The Pit and the Pendulum: Edgar Allan Poe and the Short Story

Bound in glorious purple, this new edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales from Oxford World’s Classics reprints some neglected Poe tales among the usual classics

Edgar Allan Poe has a claim to being the originator of the modern short story. Not only has the earliest use of that very term, ‘short story’, been attributed to him, but he stands at the beginning of a long tradition of short fiction which would only take off in British publishing in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and which was only just beginning in America in the 1840s, when Poe put his mark on it. Among the other pioneers of the short story at this time, only Nathaniel Hawthorne comes close to Poe’s achievement.

And what an achievement. With only a modicum of distress I could resign myself to a world without Poe’s poetry, even the much-quoted ‘The Raven’, and he famously never left behind a novel. But his short stories were where he not merely excelled but showed the form itself how it could excel. It was in his short stories that he helped to lay the groundwork for modern science fiction (see his ‘The Balloon-Hoax’), detective fiction (his trilogy of tales featuring C. Auguste Dupin, himself the literary inspiration for Sherlock Holmes), the puzzle- or code-based thriller (would we have had The Da Vinci Code without Poe’s ‘The Gold-Bug’, I wonder?), the ambiguous ghost story (see ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’), and, of course, the horror story (‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, ‘The Black Cat’, and so on). Few writers left behind such a small body of short fiction that not only spanned but often helped to pioneer quite so many genres.

This new selection of Poe’s short fiction, The Pit and the Pendulum and Other Tales (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection), edited with an informative introduction and helpful notes by David Van Leer, contains many of Poe’s best-known tales, but also reprints some less famous stories alongside the likes of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. Here, we also find ‘Von Kempelen and his Discovery’, ‘The Domain of Arnheim’, and ‘A Tale of the Ragged Mountains’. Whether the addition of these relatively little-known works alongside the ‘canon’ of Poe’s work is enough to persuade die-hard Poe fans to buy it, I don’t know; but certainly if you’re yet to possess a copy of Poe’s essential fiction, this is the one to get. It’s beautifully bound in glorious purple (see the picture!), and also an excellent edition for the student of Poe.

Of these lesser-known Poe tales, the one that stood out to me was ‘The Domain of Arnheim’, in which Poe seems to lay out his artistic credo in the form of a work of fiction. It’s a love letter to the imagination and a late-Romantic expression of the primacy of the human imagination, describing an imaginary voyage through a poet’s mind:

There is a gush of entrancing melody; there is an oppressive sense of strange sweet odour; – there is a dream-like intermingling to the eye of tall slender Eastern trees – bosky shrubberies – flocks of golden and crimson birds – lily-fringed lakes – meadows of violets, tulips, poppies, hyacinths, and tuberoses – long intertangled lines of silver streamlets – and, upspringing confusedly from amid all, a mass of semi-Gothic, semi-Saracenic architecture, sustaining itself as if by miracle in mid-air, glittering in the red sunlight with a hundred oriels, minarets, and pinnacles; and seeming the phantom handiwork, conjointly, of the Sylphs, of the Fairies, of the Genii, and of the Gnomes.

In such pieces, Poe is writing something almost closer to the prose-poem than the traditional story.

It’s also good to see ‘Hop-Frog’ included here, one of Poe’s greatest lesser-known stories: it might be said to occupy the middle-ground between the familiar tales such as ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and the relatively forgotten stories mentioned above. ‘Hop-Frog’, like many of Edgar Allan Poe’s best stories, carries the force of parable. It is a curious mixture of revenge, horror, and spectacle, about a dwarf who exacts spectacular brutal vengeance on a cruel monarch. ‘Hop-Frog’ shares a number of links with Poe’s other classic stories. The ourang-outangs recall the orangutan in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, while Hop-Frog’s dislike of wine echoes Poe’s own love-hate relationship with the drink, which probably fed into his portrayal of the drunken sadism of the narrator of ‘The Black Cat’, one of Poe’s most unsettling stories. The story is normally interpreted as being Poe’s revenge on his critics – or, more specifically, on those who were spreading gossip about Poe.

To this day, as Van Leer observes in his introduction to this new selection, The Pit and the Pendulum and Other Tales (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection), Poe is dismissed if not actively derided for being ‘juvenile’ or adolescent or other such terms indicating a form of arrested intellectual development. But as these short stories demonstrate, his imagination and influence are almost unparalleled in nineteenth-century fiction.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

8 thoughts on “The Pit and the Pendulum: Edgar Allan Poe and the Short Story”

  1. We teach “The Cask of Amontillado” and it really freaks the students out, as does “The Masque of Red Death.” Supposedly he was a gentle man who loved cats. Hard to believe from his stories.

  2. Such a wonderful writer – whatever his critical worth, he has created gothic images which remain with us. The Pit and the Pendulum was in my mind, and I pay homage to that, with my own short story ‘The Pendulum’ – although mine is more overtly allegorical and takes a different path. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist including my memories of that classic tale and weaving them into my own. Writing it was actually tremendously cathartic at the time so I have much to be grateful to Poe for.

  3. for the Poe
    fan,there is a book Poe himself

    Mentions somewhere and that he enthusiastically read..It is called Curiousities of Literature
    And there are several volumes.Author is Isaac Disraeli and is available through Amazon


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