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.
Tell me that doesn’t grab your attention by the throat and yank you under those mysteriously thumping floorboards. Any bona fide horror literature maven (raven?) will easily identify that selection as the opening paragraph of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.
The first and perhaps still supreme master of macabre, Poe got under my skin from the first sentence. When I was a kid I was a voracious reader. I was also born ghoulish. I’m not sure where I got my hands on The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. It could have come from my parents, but these were the same people who didn’t want me watching John Astin chewing cigars, scenery and Morticia’s arm on The Addams Family TV show, so that doesn’t really add up. I don’t remember and I don’t really care. I just know that I couldn’t wait to go to my room every chance I got and bury my little nose between the covers.
I read every one of his short stories and even quite a few of the poems, which isn’t bad for young kid – and I was a young reader. I had a photographic memory back then. I could recite paragraphs like the one above for my friends with relative ease. I loved the reactions I got, even though the prose wasn’t mine. It hooked me on being a storyteller and juiced up my already over-active imagination to the point where Poe’s short stories grew by leaps and bounds in the retelling, sometimes spanning several sunny afternoons in the woods behind my house.
The Pit and the Pendulum. The Cask of Amontillado. The Masque of the Red Death. Every story transported me utterly to a dark, dangerous world, where the endings were never happy, but I was always ecstatic. And while the subject matter was consistent with a legion of horror writers that followed in his wake, Poe wrote so masterfully that his prose set a standard that still remains daunting to anyone inclined to grasp his skeletal scepter.
Poe is also considered the father of the detective story, which brings me to my second literary puppy love, Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s know-it-all snarkmaster and his ever-present plodding pal Watson were my daily companions for however long it took me to consume each tale in my three-inch thick volume: The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Never as dark and dreary as Poe, Doyle had his chilly moments too, as in The Hound of the Baskervilles, with was ultimately a tremendous letdown for me because – it was only a big dog goddammit!
My love of reading never waned. I read all the classics, munching my way through the timeline from Hawthorne to Hemingway, Stevenson to Steinbeck. Science fiction was another not-guilty-at-all pleasure and I gulped down huge helpings of Verne, Wells, Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke and Ellison. Horror remained my go-to genre for many years and like everyone else of my time, Steven was the King, with Peter Straub the Prince-apparent. King’s The Stand and Straub’s Ghost Story remain two of favorite horror stories of all time.
Still, it’s Poe that keeps calling me back to a horror more complete than any modern master. So the only fitting conclusion to my waltz down mortuary lane is the concluding lines of our cardiac arresting launch pad:
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!”