I read three of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short stories this week. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” all focus on a mad narrator who is telling the reader about his crimes. As a lover of Poe’s work, I was excited to revisit these stories this week. I found it fascinating that, despite the fact that each story is told from the perspective of the killer, I never found the stories as obnoxious or unpleasant to read as other stories I have reviewed recently that are from the point of view of mad men. Conversely, I was reminded of Poe’s incredible ability to craft horror stories with depth and use language to evoke emotion.
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator explains how he was compelled to kill a man who had “the eye of a vulture.” What I found so compelling about this story was how close we are to the narrator’s point of view. We are reading his attempts to rationalize the murder and retain his sanity. However, as the story progresses, we are clearly shown that the narrator is insane. The manic, staccato sentences further underscore his mania. Through reading the story so close to his perspective, the story becomes all the more tragic because we get to watch him try and fail to rationalize his crime and cling to sanity.
“The Black Cat”
Similar to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat” centers around a narrator who is driven mad with guilt after a murder. However, unlike the former story, the narrator in “The Black Cat” seems to be aware of the madness of what he has done relatively early in the story. The alcoholic narrator seems to be prone to bouts of violence while drunk, during which he kills his cat and then his wife before walling her and, unbeknownst to him, his new cat up in his cellar. The narrator is incapable of rationalizing what he has done, seemingly blaming the alcohol. The detached way in which he describes the crimes, juxtaposed with the crippling guilt he feels by the end of the story, results in a magnificent examination of the trappings of alcoholism.
“The Cask of Amontillado”
“The Cask of Amontillado” shares similarities with both “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” in that Montresor, the narrator, details how he has murdered, Fortunato, a man who has insulted him. However, unlike the other two stories, Montresor seems to savor the brilliance of his murder and the irony of the situation, particularly after we know the fate of Fortunato. Lines about how Fortunato won’t die from his cough become all the more humorous and sinister once we, like Montresor, understand that Fortunato is going to be murdered. However, this ironic tone brings into question why, after half a century, is the narrator telling this story to someone who knows “the nature of my soul?” Is this a deathbed confession of a man who wants to be absolved of his sins despite his lack of guilt that is evident in the irony of the story? While it is unclear who is told to rest in peace at the end of the story, “The Cask of Amontillado” is yet another prime example of how Poe can craft a layered and complex story from the prose to the overall plot.
I was first introduced to Gothic fiction through Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. He has continued to inspire me through how he crafts horror stories with depth and uses language to evoke emotion. While these three stories share similarities, each highlight different facets of murder, resulting in three brilliant stories that explore humanity and madness.