Monday, November 22, 2010

The Story Behind "The Pit and the Pendulum"

NOTE: This is the beginning of a series of posts in which I try to find all the helpful source material and commentary available online for horror's greatest tales.

If you want to discover the story behind The Pit and The Pendulum, you should start with the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library, which has a definitive version of The Pit itself here. Poe's story begins with a Latin inscription:

Impia tortorum longas hic turba furores / Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit. / Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro, / Mors ubi dira fuit, vita salusque patent.

The UVA library version actually translates it, which is helpful:

Here the wicked mob, unappeased, long cherished a hatred of innocent blood. Now that the fatherland is saved, and the cave of death demolished; where grim death has been, life and health appear.

Poe describes this quatrain as being composed on the gate of a market erected over the site of the Jacobin Club House in Paris. Over at Blogicaster, there is a detailed investigation about where these verses really came from. Evidently, the "market gates" was artistic license.

The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore has a wealth of information about this story, including:

  • A list of printings of the story, with some versions transcribed online.
  • An essay by James Lundquist about how the tale is a kind of religious allegory about salvation.
  • A draft of a 1936 lecture which characterizes the tale as a "Tale of Pseudo Science." The lecturer, Richard Hart, has developed a system for classifying all of Poe's work based on the kinds of evils the protagonist faces.
  • A short piece that describes how Poe was influenced by a book on the Koran and Arabian history in describing the tortures his main character faced.

Scholars say that Poe was also influenced by a short story called "The Iron Shroud" by William Mudford. You can find the text here. It is a classic Gothic tale, overwrought and lurid and full of dark, dismal fun. The piece appeared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine more than a decade before The Pit. Poe even mocked this style of writing in his humorous piece entitled How to Write a Blackwood Article. But that didn't keep him from using the style for his own purposes.

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