This is probably the quintessential short story by Edgar Allan Poe and the perfect conclusion to my macabre month of blog posts (I will be indulging in Halloween festivities tomorrow and hence will not post). Although this is a very, very short story, it packs a hell of a wallop and it never gets stale. The story pulls you in from the very first word—in fact; I am going to be as bold as to assert that this is arguably the best opening paragraph in all of literature.
True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease that 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. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
There is a lot going on in this paragraph and it sets the tone for entire story. First, there is a frenzied rhythm to the text. When you read this aloud, paying attention to the punctuation, it is psychosis perfectly expressed. Reading this, one actually feels the tension and anxiety expressed by the protagonist. The paragraph also establishes the tension of opposites that permeates the story and builds to a climax at the end. The speaker describes himself as both nervous and calm in the same paragraph. This type of juxtaposition continues throughout the tale; for example, when he claims to have thrust his head into the old man’s room, and then immediately states how he slowly put his head through and that it took him nearly an hour to do so.
There are a couple other things worth noting about the opening paragraph. This tale for me symbolizes a struggle between the senses, a struggle between the auditory and the visual—the auditory represented by the speaker and the visual by the old man. When your senses battle each other and one triumphs, the result can be insanity. The second thing to point out is that the speaker claims he hears all things “in the earth,” not on the earth. This is a key distinction, because the things in the earth are dead. Our narrator is already haunted by a psychosis that causes him to believe he is hearing the dead as they lie beneath the ground.
Something that stood out for me on this reading was the concept of time. Time seems to morph in this tale, either speeding up or slowing down in conjunction with the beating of the heart, which is described in clock-like terms. I thought about how our emotional state affects our perception of time. The old adages of “Time flies when you’re having fun” and “Time seems to drag on while you are waiting” certainly come into play here. When the protagonist is excited, time seems to speed up, but when he is waiting, time seems to slow. Here’s an example of how time shifts, increasing with the narrator’s emotional state.
But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!—do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me—the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man’s hour had come!
I never tire of this story. It is truly a masterpiece and no matter how many times I read it—and I have lost count over the years—it never ceases to thrill me.
I hope you enjoyed this month of creepy tales and poems, and may your Halloween be filled with chills and fright!!