“I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Harken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story…”
This story is number four in my Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories anthology which, I must say, I’m enjoying immensely. This particular tale is the most well-known of the four but it’s also one of the shortest. I found that it can be read in about the time it takes to consume a jacket potato and a cup of hot tea in the staff canteen. It’s also, I think, the edgiest of the four I’ve read so far.
The unnamed narrator of this tale tries to persuade the reader of his sanity whilst simultaneously describing his decision to murder an old man in his bed. It’s a carefully planned murder but not one motivated by hatred or greed, at least not according to our narrator who is clearly mad and not worth trusting. Considering the time in which it was written there’s an unusually frank description of his efforts to dismember the body and hide it under the floorboards. Unfortunately, however, these diligent attempts to cover his crime are thwarted when three policemen arrive to investigate the strange noises reported by a neighbour. It’s at this point that the tale takes a supernatural turn although it’s unclear whether the events that follow are genuine or whether they are simply the paranoid hallucinations of a guilty man.
Unlike the other three stories, there’s no scene setting here; Edgar Allan Poe jumps straight in with the deranged ramblings of the murderer and his insistence that the events he’s about to describe are the actions of a sane, rational human being. It means there are a lot of unanswered questions but, unlike with The Botathen Ghost, the air of mystery worked really well here. I also really like the fact that the precision with which the murderer plans and carries out his crime is at such odds with his behaviour after the murder and with the tone of his narration. It makes him all the more menacing. This is a simple story but Poe’s clever timing and his tension building are pretty perfect. Within a few short pages he’s whipped his narrator, and the reader, into such a frenzy that you feel like a lot more has happened. I think this might be my favourite one so far.