Short Story Sunday Peril no. 1: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

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Short Story Sunday Peril no. 1: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

Author: Edgar Allan Poe

Date of Publication: 1845 (Illustration by Harry Clarke, 1919)

I have to be honest. I chose this story as my first Sunday Peril read because the title character’s name sounded so much like Voldemort. I was curious to see if there were any similarities from the story that J.K. Rowling might have pulled from Poe’s work to create Voldemort’s character. There are virtually no similarities to write of, unfortunately, with the exception that both characters seem to be in that thin space between life and death, where death is suspended through a variety of means.

But enough of Voldemort. Let me get to this story.

Poe uses such precise and often scientifically accurate language to tell this story that, for some time following its simultaneous publication in 1845 in American Review: A Whig Journal and Broadway Journal, many people believed the story to be true. When he revealed that, indeed, it was a work of pure fiction, it immediately received the label of “hoax.” The story has been published subsequently in various anthologies, the first being The Complete Tales of Mystery and Imagination, which is the same text where I read this story.

The main character, a mesmerist who has a strong desire to do what he says nobody has ever claimed to do–put a person at death’s door in a mesmerized state to suspend the transition from life to death–finds the perfect candidate (Valdemar), and succeeds in placing him in the trance just before he dies. What happens then, Poe describes, is something that he believes, reaches “a point of this narrative at which every reader will be startled into positive disbelief.”

In many ways, we are. But Poe establishes this not by some grandiose parade of near-dead people rising from Valdemar’s body on his death bed. Such overstatement would push this story into the world of make-believe. Instead, Poe, a master at the art of specificity, brings the terror to life with the smallest of details signifying the most terrifying possibilities that each of us may imagine when being with loved ones on the brink of death.

It is no wonder that this story was taken as fact when it was first published. Poe uses scientific jargon in describing the state of Valdemar:

The left lung had been for eighteen months in a semi-osseous or cartilaginous state, and was, of course, entirely useless for all purposes of vitality. The right, in its upper portion, was also partially, if not thoroughly, ossified, while the lower region was merely a mass of purulent tubercles, running one into another. Several extensive perforations existed; and, at one point, permanent adhesion to the ribs had taken place.

Clearly, Poe earns credibility with such a factual approach (in fact, the entire piece is written as a means of setting the record straight to put supposed rumors to rest).

I read stories like this one and I yearn to find similar short works that demand credibility, that are not so laden with emotion and inaction. I’ve been told that such stories are no longer publishable. If we’re not publishing such quality fiction as what Poe wrote 150 years ago, it suggests we have become a very lazy mass of readers with little or no expectations for quality or accuracy.

In all fairness, though, I have to go to Borders or Barnes & Noble today and pick up a copy of Glimmer Train or some other reputable pub of short fiction and see what they’re printing these days….Maybe I’m wrong on all of this, and if I am, then all the better. I’ll be the first to write about it in the days to come.

10 thoughts on “Short Story Sunday Peril no. 1: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

  1. This is one of the many Poe short stories that I enjoy. He is one of the most amazing writers that ever took up pen and paper and he is certainly the master of the gothic short story…of short stories in general. So glad you are reading some of his work for the challenge. I’ll be doing some Poe-specific giveaways for the challenge…will probably unveil one this week!

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  2. I really like this story. I find that the use of scientific language to tackle areas that do not quite belong to science is very characteristic of mid to late nineteenth-century fiction. You are right that it is something we don’t see much anymore.

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  3. Perhaps it’s the intensity that is missing from much of today’s short fiction. Isn’t there a sense of urgency in many of Poe’s works that demand the reader to get a little anxious? I’m afraid that today’s lit is so redacted by cut-throat editors that we lose that voice, that sense of urgency that was embraced so long ago.

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  4. Unfortunately there just doesn’t seem to be a big enough audience for this type of fiction, at least when it comes to full length novels in the vein of books like Dracula, for instance. I’m not sure why as the language is beautiful and the slow building sense of menace is what makes me adore these books. I really want to go all out to support authors like Suzanna Clarke, Diane Setterfield, Gordon Dahlquist, Mignola/Golden’s latest effort Baltimore, etc. as these are among the too few ‘gothic’ novels that are being written by contemporary authors.

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  5. Last October, for a pre-Samhain celebration, a group of us got together for a “scary story night,” and this was the one that our host decided to close with. Poe had him some inner demons, didn’t he?

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  6. Fabulous review. As to the concept that it’s unpublishable, today – that alone makes me want to dig for the Poe. I’m sure I’ve read this one at some point, but I don’t recall. I like an emotional read, but I understand your comment and have to agree that if something written by Poe is unpublishable, today, something is amiss.

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