Psychosis apparently does wonder for one’s ability with prose. This isn’t just my own estimation for Humbert Humbert, the obnoxious pervert protagonist, technical literary term for the record, says as much in the novel Lolita. In the very opening passage of the book, after he writes what is objectively one of the most beautiful opening paragraphs in literary history, he notes his own ability with language when he says:
You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. (9).
And Humbert Humbert is not just being ironic as he recognizes that he is purposefully embellishing the language for the sake of writing pretty words, he’s actually falling back upon a previous narrative, specifically The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe which offers the same sentiment. The unnamed narrator begins his tale with a now iconic and still frightening condition:
TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed —not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story. (555).
It becomes clear that should I ever wish to be taken seriously as a writer I have one course of action: become insane and start penning short stories about my exploits. My only reservation is that murder is a vastly underrated enterprise and their union benefits miserable.
I honestly believe that the show Even Stevens was my first experience with The Tell-Tale Heart. The obligatory emo/goth best friend girl character, who’s name I honestly couldn’t remember until I Googled it, Tawney Dean, describes the plot of the short story to Steven who is experiencing some kind of guilt and after that my memory of the 90s fades mostly out of a built in defense mechanism against nostalgia. Though Clarissa Explains It All and Doug do seem strikingly familiar. This was The Tell-Tale Heart, but I had actually encountered Poe’s work before this. My first experience of Poe was The Pagemaster when the Raven shouts “Nevermore,” even if I didn’t get the reference. Poe as a man has become a cartoon character largely appropriated by teenage fuck-ups, I’m saying that as a former one myself, who enjoy the superficial darkness of the text without trying to dig deeper into the philosophical implications his works have to offer. Growing up I enjoyed Poe’s stories, especially since my seventh-grade English teacher taught us The Tell-Tale Heart, The Cask of Amantillado, and The Raven all in one week.
Despite my early love of Poe, or perhaps because of it, I eventually came to distrust my fascination with the man and his writing because his aesthetic seemed taken over by superficial morons who enjoyed reading his poems in graveyards while vaping and listening to The Crow soundtrack. If I sound bitter about this it is only because my feelings on the matter have become clearer as I age. Poe’s aesthetic seems at first like something you should grow out of, like Ayn Rand or The Superfriends, when in fact Poe’s writing is a brilliant testament to the possibilities of the creative landscape of the United States, much like The Superfriends. Poe eventually came back into my life through the essay R.W. Emerson, and then later a fellow student in graduate school who also became my friend. I’ll get to that in a bit.
I decided to return to Poe after a long estrangement, starting with the first Poe I could think of. The Tell-Tale Heart is in fact one of the most common introduction of Poe’s work, because it seems to define his aesthetic to the great body of teachers, students, and casual readers. This is actually rather incorrect, but I’ll deal with that later. I read the story again, finding in the words a new territory.
Madness is a common ground for horror, and The Tell-Tale Heart from the very start makes this territory the focus of the story. The protagonist is the narrator, a man who has clearly gone insane. The cause of his mental illness is never specified for he moves quickly to the fact that he had an unspecified relationship with an older man, whom he says he loved, but who possessed a milked-over eye that drove him eventually to murder the old man. He then hides the body in the floor boards of the house, comfortable that he will get away with the crime, until, not long after the old man is dead, a group of Policemen respond to a noise complaint. They search the house but find nothing at which point the protagonist invites them to stay and enjoy some tea. They accept, and while the man entertains them he begins to hear the sound of beating. He discovers, to his great horror, that it is the sound of the old man’s heart beating ever louder and louder. Fueled by his madness and paranoia he succumbs to the guilt and confesses to the crime.
This beating has, since the publication of this short story in 1843, been one of the hallmarks not only of the horror genre, but story-telling in general. The heartbeat is a simple yet effective tool of story-tellers to convey tension and, in its own way, the “JAWS Theme” with it’s simple two notes takes advantage of this structure to create the glorious tension that near ruined the economy of seaside towns in the early eighties. The reason the heartbeat works is because it is a simple yet effective trick that mimics the readers own heartbeat which, depending on the story, only builds with the development of paranoia. Though to be fair the success of the story is based upon the writer’s ability and Poe most certainly demonstrates this in his writing.
Poe describes the heartbeat as the narrator is preparing to murder the Old Man:
And now have I not told you what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense?—now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage. (557).
And he goes on:
The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!—do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous; so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. (557).
And finally he erupts in a denouement that is both climactic with a hint of a quasi-Twilight-Zone vibe:
No doubt I now grew very pale; –but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased –and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound –much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath –and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly –more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men –but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? 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 over all and continually increased. 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!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now –again! –hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (559).
My contester appears as I finish this quote, curious and rapacious as ever to catch me off guard, and they sing the query eternal asking me: so what? Everybody reads The Tell-Tale Heart in high school, at least if they’re from America, and everybody always arrives at the same conclusion, the story is about guilt. Once you’ve figured out the lesson that you can never escape your guilt what good can come from reading or discussing this story?
As always my contester raises a fascinating question, but also, as ever and always, they have missed a great opportunity. They should also clarify that if you’re from the United States, not America, that you read Poe because technically Ecuador and Chile are in the Americas but that doesn’t mean they automatically receive the same education we do. I agree that one of the defining interpretations of the short story is the notion of guilt, but when I sat down to begin this essay I wondered at this narrative, because I myself couldn’t find a starting point, or a central idea to wrap my head around. Desperate I went to Facebook and asked my group of friends if they had any ideas. My friend TJ suggested a queer reading of the story, given the protagonists confession that he “loved” the old man, and while I like this idea it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to go with this time around. My other friend Michael, not the Prometheus one, built upon another idea of TJ’s, which is the notion of Poe exploring the sublime. And here I had a starting point, or, at this point realistically speaking, a central thesis.
