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.