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Horror has about a thousand different definitions in everyone’s minds and can be associated with anything from movies to video games. The definition of horror has changed over the past few centuries, and the media is the best example of change, morphing around what we’ve taken as fear into events and circumstances that terrify the protagonists and antagonists of a horror story. These characters and their reactions bring our fears to life, making us imagine ourselves in the same scenarios. However, before the days of decent special effects, it took a powerful writer to dream up something that could legitimately terrify the reader by words and imagination alone. This story, however, pulls you into the terrors that the narrator experiences, keeping you on the edge of your seat the entire read. As I’ve said before, everyone’s definition of horror is different, so let me ask you this: anyone afraid of torture?
Edgar Allen Poe is still revered to these days as one of the most sadistic, albeit excellent, horror writers of the 19th century, amongst famed horror genre authors such as Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. Known for his more supernatural stories, like The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart, critics first acclaimed The Pit and the Pendulum as vulgar, even for him and his styles. What makes the story so different from his previous tales was primarily the semi-overkill of sensory description and the primary horror factor being a physical event rather than a miserable figment of the protagonist’s imagination. These reasons lead to the text-to-self connection the reader feels to the narrator, furthering the feeling of fear while reading. This story was an easy choice for me to make personally due to a combination of factors: the unique and yet captivating plot, the genre it falls under, and the senses of fear, urgency and helplessness it invokes in the reader. Hey, I can like butterflies and torture at the same time, alright?
The Pit and the Pendulum itself, while sparing the vast majority of historical facts, revolves around a prisoner’s torture during the Spanish Inquisition after being sentenced to death by the court. He awakens in a cell with little food and water, unaware of any method of escape, the only redeeming landmark being a large open pit in the middle of the room, dropping God knows how far into water and assorted devices of death. Barely missing a straight walk into the pit, thanks to a well-timed stumble, the unnamed protagonist survives long enough to fall asleep. Upon awakening, he is strapped down onto a plank of wood and finds, much to his horror, that a steel crescent-shaped pendulum is descending towards his torso at an alarming rate, poised to slice right through his heart. Hardly above pure despair, quick thinking saves him as he manages to use the food to lure the rats into severing the bandages holding him in place, along with some well-placed strokes of the pendulum above him. However, his torture doesn’t stop with his escape of the pendulum: shortly after his extremely narrow escape, the iron walls of his cell heat to intolerable temperatures and close in on him, forcing him to the pit in the room’s center once again. Screaming mentally, he wishes a more merciful death were available than whatever awaited him in the pit, and just as he is on the verge of letting go from the weak grasp he has on the pit’s edge, he is rescued by the general of the very army he was taken prisoner from, the traps receding as he realizes that the Inquisition has been overthrown, and he will live to see another day.
Poe does an excellent job creating an ultimate sense of urgency within the character’s emotions and actions, along with a lurking and semi-permanent feeling of unease due to the atmosphere and feeling of inevitable death. The interpretations of the designs of the torture devices has been interpreted in many different ways, and the story itself has inherited many different movie variations. Poe makes fantastic use of the reader’s imagination along with the words themselves, and it isn’t hard to see why.
The setting is dark and claustrophobic, as our protagonist finds himself locked in a large cell. The story’s description of the cell leave quite a bit to the imagination, furthering that oh-so-essential scare factor that Poe was aiming for. The plot is based off of true events with a slight twist on historical facts for story purposes. While gruesome, it was unique and relatively unheard of for the time it was written. The conflict is a slight cross between Man Vs. Man and Man Vs. Circumstance, as he is battling both the traps themselves and the members of the Inquisition that sentenced him. However, I think it’s safe to say Man Vs. Circumstance is the dominant conflict in this scenario. The fact that the story is told from a first-person perspective makes it that much scarier, as you can really see what the character is feeling as he’s tortured. This is where that heavy sensory description I mentioned earlier comes into play, really making you imagine and probably even pity this character for what he has to go through. The protagonist’s actions and feelings of persistence and quick-witted decisions even in the very face of death more than prove his emotional and physical endurance and ultimately lead to his survival. Heck, his own mistake saves him from an early death in the pit at the story’s beginning. This story’s theme isn’t essentially set in stone, but it can range anywhere from “Never give up” in the case of his scenario as a whole, to “knowledge is power” in the case of his actual escape methods. Or we could go with my personal gain, “never read The Pit and the Pendulum before going to sleep at 1:00 in the morning.”
Overall, this story is an absolute must-read for fans of the horror genre, Poe’s works or just gigantic pendulums of death. The plot is fast-paced and suspenseful, the protagonist is extremely easy to relate to and the whole structure of the writing really sucks you into the sadistic scenario of the story. I would give this one five stars any day of the week and highly advise anyone looking for a good horror read to take some time with it. And once you do, ask yourself again once you finish: are you afraid of torture?
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