Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Adventure classics -- A pit and a pendulum and rats, oh, my!

“The Pit and the Pendulum”

by Edgar Allan Poe


I wrote Monday about what Texas authors consider the essential works of horror writing. Nobody mentioned Poe. I could understand excluding Robert Louis Stevenson, although his "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is undoubtedly a horror classic. Or excluding Oscar Wilde, although his Picture of Dorian Gray is also a classic. After all, neither Stevenson nor Wilde specialized in horror.

But what about Poe? Sure, he invested modern detective fiction, dabbled in what would now be termed science fiction, and prided himself on his poetry. But can anyone dispute that in the realm of psychological horror, he’s the original master?

Published originally in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843, “The Pit and the Pendulum” seems at first glance to be an odd choice for a Christmas present. A prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition is subjected to a mock trial, apparently after torture, then whisked away to the Inquisition’s deepest dungeon for an over the top execution by inches.

The execution relies on bizarre devices of the kind beloved by modern thriller writers. In practical terms, , although the cost of building a prison cell designed to force a prisoner to fall or jump to his death in the cell’s central pit doesn’t make sense from an accounting standpoint. It can’t even count as a deterrent, since nobody is supposed to know the final end of prisoners in this situation. And what’s with that crazy pendulum? What government with the faintest sense of fiscal responsibility would fund such things?

Seriously, and fortunately for readers for the past hundred and seventy years, accountants couldn’t put a price on Poe’s ingenuity.

Being Poe, he also threw in enough (slightly-skewed) history and elegant vocabulary to make his story suitable for elegantly bound books. And although he couldn’t have known, his works have spawned dozens of films. (The 1961 film based on “The Pit and the Pendulum” relies only loosely on Poe’s story, which at approximately 6,000 words had to be expanded to fit the needs of a ninety-minute movie. The 1961 screenplay was by a noted horror writer of the twentieth century, Richard Matheson.)

The original story opens as the judges of the Inquisition pronounce sentence on the unnamed prisoner/narrator. Although the Inquisition was on the wane by the time of the early nineteenth century setting for Poe’s story, it was and is still a handy byword for terror.

“I was sick¾ sick unto death with that long agony,” the story opens, “and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.” Still only semi-conscious¾ and possibly hallucinating¾ the prisoner is carried from the courtroom to a lightless dungeon. While exploring his unseen, unseeable cell, he stumbles and falls. Reviving, he says, “I put forward my arm, and shuddered to find that I had fallen at the very brink of a circular pit.”

Foiled in their first attempt, the prisoner’s jailers provide him with drugged food and water, tie him up and turn the lights on, the better for him to see an enormous razor-edged pendulum descending on him from the ceiling. And to see the rats, the large, ravenous rats, shown in the accompanying 1909 illustration by artist Byam Shaw for another lushly bound setting of Poe’s stories.

Give yourself a treat this Halloween or any time, and read the story. Or reread it. Or get a free listen at Just don’t turn the lights down too low.

(Next Wednesday Adventure classics continues an October of Halloween horror with Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” And tune in later this month for works from those by-passed horror authors Stevenson and Wilde, as well as modern-day mistress of the macabre Anne Rice.)

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