Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #22: The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Pit and the Pendulum." The Gift, a Christmas and New Year's Present for 1843, 1843.

This brief article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

Kobo ebook edition,
cover from an illustration by
Arthur Rackham

ISFdb Rating:   9.00/10
My Rating:        8/10

"I was sick--sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me."

In the latter stages of the Spanish Inquisition, a self-proclaimed innocent man is sent to Toledo where the truly brutal tortures of the Inquisition are rumoured to take place. There he is deposited in a dungeon, left awaiting his fate. The waiting increases his anxiety, as he can only imagine what the inquisitors have in store for him. He studies his pitch black surroundings, and discovers a pit at the centre of the dungeon. Adding to this discovery, and o his anxiety, he awakens tied down with rope, and descending toward him is a sharp scythe on that infamous pendulum.

To be expected from Poe, a well-written narrative providing much horror. Yet worse than the razor sharp pendulum, the moving walls and the fiery pit, are those nasty accompanying rats. Ingenious of Poe to bring such well detailed and horrible rodents to swarm the protagonist while in such a desperate state, and how those rats are utilized to help save him, a moment that inspired many scenes in popular film.

More ingenious is Poe's attention to detail, as the story takes place in such limited space and with a limited sequence of events. His use of alliteration, particularly in relation to the sweeping scythe, the waking-sleeping delirium and the attention to the senses, gives much body to a tale with so little plot.

The Spanish Inquisition had officially come to an end a few decades prior to the publication of "The Pit and the Pendulum," and periodicals over the years were reporting on the various events that were coming to light as details of the tortures, survival stories and such were being uncovered. Poe, having worked for many of the periodicals, became fascinated with the events of the Inquisition, and came up with his own, wholly invented, method of torture. Just as "The Black Cat" came about with a report of the discovery of a skeleton in the walls of a house, "The Pit and the Pendulum" was the result of other printed articles.

This has never been my favourite of Poe's most famous stories, but the craftsmanship is evident and nonetheless makes for an excellent read. One of those stories that is so cemented in popular western culture that we need not have to read it to know exactly how it plays out.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.


Todd Mason said...

And this one is, by me, an odd choice for ISFDB, as it's non-fantasticated suspense fiction, despite, as you note, the fabricated execution-device, and Poe's passion. "Valdemar", "Masque" and a number of others are "true" horror by me, involving the fantastic, while "Amontillado" and others of his most famous items involve quite potentially ?enjoyed or performed madness or, what's your favorite Poe story, if there is a single one?

Casual Debris said...

Hi Todd, ISFdb has a rule that non-speculative stories by popular speculative writers are included, I think partly because these stories appear in so many speculative anthologies that are on the database. These stories are included with the flag [non-genre]. Yet very of Poe's stories contain that flag.

My favourite Poe would be "The Tell-Tale Heart" & "Amontillado," which are #s 23 & 24 on the list (last November; the dynamic list has since changed & expanded). Partly I have sentimental attachments to these as they resonated with a youthful me. TTH I've just re-read & it is still quite strong, while Amontillado I re-read regularly. I also quite like "The Black Cat" & "William Wilson." Others I need to re-read as it's been a long time. "The Pit & the Pendulum" would be second tier for me, where the plot & props supersede character; my favourites have a character who drives the plot.

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