Tales of Terror from Edgar Allan Poe Read online
The Masque of the Red Death
The Black Cat
The Pit and the Pendulum
The Tell-Tale Heart
The Cask of Amontillado
The Fall of the House of Usher
Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the horror story and the father of the modern detective thriller, lived a life as strange and tragic as depicted in any of his tales.
He was born in Boston on January 19, 1809, the son of actors who died before he was three years old. The toddler was taken to live with John Allan, a wealthy tobacco merchant in Richmond, Virginia. Toung Edgar was well educated, both in England and in the United States, but his gambling debts led Mr. Allan to stop paying his foster son an allowance to attend the University of Virginia.
Edgar then ran away to Boston, where he wrote and published his first book of poetry, which proved to be a financial disaster. Penniless, he joined the army for two years. In 1830, Mr. Allan came to Poe's rescue again by helping to get him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But after only six months there, Edgar was dismissed for his uncooperative attitude. This led to a permanent break between Poe and Allan, who cut Edgar out of his will entirely.
After West Point, Poe lived with his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm, in Baltimore, and in 1836 married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. His life with Virginia and her mother in Baltimore and New York City was one of continual hardship, punctuated by occasional literary successes. Although Poe was a talented and influential editor, he lost a succession of editorial positions at various literary magazines and newspapers. His stories were never as appreciated during his lifetime as they are today. He became known for his poetry, especially after the publication of his narrative poem “The Raven” in 1845, which brought him international fame but little income. He took increasingly to drink, and the death of his wife in 1847 exacerbated his physical and mental breakdown. Poe died under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 7, 1849.
Poe's lyrical language, his rich vocabulary and musical rhythms, beg to be read aloud. His language may at first seem stilted or a little old-fashioned, but one soon realizes that it creates the perfect atmosphere for these tales of horror
In Poe's time, once the sun set, the world was much darker than it is today. Poe invariably lived in small, dark rooms, where shadows would have danced across the walls from flickering candlelight, a fireplace, or oil lamps. Much of his writing reflects these dark settings, making them seem all the more mysterious and foreboding to us. The stories in this book take place at twilight or in the dead of night. And so my illustrations are dark as well.
Poe's nature was dark, too. Death at early ages and from illnesses that scarcely exist today were everyday occurrences then. These realities perhaps affected his already sensitive nature and unhappy life to give his writing a tendency toward the macabre. In any event, his work remains a powerful influence on American and European authors, and he continues to be one of the most-read American authors.
The Masque of the Red Death
One of Poe's shortest tales, “The Masque of the Red Death,” published in 1842, was evidently based on historical events that took place ten years earlier. During the cholera epidemic in Paris, many people were determined to make the best of what promised to be a short life by attending numerous balls throughout the city. No doubt Poe had read Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. That ancient tale relates the story of a small group of people who escape to a remote castle in order to avoid the Black Plague that killed one-third of Europe's population in the fourteenth century. There was no actual plague called the Red Death.
he “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.
But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisator!, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”
It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.
It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. There were seven—an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different; as might have been expected from the duke's love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but litde more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example in blue—and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange—the fifth with white—the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet—a deep blood color. Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. There was no light of any kind emanating from the lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the firelight that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold e