No. 31: The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe

So Spring has finally sprung, HOORAY!

I type this from my sofa, bare feet up on the coffee table, toenails painted, balcony doors flung open, football cries and birdsong mingling. An ice cream van wails its tune as it winds the streets. The scent of a BBQ lingers. Perfect.

This past Winter has been particularly bleak. Poppy (who joined me for The Communist Manifesto) and I decided to embrace Spring  with a mini break in Lisbon. This, combined with the extended Easter weekend, has meant I haven’t posted this as quickly as I would have liked, so I’m pleased to be hitting ‘Publish’ at last.

I read The Tell-Tale Heart on board our flight to Lisbon, in mid-March. Neither my friend Katy, who chose this Little Black Classic, or I have never read any Poe before so we looked forward to the introduction.

It comprises three short stories and The Tell-Tale Heart is the first.

The narrator is evidently insane from the outset – his writing is disjointed and contradictory, and he admits in the second paragraph of page one

‘I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture … I made up my mind to take the life of the old man’.

I was in the company of a madman, although he tried to convince me otherwise. Who this man is, or who is companion is, we don’t know, as we slip into the action almost immediately.

The narrator confesses that he studied his companion’s sleep pattern, to perfect the best means and timings for the killing.

On the eighth evening of observation, the stalker’s hand slips on the hatch of his lantern and awakens the sleeping man, who sits up up and questions the sound. The two men are frozen in their positions for an hour, both listening for the other’s reaction.

The deranged narrator becomes aware of a low pounding.

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‘I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of the drum stimulates the soldier into courage.’

The pounding grows louder and the deafened madman fears it will wake the neighbour. ‘The old man’s hour had come!’

He drags the man to the floor and heaves the bed on top of him, either crushing or suffocating him.

‘If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.’

These ‘wise precautions’ consist of dismembering the old man’s body, and using a large tub underneath the floorboards to catch the blood and store the body parts. The description is gloriously macabre.

Three policemen come knocking, claiming a neighbour heard a shriek. The madman assures them he was just sleeping fitfully and tours them around the house to highlight all is well.

He invites them to rest, drawing up chairs above the very spot where his dead companion’s body parts lie, and revels in his hubris.

As he makes small talk with the three policemen, the narrator suddenly feels unwell – a ringing in his ears, his head aches, and he hears a low, quick thudding. The policemen seem unaware and chat normally.

The madman paces the floor, the noise increasing in volume.

‘I foamed – I raved – I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose’

Yet the policemen continue to chat pleasantly and the madman assumes they are mocking him.

The short story ends ‘I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!’

I was utterly gripped by this short story, the clanging and chatter of the plane dissolving. I loved how the narrator talks directly to the reader and cuts straight to the heart of the story (pardon the pun!), avoiding any unnecessary description. Anything and everything around the narrator is white noise – the companion, the policemen, the location, the surroundings are all irrelevant. The narrator’s mental deterioration is the subject alone, and his unravelling is completely compelling, his paranoia turning into tangible symptoms.

Is it the heart of the dead man that betrays him, or his own anxious beating heart?

The Tell-Tale Heart was my favourite story in this small collection. I enjoyed  The Fall of the House of Usher, which similarly portrays ideas of mental illness in a Gothic setting (reminiscent of the house in The Old Nurse’s Story). In this instance, however, the narrator describes his friend’s mental state to the reader.

But I couldn’t resist the spell cast by the narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart, and Poe’s direct language and candid descriptions.

I chewed over the short story as we climbed Lisbon’s hilly streets in the Spring sunshine, stopping for coffee and a glass of something red at regular intervals.

It was on a walking tour that we stepped into Igreja de São Domingos, having been warned that the church’s interior is seriously macabre.

Sure enough, Poppy and I stood at the back, frozen in its eeriness, the hairs on the backs of our necks standing. I asked that we return with Edgar Allan Poe and properly drink the church in.

And so, on our last day in the city, we trailed down Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s main thoroughfare, which is very similar to the Champs-Élysées in Paris in both appearance and ambience. We came to the top of Rossio Square where, just off to the left, stands São Domingos.

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The church, once the largest in Lisbon, hosting royal weddings, has witnessed countless horrors. Like nearby Rossio Square, it saw public executions during the infamous Inquisition. It was later damaged by the 1531 earthquake, then the 1755 earthquake (which famously devastated much of Lisbon), and finally a fire which broke out in the church in 1959.

This last event gutted the already ramshackle church, which today acts as a monument to Lisbon’s tragic history.

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I thought Poe would approve of it’s nightmarish interiors. It’s painted a rusty orange, a reminder of it’s fiery past, with sections of fire-damaged parts remaining.

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Idols of suffering saints line the walls alongside scorched pillars. The Holy Trinity above the altar is unrecognisable today, damaged and ghoulish.

As Poppy and I slowly wandered around she pointed out long, engraved lines on one of the pillars. “They’re like scratch marks,” she whispered.

I shivered.

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It is the creepiest building I have stepped into. Even the air is musty, as if it has absorbed the church’s decay.

Katy, thank you so much for choosing this Little Black Classic (and for pointing out my unBEARable typos) – it was excellent. I think both you and Edgar Allan Poe would have really liked the church, and I hope you enjoyed The Tell-Tale Heart.

Next time I will be reading I Hate and I Love.

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