is so intense he cannot see who or what has disturbed him. Our narrator is still patient – for a full hour he stands at the door, but the old man doesn’t lie down – he is in the grip of mortal fear. And eventually he can no longer suppress a groan of terror…

It was not a groan of pain or of grief – oh, no! – it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe… I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart.

Silence falls again, and after waiting a long time, our narrator resolves to open his lantern, just a little. The light shines straight on the eye – the vulture eye! And now the narrator hears something…

the tell-tale heart illustration 2

…there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart…

And the beating grows louder, louder – till our narrator fears the neighbours must hear it! At last, he rouses himself to action…

The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once – once only.

A madman may have left some signs of this horrible crime, but our narrator is not mad – he takes every precaution to leave no trace. So when the next day three police officers arrive, alerted by neighbours who thought they heard a shriek in the middle of the night, he has no fear of discovery.

But a guilty heart has its own ways of making even the sanest man reveal his hidden secrets…

Illustration by Harry Clarke
Illustration by Harry Clarke

* * * * *

This is a great little story – no-one does the madman telling his story as effectively as Poe. He doesn’t mess about – the story is only a couple of thousand words long, but it’s all in the writing – the repetitions, yes, the repetitions, the dramatic use of dashes – of dashes! – the exclamation marks!! And (please note, modern horror writers) he sticks to the point. We know nothing about the old man or the narrator, not even their names. The house is not described except where essential for the plot. But it doesn’t matter – in fact, the delicious vagueness makes it even more creepy. Was the old man sweet or nasty? What drove our narrator mad? Why were they living together? Friends? Master and servant? Man and wife??? (There’s nothing to actually say the narrator is a man.) You could spend hours making up your own background story – Poe has left plenty of room between the lines. But don’t try to do it when the lights are out…

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If you’d like to read the full thing, here’s a link.

And here’s the wonderful Mr Vincent Price telling this and other Poe stories – perfect for October nights!

 

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Tuesday ’Tec! The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

Detection from A to Z…

 

C. Auguste Dupin is credited with being the first fictional detective and was the influence for many later ones, not least my beloved Sherlock Holmes. So it seems only fair that he make an appearance in this week’s…

Tuesday Tec

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

 

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

This is the third and last of Poe’s Dupin stories, and also the shortest. The first, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a gruesome, gory mystery with possibly the silliest murderer in detective fiction. The Mystery of Marie Rogêt was Poe’s attempt to provide a solution to a true crime – the first time this had been done in the form of fiction. While I appreciated both stories for their originality and influential status, I found Dupin an annoying creation and wasn’t particularly enamoured of Poe’s writing style in these stories. So I came to the third one with reasonably low expectations, which Poe met in full.

The plot concerns a letter, stolen from an unnamed lady, probably the Queen, the contents of which, if they were made public, would be damaging to the lady’s husband, probably the King. One evening, as Dupin and the narrator are sitting in Dupin’s library, they are interrupted by the arrival of the Prefect of the Parisian Police, known only as G (which brings me to my first annoyance – if telling a fictional story, why not give the man a fictional name and have done? If the intention is to make it seem as if it’s a true story, then by telling us his title Poe has already destroyed his anonymity). G tells Dupin that it is known who stole the letter, a government Minister, known only as D (sigh). D is now using the letter to blackmail the unnamed lady (let’s call her Q). G also says it is assumed that D must have the letter close at hand, so that he can make use of it or destroy it if need be. Dupin agrees with this assumption. G then describes the meticulous searches that have been carried out of D’s property, including taking furniture apart, lifting carpets and examining every inch of the place with microscopes – all while D is away from home and remarkably leaving no traces of the search for him to find. All to no avail. He asks for Dupin’s advice, and Dupin helpfully tells him to go back and search again. (At this point, had I been G, this would have turned into a murder mystery…)

c auguste dupin

A whole month later, G is back to say that the reward for the return of the letter has been doubled and that he, G, would cheerfully give 50,000 francs to anyone who could tell him how to find the letter. At this, Dupin tells him to write a cheque, and then hands over the letter. G rushes off happily to collect the reward and Dupin settles down to tell the narrator (N?) of his brilliant deductions.

