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Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Mystery of "The Cask of Amontillado"

Copyrigth 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In “The Purloined Letter,” a detective story, Edgar Allan Poe makes a big show of a stolen (“purloined”) letter’s having been hidden in plain sight by its thief, Minister D--. Although another of the horror maestro’s short stories, “The Cask of Amontillado,” is not generally considered a detective story, at least one critic, Kathyrn M. Harris, author of “Ironic Revenge in Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ which appeared in Studies in Short Fiction 6 (1969): 333-35, seems to think that the latter story is something of a mystery, complete with clues as to the murderer’s motive. For those who have forgotten the story’s plot, here is a brief recapitulation of the storyline:

A half century after having avenged his family’s name by killing his former “friend,” Fortunato, for allegedly insulting him, Montresor recounts his dastardly deed (some say on his deathbed), a crime which, apparently, still haunts him.

Having just acquired what he’d hoped was a cask of genuine amontillado, Montresor persuades the somewhat inebriated Fortunato, who has been attending Carnival dressed in motley (that is, in the costume of a fool), to accompany him to the family’s wine cellars to authenticate his purchase. On their way through the family’s catacombs, Montresor offers Fortunato wine and answers the expert’s question as to whether he is a mason, as Fortunato himself is, by showing Fortunato a hand trowel he had been hiding.

Pretending to be solicitous of Fortunato’s health, Montresor allays the wine expert’s fears. As they pass through the cold, clammy subterranean chambers, Montresor describes his family’s coat of arms to Fortunato. On a blue background, a foot stamps a serpent whose fangs are embedded in the foot’s heel. The accompanying motto reads Nemo me impune lacessit (“No one insults me with impunity”).

When they arrive at a niche, Montresor, telling Fortunato that the amontillado is inside, chains him to the wall. Using his trowel, Montresor then seals the niche, walling Fortunato up, alive, inside the alcove. Although his victim pleads for his life, Montresor mocks him. Just as Montresor sets the last of the bricks in place, Fortunato cries out, “For the love of God, Montresor!” The protagonist, replies, “Yes, for the love of God,” drops a lit torch into the niche, and finishes entombing his victim alive.
Fifty years have passed since, and Montresor’s deed, until now, as he confessed it, has gone undetected. As he ends his narrative, Montresor says, of Fortunato, In pace requiescat (“May he rest in peace”).

Often, this story is considered to be the confession of another of Poe’s madmen. Although Montresor claims that Fortunato has insulted him a “thousand” times, he never gives the reader (or his confessor) even one example to support his contention, and Fortunato, as he is described in the story, seems harmless, even genial. Indeed, he has agreed to interrupt his holiday to do Montresor the favor of authenticating the amontillado (or so, at any rate, Fortunato believes). If Fortunato’s query as to whether Montresor is a fellow mason smacks of arrogance, it is possible that it does so only in Montresor’s own too-easily-offended mind.

For James W. Gargano, author of “The Question of Poe’s Narrators,” which originally appeared in College English 25 (1963): 177-81, Poe is careful to show that Montresor is “a deluded rationalist who cannot glimpse the moral implications of his planned folly” and a “compulsive and pursued man’ whose murder of his victim has resulted in his suffering the pangs of guilt for half a century.

For Harris, however, as the authors of Short Fiction: A Critical Companion point out, Poe’s story is really a mystery of sorts in which Poe provides all the clues necessary for the reader to figure out what led Montresor to kill Fortunato. In doing so, Poe hides his clues, as it were, in plain sight:

Montresor’s trowel is both an ironic “symbol of brotherhood and instrument of death,” thus unifying the story and offering a motive for the murder of Fortunato. . . . Fortunato is a freemason; Montressor is a Catholic. . . . Several references in the story further link Montresor to religion, especially Catholicism: the confessional beginning, the image on his coat of arms alluding to the church’s triumph over evil cited in Genesis, the pre-Lenten carnival setting of the story in catacombs reminiscent of the early church, and references to wine, an element of the Eucharist. . . . Montresor refers to “masonry” and “mason-work” again several times, most significantly and suggestively (noting the preposition) in “Against the new masonry I re-erected the rampart of old bones,” and ends his tale with In pace requiescat,” the close of the requiem mass. . . thus suggesting that his motive has been to conduct his own personal inquisition against Fortunato.
Certainly, Harris’ reading of the story is not far-fetched and, indeed, the story provides much evidence, as she points out, in support of such an interpretation. It seems to me, in fact, that her understanding of Poe’s masterpiece of horror and suspense complements the narrative’s own subtlety and sophistication, and Poe’s fondness for hiding clues to crimes in plain sight also supports Harris’ interpretation, the trowel that Montresor produces serving as the story’s equivalent to the missive in “The Purloined Letter,” only, in “The Cask,” it is you and I--or Kathryn M. Harris, at any rate--and not Auguste Dupin, who must be the detectives who spot the clues to Montresor’s motive and deduce their significance.

Note: Short Fiction: A Critical Companion by Robert C. Evans, Anne C. Little, and Barbara Wiedemann (Locust Hill Press, West Cornwall, CT, 1997) provides excerpts of critical texts that summarize much of the more important criticism concerning “The Cask of Amontillado,” including those of both Harris and Gargano (and others).


lazlo azavaar said...

Great post, Gary! I, too, have always wondered just what the hell Fortunato had done to deserve such a brutal fate. The fact that Montresor glosses over these "injuries" so easily certainly suggests that the narrator is less than trustworthy.

Gary L. Pullman said...

I agree: Kathryn M. Harris has done us a service in her expert analysis of this classic tale, helping us, in the process, to better discern and appreciate Poe's genius.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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