Halloween is drawing near, spooky costumes, ghoulish parties and for those with tiny humans maybe a touch of trick or treating. It seemed only fitting that I write about some literature that’s in-keeping with the traditions of all hallows eve. I considered Dracula, Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde, but do the originals still have the power to shock a modern audience? Perhaps not. One author who can still make my skin crawl is Edgar Allan Poe. You’ll likely be familiar with The Raven and the Tell-Tale Heart, both of which are a fantastic introduction to Poes magnificent portrayals of madness. I’m going on another short story, The Black Cat, which is equally chilling in its matter of fact portrayal of insanity.
What I love most about Poe is his unreliable narrators. It’s incredibly difficult to have a narrator tell a story in a way that convinces the audience of the opposite of what they’re being told. Another great example of this is the poem My Last Duchess by Robert Browning and the narrator in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The calmly convincing and matter of fact way in which these tales are told is truly unnerving.
In the Black Cat, the narrator is trying to convince us from the outset that nothing out of the ordinary has taken place. He states “my immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly and succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events.” By describing what happens as mere household events the narrator is as good as telling us it isn’t as bad as we might think. He’s attempting to absolve himself early. He goes on to give himself a sterling character reference. He talks about his love of animals, how he was teased for being so fond of them and the joy he received from taking care of them. This wonderful set up makes the narrator seem like a reasonable, compassionate and logical human being. It’s not long before we discover that he’s actually a monster. The narrator is un-named is also telling. It suggests that he could be you, or someone you know. This adds to the creeping idea that monsters could be closer than you think.
He owns many animals, most notable a black cat. He wastes no time in making reference to the popular myth that Cats are witches in disguise. Suggesting perhaps that the cat in someway brought what comes after upon him. He goes on to tell us how remorseful he feels for what he has done. Like all great un-reliable narrators he then contradicts himself by saying he has a “feeble and equivocal feeling.” Making it clear that he was initially just telling us what we wanted to hear. Throughout the story, this fiction of sentiment is chipped away to reveal his true feelings. He can’t quite keep up the ruse, he’s confident that he appears harmless. This will eventually be his undoing.
The narrator proceeds to mistreat his cat in a disturbing and horrific way. He cites gin as an excuse, perhaps an advisory note to some of us! What he also does is try to convince us it could have happened to anyone. Afterall, “Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or stupid action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?” So you see, the author is just like you an me. Who hasn’t done something wrong or stupid in their life? Surely then, we can understand where he’s coming from. Of course, in that situation we might have done the same. He implies this as the atrocities go even further.
Following his first major Cat related incident, a fire consumes his house. The narrator says “I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and affect, between the disaster and the atrocity.” He plants the seed that what he did is linked to the house burning down. Again attempting to mislead the audience into coming to the conclusion that the Cat was in some way cursed. Really wasn’t it worthwhile getting rid of the cat if it was a witch in disguise? Once he’s done with Cat number one he does what any reasonable person would do. He goes out and gets another cat! Having tried to convince us he feels something like remorse, he goes on to lovingly encourage a stray Cat home with him. Of course, it starts getting on his nerves after a while. The narrator says “its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed me.” As Readers we begin to see the pattern repeating itself. We know this isn’t going to end well, which builds suspense. What can he do now that’s more horrific?
In the final sequence the narrator descends into a bizarre episode of convincing himself the Cat is out to get him. It is trying to trip him up. It’s haunting him. He longs to “destroy it with a blow.” Our narrator describes himself as “a man fashioned in the image of the High God.” We as readers likely needed to be reminded, that he was made in the image of god. This being the case, how could his actions be wrong? He’s being plagued by an evil cat after all. He’s only trying to free himself from it. We’d all do the same in his position. Or so he seems to suggest. The story reaches it’s conclusion in a distressing sequence. His final acts of wickedness are carried out with “little trouble.” Leaving the reader to consider this stories horrific conclusion.
The Black Cat is typical of Edgar Allan Poes work. The Raven made him a sensation, however much of his work was far too gruelling for the audiences of the period. He perfected the calm, logical, psychopathic narrator that is still the cornerstone of Modern day murder fiction. The uncanny personality traits and opinions, as well as the convincing nature of the protagonists is terrifying. Even more so now, when we’re more aware than ever that Murders come in wildly differing and often charismatic forms. If you want to be a writer, these stories are a master class in horror, as well as having been innovating at the time. His detective stories such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” later become a starting point for Arthur Connan Doyle’s compelling Sherlock Holmes Novels. All told, this makes Edgar Allan Poe not only one of my favourite Authors, but also a perfect Halloween pick.
What scary stories do you love the most?
Where do you rate Edgar Allan Poe?
Let me know in the comments!
Quotes taken from my very battered copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Penguin Edition. Other more beautiful editions are available clothbound and hardback from a variety of publishers. I particularly love this one:
You can definitely pick up a copy far cheaper, but for a present it’s perfect (imagine courtesy of Waterstones.com.)