This might all sound like a spoiler, but the story is actually about how Dupin came to his conclusion as to where the letter was hidden and the bulk of the story happens after he has handed it over to G. Dupin’s basic theory is that G, being fairly dim-witted, was assuming that D would hide the letter somewhere where G himself would have done so, rather than putting himself into D’s mind and considering what he would do. Dupin, being highly intelligent, is able to assess the intelligence of his adversary, thus enabling Dupin to work out where D would be most likely to hide it. It’s a lengthy explanation, with much talk of poets and mathematicians and how their minds work, and I fear I found it frankly dull. My second major annoyance, and I know this was typical of the time, is Poe’s dropping in of bits of Latin and French – even the last line is a quote in French, and I had to google the translation. Clearly Poe was only aiming his story at the highly educated of his time, since I can’t imagine your ‘ordinary’ reader having an in-depth knowledge of the works of Crébillon (who?).

the purloined letter 1

The influence on Sherlock Holmes couldn’t be clearer, but Conan Doyle is a much better story-teller and, for all his faults, Holmes is a much more likeable character. Poe’s narrator has no personality to speak of, nor even a name, while Watson makes up for any warmth that Holmes might lack.

Again I admire the originality and am grateful for anything that inspired the Holmes stories, but this one failed to engage or entertain me. Worth reading, I grudgingly suppose, for its place in the history of detective fiction… here it is.

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Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😦 😦

Tuesday Terror! The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe

I started this little excursion into horror with Edgar Allan Poe’s Silence: A Fable, which remains one of the best I’ve read so far. So I thought I’d return to Poe and take a look at The Fall of the House of Usher for this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

tales of mystery and imaginationProbably one of the best known horror stories of all time, this gothic tale of madness and terror stands up well to the test of time. Our narrator has received an urgent request to visit an old school friend, Roderick, the last male descendant of the House of Usher. On arrival, he finds Roderick suffering from an unspecified illness that manifests itself as extreme sensitivity – to food, to sound, to light. His condition is worsened by the knowledge that Madeline, his much-loved sister (perhaps too much-loved), is dying.

Poe uses every word carefully to suck the reader into an atmosphere of impending horror. The fall of the House of Usher refers to the physical building as well as to these last family members, with the decay of each seemingly mirrored in the other. Our first picture is of the house as our narrator sees it on his approach – a gothic pile set in a dark valley where even nature is decaying.

I looked upon the scene before me – upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain – upon the bleak walls – upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees – with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of a reveller upon opium – the bitter lapse into every-day life – the hideous dropping off of the veil.

Roderick’s illness appears to be primarily of the mind, perhaps brought on by the grief and depression of losing his sister, but it has physical symptoms – not least of which is an aversion to light, so that the rooms are kept always in semi-darkness. Poe refers more than once to his condition being like the withdrawal symptoms of an opium-eater, the same metaphor as he uses to describe the miasma of unease that surrounds and pervades the house.

He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue – but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out. The once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret…

When Madeline dies and Roderick has her body placed in a sealed cellar…well, we know it’s all going to go horribly wrong. Roderick himself is persuaded that doom is at hand, but seems unable to act to prevent it – is he indeed actively willing it? Although Poe uses similar themes in other stories, his beautifully paced writing still manages to ratchet up the suspense as we reach the horrifying climax.

Illustration by Harry Clarke
Illustration by Harry Clarke

Perhaps it’s just because so many schlock films and books have followed in Poe’s footsteps, but I’m afraid that, though I greatly admired the writing and enjoyed reading the story, my hair stayed unraised throughout and my spine barely tingled. But there’s no doubt that Poe is a master of the gothic tale, and this is well worth reading to see how he uses words and imagery to build an atmosphere of fear and tension.

