Friday Fiction Facts: A Grotesquerie of Science
Today is Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday, so what better way to celebrate than with Friday Fiction Facts? As I sit and write these opening sentences, I have no idea where this is going to lead me, so let’s just see what happens. We’ll start with Poe’s most famous poem and go from there.
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.
Can ravens talk? You betcha! Well, they can imitate. We don’t know if they can be taught to initiate conversation and make requests like Alex the Parrot. Here is Terry the Talking Raven, who for some reason, was never taught to say “nevermore.”
“The Masque of Red Death”
I love this story. When I took Edgar Allan Poe in college, we had to memorize the opening and closing lines of his major works. These final sentences were my all-time favorite:
And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
This was the story of Prince Prospero, who locked himself and “a thousand lighthearted friends” into his great castle thinking (wrongly) that there they would be protected from the pestilence known as the Red Death. But what was the Red Death? Poe describes it thusly:
The “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.
He is talking about tuberculosis, the disease that killed his young wife, Virginia, in 1847. Some think he wrote “The Masque of the Red Death” as a way of expressing his denial of her illness.
“The Premature Burial”
“There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction.”
Well, Poe got that much right. In this story, the unnamed narrator, suffers an overwhelming fear of one of those “entirely horrible “ scenarios:
In fact, I no longer dared trust myself out of the immediate presence of those who were aware of my proneness to catalepsy, lest, falling into one of my usual fits, I should be buried before my real condition could be ascertained.
In the story, the narrator relates several supposedly genuine examples of people being buried alive – found later outside of their coffins or showing signs of struggle within their coffins. From this he concludes –
When we reflect how very rarely, from the nature of the case, we have it in our power to detect them, we must admit that they may frequently occur without our cognizance. Scarcely, in truth, is a graveyard ever encroached upon, for any purpose, to any great extent, that skeletons are not found in postures which suggest the most fearful of suspicions.
The term for the irrational fear of being buried prematurely is taphophobia (fear of graves). But before modern medicine, this was a common fear that was not entirely without merit. Doctors then didn’t always have the knowledge or medical equipment necessary to discern the difference between death and certain ailments. In addition, during outbreaks of smallpox and cholera, patients just weren’t looked at very closely. As such, there are many documented accounts (and probably just as many legends) of people being buried alive.
William Tebb, in his 1905 book, Premature burial, and how it may be prevented, with special reference to trance catalepsy, and other forms of suspended animation, enumerates 219 contemporary cases of narrow escape from premature burial, 149 cases of actual premature burial, 10 cases where dissection was begun on not-dead people, and 2 cases where embalming had started. (Those counts, according to snopes.)
Because of this, a whole industry sprung up around safety coffins, built with mechanisms that allowed the not-dead to signal passersby.
Note: It is not true that phrases “saved by the bell,” “dead ringer” and “graveyard shift” come from the use of safety coffins.
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
This story is a case of fiction disguised as fact. It appears to be (and was taken by many readers of the time) a true first person scientific account of a mesmerist who hypnotizes a man, Valdemar, just prior to his death, thus keeping open a line of communication with the dying man.
The idea of “mesmerizing” a person was based on the theory of Animal Magnetism developed by German doctor Franz Mesmer (1734-1815). Mesmer believed there were invisible natural force exerted by animals that could have physical effects, including healing. From this grew the practice of hypnosis. Mesmerism and hypnotism were hugely popular among the educated elite during Poe’s time and he was fascinated by the subject, writing several pieces that employed the theme.
In Valdemar’s story, the narrator continues throughout Valdemar’s final hours to ask the patient whether he is sleeping or dead. Finally …
I now feel that I have reached a point of this narrative at which every reader will be startled into positive disbelief. It is my business, however, simply to proceed. There was no longer the faintest sign of vitality in M. Valdemar…
… in reply to the question I had propounded to him a few minutes before. I had asked him, it will be remembered, if he still slept. He now said: “Yes; –no; –I have been sleeping –and now –now –I am dead.”
No person present even affected to deny, or attempted to repress, the unutterable, shuddering horror which these few words, thus uttered, were so well calculated to convey.
Don’t you just love that! In any case, Poe finally had to concede he made the whole story up. It was just too good to be true.