This book is definitely not for the faint-hearted or the weak in spirit. Strictly for exceedingly brave tweeners, teenagers and preferably for young adults. When I saw this book lying in our community library shelves, I knew I just had to get it and feature it for our Haunting Tales Special. Edgar Allan Poe is a veritable classic. One can not simply do a scary feature without one (or two) of his works being in the spotlight.
This volume contains four of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. And while it IS abridged (supposedly to make the language easier for children’s sakes) – the book remained faithful to Poe’s trademark (occasionally pedantic) narrative.
“He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Wherever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever” (p. 3)
This is one of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe stories. The evil protagonist who seemed to be in the brink of madness, was thoroughly disturbed by the cataract-ridden eyes of the old wealthy man whom he is serving (I suspect he’s the butler). Unable to help himself, he stalked the old man while he was sleeping, until the suspense builds up and the madness has taken over. The authorities came and were convinced that nothing was amiss (despite the reports of some kind of disturbance the evening before)– but it was the evil man’s ‘tell tale heart’ that gave him away – hence, the idiomatic expression to refer to a sign of a guilt-ridden conscience:
“It grew louder – louder – louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! – No, no! They heard! – They suspected! – They knew! – They were making a mockery of my horror!” (p. 23)
Clear case of Paranoid Disorder, indeed. Simply goes to show that a blood-stained hand will forever remain a blood-stained hand – “Out, darnd spot, out, I say!” as Lady Macbeth aptly puts it.
The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether
Now this story is right up my alley what with all the talk about madhouses, madpeople, madworld (haha, now that will be my LSS for the day). The story begins by dangling something that most people would be fascinated about – how an asylum appears like in Southern France. The madhouse is called Maison de Sante which is fairly well-known among medical folks. The male protagonist is very keen in finding out what the inside of the establishment is like and wants his curiosity ‘gratified.’ With an introduction from his friend, he was welcomed by a certain Monsieur Maillard who was running the institution.
What I find fascinating is their mention of therapeutic interventions that they found to be effective among lunatics. They referred to a “soothing system” in madhouses described as such:
“all punishments were avoided … confinement was seldom resorted to – that the patients, while secretly watched, were left much apparent liberty, and that most of them were permitted to roam about the house and grounds in the ordinary apparel of persons in right mind” (p. 34)
Monsieur Maillard also shared that they have a very different strategy in responding to the patients’ madness under the soothing system:
“We contradicted no fancies which entered the brains of the mad. On the contrary, we not only indulged but encouraged them; and many of our most permanent cures have thus been effected… We have had men, for example, whofancied themselves chickens. The cure was to insist upon the thing as a fact – to accuse the patient of stupidity in not sufficiently perceiving it to be a fact – and thus to refuse him any other diet for a week than that which properly appertains to a chicken. In this manner a little corn and gravel were made to perform wonders.”
What was amusing is the way that the protagonist was very cautious in assuming
that the people he was interacting with in the asylum were sane, he exercised due ‘prudence’ – and so when he met this young lady playing an aria of Bellini in the grand piano, he did not automatically assume that she was in her right frame of mind:
“a long acquaintance with the metaphysics of mania had taught me to put no faith in such evidence of sanity, and I continued to practice, throughout the interview, the caution with which I commenced it”
During dinner time, he was made acquainted with the other hospital staff, most of whom were dressed in their fineries and described to be “extravagantly rich.” The guest however, attributed it to how a Parisian is expected to be “accoutred” during that time. Whatever suspicions he may have had about the sanity of the people he was dining with were dispelled when he started conversing with them, since they all appear to be perfectly sane.
The guest was regaled with stories of lunatics who thought of themselves as a teapot, a donkey, a Cordova cheese (thus, he invited all his friends to take a slice from the middle of his leg), a bottle of champagne, a frog, a pumpkin, a chicken – among others.
It is also interesting that females were perceived to be more predisposed to hysteria and madness (must also be related to the sociohistorical context – the zeitgeist of the time and how women were regarded in general): “I have always understood that the majority of lunatics were of the gentler sex” (p. 57) – they did note, however that “Lately, matters have changed very much, as you see.”
What you, dear reader, should find out for yourself is Monsieur Maillard’s innovative practice of dealing with his ‘inmates’ as was propagated by the “learned Doctor Tarr and the celebrated Professor Fether.”
Another line that caught my attention was this: “When a madman appears thoroughly sane, indeed, it is high time to put him in a straitjacket.” The story is effective in making people question, just what exactly constitutes madness – and what the face of sanity looks like.