Fretful porpentine rating:     😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:              😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday Terror! Silence: A Fable by Edgar Allan Poe

The body is buried, the clothes burned, the false trail laid. You are unsuspected, safe, and at last…at last, the house and everything in it is yours. As you sink back in your chair, your eyes fall on his pipe in its rest on the mantelpiece. How you hated that pipe! And yet he would never give it up, not even in those early years when he said he loved you. Suddenly you start! A strange trick of the firelight – it looks almost as though the bowl of the pipe is glowing. And what’s that smell? It can’t be…

A trail of smoke wreathes slowly about your head and your eyes water…you can’t breathe…you’re choking…choking…and with your last conscious thought you realise… It’s…

Tuesday Terror!

(No, wait, don’t go! I promise I’m not going to regale you with cheesy horror stories every week…at least not ones written by me.)

Having recently decided to extend my very limited experience of horror reading, I thought I’d invite you to come along on the journey. It’s a genre I’ve always been ambivalent about because it’s very rare for me to find my spine truly tingled or my hair genuinely raised by the written word. Films can do it – I’ve still never been able to bring myself to re-watch the De Niro version of Cape Fear and the double-bill of Psycho movies was one of the most terrifying nights I’ve ever spent in the cinema. So the plan is to seek out authors and stories that can chill my blood and shiver my timbers. As Hamlet’s ghostly father put it –

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

That’s the tale I’m seeking. I’m hoping you’ll join in by recommending any stories that have turned you into a fretful porpentine. Classic or modern, creepy in preference to gory, I aim to stick mainly to short stories though I’ll try to fit a few novels in along the way. Since I’m currently reading Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination I had intended to start with The Fall of the House of Usher, but that all changed when I read…

Silence: A Fable

A very short story indeed but spellbinding, mysterious and mystical, this prose-poem is a fable told to the narrator by a demon. From the first words – “‘Listen to me,’ said the Demon” – Poe’s use of language, repetition and imagery create a sense of wonder and dread, while the soothing almost hypnotic rhythm belies the chaos at the heart of the tale. The Demon tells us of a land where all in nature is corruption and decay:

“The waters of the river have a saffron and sickly hue; and they flow not onward to the sea but palpitate forever and forever beneath the red eye of the sun with a tumultuous and convulsive motion.”

Lilies stretch their ghastly necks, mud oozes on the riverbank and around the valley a forest of horrible trees is continually agitated.

“But there is no wind throughout the heaven. And by the shores of the river Zaire there is neither quiet nor silence.”

As night falls we are told that amid this dreadful scene sits a lone man upon a rock, and the rock is marked with one word – Desolation. The Demon gradually creates more and more chaos around the man, and with each new horror, the Demon tells us in a repeating refrain:

“And I lay close within the shelter of the lilies, and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; but the night waned, and he sat upon the rock.”

Until finally the Demon curses the land with silence:

“And mine eyes fell upon the countenance of the man, and his countenance was wan with terror. And, hurriedly, he raised his head from his hand, and stood forth upon the rock and listened. But there was no voice throughout the vast illimitable desert, and the characters upon the rock were SILENCE.”

Tales of Mystery and Imagination Illustrated by Harry Clarke
Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Illustrated by Harry Clarke

The final section returns to the narrator and we see his and the Demon’s response to the fable, leading up to a last line that is mysterious, beautiful and perhaps one of the most memorable lines I have ever read.

What does it all mean? I haven’t the least idea – the joy of it is that it is open to personal interpretation. To me, it was saying that while man can distract himself by focusing on the external confusion and disorder of life, he can avoid facing his own emptiness and insignificance; but in solitude and silence his fears cannot be hidden and the demons becomes visible. But I suspect it might mean something quite different to you. Here’s a fantastic reading of it, if you’d like to find out. Or if you’ve read it before, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

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Brilliantly written, atmospheric and spine-tingling, this one has set a high benchmark.

Fretful Porpentine Rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall Story Rating:        😀 😀 😀 😀 😀