It’s October, so I’ve decided to dedicate this month to reading and writing about works that fall into the genre of horror. I’ve always been fascinated by horror films and stories, not so much the slasher stuff that dominates the genre today, but art that forces us to face our inner darkness and fear. Also, I love horror that is symbolic and addresses more profound social and psychological issues. That said, I figured I’d begin with one of my favorite short horror stories: Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.
It had been many, many years since I read this. Of course, I remembered the general story: the protagonist, Montresor, lures unsuspecting Fortunato into the catacombs by telling him he purchased some rare wine, then chains him up and bricks him into the wall alive. I had always looked at this as a dark tale of obsession, Montresor obsessed with seeking his revenge on Fortunato for some unstated wrong and Fortunato allowing himself to become trapped as a result of blindly following his obsession, which is wine. But something struck me on this reading that I had not caught before, and that is the symbolism of the number 11 and the association with Freemasonry.
The first clue appears about halfway through the story, when they are in the catacombs:
I broke and reached him a flagon of De Grave. He emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.
I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement — a grotesque one.
“You do not comprehend?” he said.
“Not I,” I replied.
“Then you are not of the brotherhood.”
“You are not of the masons.”
“Yes, yes,” I said “yes! yes.”
“You? Impossible! A mason?”
“A mason,” I replied.
“A sign,” he said.
“It is this,” I answered, producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire.
Clearly, Fortunato is a mason, and he thinks his guide into the catacombs is one of a lesser degree, which would explain why he failed to understand the gesture. At this point I began to view the descent into the vault as symbolic of the passage one takes in the masonic rites, going deeper and deeper into the shrouded mysteries. In fact, the paragraph that follows shortly after supports this idea.
“Be it so,” I said, replacing the tool beneath the cloak, and again offering him my arm. He leaned upon it heavily. We continued our route in search of the Amontillado. We passed through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.
It is worth noting that the opening quote in that paragraph is very similar to the occult phrase: “So mote it be.” I strongly suspect that this was intentional and that Poe was cleverly adding more occult references.
The number 11 becomes a key component to the story as Fortunato is being bricked into the wall. Montresor lays 11 tiers of brick to seal Fortunato into the wall.
It was now midnight, and my task was drawing to a close. I had completed the eighth, the ninth, and the tenth tier. I had finished a portion of the last and the eleventh; there remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in.
In Freemasonry, there are a total of 33 degrees of initiation, bringing the mason through the 3 stages: Apprentice, Fellow/Intermediate, and Master. So 33 divided by 3 gives us the 11. So as the last brick is put in place in the story, I couldn’t help thinking that it was symbolic of the completion of one of the masonic stages.
There is also another interesting association with the number 11 that may be relevant to the story, which has to do with Christianity. There were originally 12 disciples, but after Judas, there were only The Eleven. I couldn’t help wondering if Fortunato was also a symbol for Judas. After he is sealed into the wall, Montresor hears “only a jingling of the bells.” This conjured an image of the jingling of coins associated with Judas’s betrayal of Christ.
This tale is not only macabre and downright creepy, but there is some deep symbolism woven in. I recommend sitting down tonight and reading this story again. It’s a masterpiece on so many levels. Enjoy, and we will explore more tales from the dark side soon.
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