Poe’s work inspired most of the Gothic subcultures of horror writing in the United States, if not the world, and writers such as H.P Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King have followed this aesthetic writing stories that terrify their readers, but beneath this surface aesthetic lies a profound philosophy. Most people might not see a philosophy in Poe beneath the black birds, dead bodies, and madness, but in fact these elements reveal the deeper notion of a reality beyond human comprehension: the sublime. As a word, sublime has fallen upon hard times, and not just because there’s a shitty band from the 90s named after it. Sublime is often misinterpreted to mean something beautiful, but in fact sublime as a word is meant to be used to refer to natural events like mountains, tornados, hurricanes, or, if you want to step outside the realm of man, the depths of space and the phenomena that occur in the heavens. A sublime event or force or feeling is one in which the viewer feels a profound sense of awe that is accompanied by fear. One can watch a tornado or a nuclear blast and feel afraid of it, but at the same time we are drawn to the incredible power.
In horror there is often a moment in which the protagonist will encounter the sublime, but unlike the natural forces many people would understand the sublime that works in the aesthetic of writers like Poe, Bradbury, Lovecraft, and King, there is an entirely different experience and that is with a force that is apathetic or oblivious to the life of man. My friend Michael explained this to me, in one of those moments that later become a kind of epiphany, that in fact some critics and readers have now argued that Poe’s work explores a unique philosophy: the world without man.
This can be a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around because human beings are, by design, a narcissistic species that look at themselves as the center of creation. The geocentric model of the universe that came to prominence during the Classical period in Greece, and was perpetuated by the Catholic church during middle Ages, certainly demonstrates this because in that model Earth is the center of the known universe. Plenty of examples could be thrown out here to further demonstrate this idea, but I prefer those that reference Superhero’s. In the film Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice Neil deGrasee Tyson has a small cameo where he’s on news panel discussing Superman and he makes a revealing comment about the human species:
Neil deGrasse Tyson: We’re talking about a being whose very existence challenges our own sense of priority in the universe. And you go back to Copernicus where he restored the sun in the center of the known universe, displacing Earth, and you get to Darwinian evolution and you find out we’re not special on this earth; we’re just one among other lifeforms. And now we learn that we’re not even special in the entire universe because there is Superman. There he is, an alien among us. We’re not alone.
While this scene is a positive moment in the film, when looking back to Poe’s short story there is in fact an element of horror in it for human beings can’t really perceive a universe in which they play no part. Some might be able to wrap their head around sucn a universe, but most are unwilling because it would mean they would sever their connections to this reality and world and spin hopelessly into madness. Which leads me to the fitting conclusion of The Tell-Tale Heart.
While Poe’s story is just about a madman who is driven to murder because he is paranoid that the Old Man is watching him through his cloudy eye, the beating heart is a sublime supernatural element in a story that is otherwise mundane. For a moment madness becomes an ability to observe that other world where the supernatural forces and creature’s humans normally don’t perceive, or are unable or unwilling to see. The beating heart becomes not just the guilt plaguing this ill-man, it becomes the gate to another realm where perhaps that beating is not a heart, but the flap of a beast of the old gods and the ravenous beasts. His madness opens his mind to that other world, for while reason is a great boon to humanity, it is still limited by humanity, while madness is unfettered and free to explore regions beyond the normal comprehension.
The final cry of the narrator seems to support this idea:
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (559).
What is not spoken in the horror of the narrator’s voice is just as important as what is spoken. The final lines certainly lend great weight and support to the idea that the narrator is plagued with guilt, specifically “the urge to confess,” but I do believe the argument could be made that there’s another element that has largely been unexplored, and that is the idea that the narrator shouts out the confession to prove to the police, but more importantly to himself, that all he is hearing is the beating and nothing else. The desperation prove to himself that it is the beating of the Old Man’s heart that he hears reveals that the narrator has allowed his mind to enter into territories that reveal a reality where man is no longer the center of creation. In fact, it is a world that doesn’t even care if he exists.
Madness in The Tell-Tale Heart is more than just a plot device, it’s an opportunity for Poe to suggest that madness might in fact be the conduit to that other world, that other reality, where the beating of a heart may not belong to men at all. That thought, as the narrator demonstrates, may just be too much to bear.
I noted in this essay that only teenage fuck-ups enjoy Poe and this may be unfair of me to suggest. Puberty wasn’t a great time in my life, and habit has led me to distrust the impulse to forgive my former self of selfishness or shallowness. Being a teenager who felt isolated and misunderstood by his peers I gravitated towards Darkness, mostly to Heavy Metal bands like Slipknot, Rob Zombie, SLAYER, KORN, and Disturbed. It was fun enjoying digging into the darkness, because it fostered that mental state and protected you from the jerks and assholes you normally had to be around.
If I may shed a protective layer of vanity, Poe inspired me at a young age to, and I shit you not this is real, “invent a new mode of sonnets.” There was the Petrarchan and Shakespearian sonnet models, but I decided I would create the “Raven” model of sonnets in honor of Poe. This eventually failed when it became clear I was just writing shitty poems about black birds trying to look cool.
Perhaps the “fuck-up” classification isn’t so damning after all.
All passages from The Tell-Tale Heart were taken from Poe: Poetry and Tales, published by The Library of America. However, while researching for this essay I also found a pdf with the entire short story completely free and unabridged. If you want to read the story in its entirety you can do so by following the link below:
My thanks to TJ and Michael for their helpful suggestions for this essay. Thanks guys!
****Writer’s FINAL Note****
The narrator tells the tale of the heart…oh my god I just got that.