The Oblong Box
The ship Independence was traveling from Charleston to New York under the supervision of Captain Hardy. Among the passengers was a young artist named Cornelius Wyatt, his wife and two sisters. The mystery began when the narrator (one of the crew members) began speculating as to why the artist asked for three staterooms when there are only four travelers (husband and wife would occupy room 1; sisters occupy room 2; who will occupy stateroom 3?) – nosey nosey indeed.
There was an extra baggage brought with them – an oblong box (but it was really more rectangular in my eye) – six feet in length and two and a half in breadth. Now what are your guesses? I already know for a fact that this must be a coffin. The meddlesome and annoyingly-interfering crew member, on the other hand, is convinced that it has to be Leonardo’s Last Supper done by Rubini at Florence. I suppose the educated guess remains logical since Cornelius Wyatt, after all, is an artist.
Wyatt, the artist was his taciturn, temperamental artist self – what was surprising was the appearance of the wife (believed to be an accomplished and learned woman) – who turned out to be “a decidedly plain-looking woman. If not positively ugly, she was not, I think, very far from it.”
The ship had the misfortune of meeting a hurricane head-on which split their after-sail into ribbons – it reached a point wherein the water was already four feet deep inside the ship. The passengers had no choice but to abandon the ship and take their chances in a longboat where they could only bring the clothes upon their back and the barest essentials in order for them to survive. However, the young artist demanded that his oblong box be brought along with him, claiming quite madly that
He naturally jumped off the longboat upon seeing that the captain will not be swayed in the slightest. So he climbed back to their ship, which eventually capsized. While the young artist was able to save his precious cargo, he sank to the bottom of the sea along with it. What was inside the oblong box, you may wonder? What precious cargo was inside? Read the book and discover for yourself.
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
The narrative talked about a form of hypnosis which was quite popular during the time that this was published (during the 1800s) known as Mesmerism – not unlike what we now know as hypnosis.
The protagonist – who was doing a very detailed transcription of the events that have occurred – appears like a psychiatrist who experimented upon the efficacy of mesmerism when used in a patient who is near death “in articulo mortis.” And yes, it appears that “informed consent” in such experimental proceedings was already in effect at the time:
“It wanted about five minutes of eight when, taking the patient’s hand, I begged him to state, as distinctly as he could, to Mr. L – I, whether he (M. Valdemar) was entirely willing that I should make the experiment of mesmerizing him in his then condition. He replied feebly, yet quite audibly, ‘Yes, I wish to be mesmerized”
The physicians confirmed that M. Valdemar had phthisis (defined in the dictionary as pulmonary tuberculosis or a disease characterized by the wasting away or atrophy of the body or a part of the body). The patient was a well-known compiler of the Bibliotheca Forensica and was known to have a markedly nervous temperament. When the medical doctors pronounced that he only had a few hours to live, Monsieur Valdemar called for our protagonist, the psychiatrist who would finally have the opportunity to practice mesmerism in someone so near death.
The researcher proceeded to provide in excruciatingly-gruesome detail how the patient looked as he was under the mesmeric influence. Questions abound of course as to whether mesmerism indeed managed to delay or quicken the process of dying. And I believe that despite its extremely loathsome nature (which is its intent in all purposes, thus it has succeeded in that respect hands down) it provides the perfect fitting end to this madhouse of horrors aptly entitled Tales of Death and Dementia.
The illustrations are just plain… grisly and gruesome, and as such the artist is named Gris Grimly. I have read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe during my university years (when I was enamored with horrifying tales – I had a phase of Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dickinson and yes Poe) – there is something about the ghastly nature of the narratives that entices and beckons. And yes, I also like watching the extremely creepy Asian horror flicks (Ringu, Ju-on, and other hair-raising Korean films) – so these tales (and yes, gothic illustrations) do appeal to that determinedly-hip and wanting-to-be-cool-and-dark aspect of my being.
There are so many websites devoted to Edgar Allan Poe, I would just try to include those which are at the top of my google list. The poestories website contains a detailed list of Edgar Allan Poe’s full-length short stories, his biography, his poetry and such. Apparently, there is also an Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia – teachers and students are most welcome to visit for tours if they are interested to come and visit. One other useful link that showcases the life and works of Poe would be The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore where a comprehensive listing of his stories and more detailed information about him could be found.
Gris Grimly, on the other hand, has a blog where he discusses his recent works and even generously posts some of his works. He describes himself as an “Illustrator, author, painter, storyteller, filmmaker and overall Mad Creator.” Do be warned though that some of the images may not be for the very young and might need some parental supervision.http://ramascreen.com/tag/edgar-allan-poe/ Image of Gris Grimly – http://www.andreabricco.net/tag/gris-grimly/ Youtube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZOi-SCiYCo Book borrowed from the Community Library Book photos were taken by me