Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Premature Burial

It is by reading Edgar Allan Poe that I learned to be afraid of fictions. I had been afraid as a child, of course, of monsters in the wardrobe and other things that did not exist, as well as some that did, but not of fiction as fiction, not of make believe. Not of things that I knew not to be true; whose very definition was that they were not true.

(Deep down I know there is no monster in the wardrobe, the monster that I myself imagined, but I am unable to reach the logical conclusion: that it can’t be there precisely because it was I who imagined it. There may be other monsters, other dangers; just not that particular one, yet I am afraid of it.)

I encountered Poe whilst coming out of childhood, just as I was forming that theoretical awareness, the sense of what it means – as narratologists would say – to be a conscious appreciator as opposed to a bamboozled participant in the game of fiction. We all learn to distance ourselves, to varying degrees, and especially from written fictions, which require far greater feats of self-suggestion to be sustained: I need, again, to imagine the monster, and yet somehow also forget that it was I who did the imagining, so that I can be afraid. Moreover, it is I who drive the fiction forward. If I was genuinely fearful, as opposed to titillated, I would surely stop reading or set the book aside until I regained my nerve.

(You may wish to imagine a scenario – and it would be most assuredly be fictional – in which a person who reads a message or a letter is materially and mortally endangered by the act of reading, and becomes aware of it, yet is unable to stop, and then the thing happens that was brought about by the awareness of it, somehow. It would be a similar challenge to imagining a book in which the murderer is the reader.)

But one should guard against being too literal. Fear of the monster is not the only kind of fear there is, and even as children we sometimes populate the dark with objects of morbid fascination that draw us at the same time as they repel us. That fascination was a hallmark of the gothic genre, if you could call it a genre, but in Poe especially it came wrapped in hyper-literate speculations that might at first seem designed to deconstruct the fiction, never letting you forget that you moved for a time within a literary world. This side of the book, you would be safe. But that was Poe’s trick, to draw you in with the intellectual conjecture, the ornate description, the learned quotation, to convince you that you would fully and comfortably occupy the role of appreciator, then slowly build around you a screen of darkness onto which to project your (budding, in my case) adult fears.

Harry Clarke's illustration for the 1916 edition of Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination

‘The Premature Burial’ is at once the most crude and the most subtle of Poe’s stories. Crude, in that it spells out from the outset, from the very title, what it is that you should be afraid of. Today, ladies and gentlemen, we shall be talking about the fear of being buried alive. Subtle, and disorienting, for how it plays with that expectation, and for its sublimely ironic frame.

There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction.
This is how the story begins, with a coup de theatre, with the notorious horror writer Edgar Allan Poe – for we have no reason at this point to distinguish the author from the narrator – telling us that we shouldn’t make up horrible stories, and then proceeding in journalistic fashion (fitting the original publication in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper) to report on a series of recent cases, both tragic and with an unlikely happy ending, of people who had been buried alive. Some of these cases are plausible, and might have chimed with the recollection of similar ones amongst Poe’s contemporaries, for this was a popular topic in the press at the time. At any rate the partly factual or quasi-factual introduction is a device common in Poe and later perfected by Borges, but it is combined here with the claim that to state anything but the fact of such cases would be abhorrent. At this point in time – 1844 – Poe had in fact published two fictional stories featuring premature burials (‘Berenice’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’), or three if one counts the borderline ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, and might possibly have already been working on another (‘The Cask of Amontillado’).

To say that this frame is ironic doesn’t explain what the irony is for, however. Let us assume provisionally that its function is to draw the reader into thinking or at least speculating that the subsequent first-hand account by the narrator of his own premature burial could also be a true story, thus increasing our identification with his plight and the horror-value. However this episode, whilst undeniably unpleasant, is over very quickly. It is merely on his second attempt to scream out in anguish that the narrator is rescued by his nearby companions, and learns that he has recovered from one of his periodical bouts of catatonia not inside a coffin, but in the narrow berth of a moored boat in which he and the other men had sought refuge from a storm while on a gunning expedition. What’s more, he later finds that the brief but traumatic experience has cured him of the fear of being buried alive, and simultaneously of the lifelong illness that put him at risk of being mistaken for dead. He’s a changed man, a new man. He discards his medical books, his 'fustians about churchyards', his 'bugaboo tales', and with them all of his gloomy apprehensions. He travels abroad, takes 'vigorous exercise'. In short, he learns to live ‘a man’s life’. This most unusual finale ends with a repudiation of the literary fiction of Edgar Allan Poe:
There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell–but the imagination of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern. Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful–but, like the Demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they must sleep, or they will devour us–they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.

Let’s leave aside the fact that I would give three of my toes to be able to write like that. What are we to make of this? Is this really the moral of the story, that a life lived in fear is no life at all, that we must learn to suffer our demons to slumber? One can imagine that the narrator, restored to mental and physical health and bolstered by a new-found optimism, would go on to live a long life, while the author died an alcoholic five years after the publication of the story, aged 40. So perhaps Poe allowed themselves a wishful moment, and wrote himself an alter ego who might defy expectation and choose life. However I doubt it. The irony cuts deeper, and the horror that the story articulates is not the fear of an untimely death – it’s the fear of not dying.

A series of notorious cases of premature burial led in the half century before Poe’s birth to the invention of the brilliantly named ‘safety coffin’, a contraption that would allow a non-corpse upon waking to either exit the premises directly, or attract the attention of graveyard attendants or mourners via a strategically placed and easy to operate bell, whilst allowing for the flow of air inside the tomb. In Roger Corman’s very loose 1962 adaptation of ‘The Premature Burial’, the protagonist, memorably played by Ray Milland – an actor so wooden that he could easily pass for dead whilst speaking his lines – fashioned a true safety crypt: with a coffin that would spring open upon the slightest movement, and plenty of room, a well-stocked pantry and an equally well-stocked library, rather begging the question – seeing as the man is an aristocrat residing in an isolated country estate – of how a long sojourn in such a place would differ from his normal life, or indeed why he might even want to leave the crypt, except to procure fresh supplies. This idea of death as a luxury holiday of indefinite duration may have echoes in the fabulously furnished tombs of ancient autocrats and oligarchs, or the Etruscan necropoles – subterranean cities of the dead onto which the ordinary life going on above ground was mapped – but it has little in common with Poe’s story.

Somewhat closer to the mark is Rodrigo Cortès' Buried (2010), but only so long as we amend its premise, and recognise that as soon as he wakes up inside the coffin where he was placed by his abductors, the character played by Ryan Reynolds is already dead. He’s a dead man with temporary use of a cellphone, and therein lies the horror: not just having to deal with an inhuman bureaucracy from inside his own grave – although the exit interview with Reynolds’ employer, played by Stephen Tobolowsky, is bone-chilling and worth the entire film – but also with answering machines and call waiting and call forwarding facilities. Finally, to have a voice at all, and no-one to speak to. The utter loneliness of it.

I think that’s what I gleaned above all else from Poe’s fiction in my early teenage years, the depth of what it might mean to be a misfit, unfit, surplus to requirement, alone, never learning to silence one’s demons and live ‘a man’s life’, and then on top of that carrying on far too long, waiting in vain for the house, your world, to fall around you (‘Usher’ was the one with the happy ending). All this was real. Until in my second year of intermediate school I made another encounter, this time with Primo Levi, and with the chronicles of horrors that Poe hadn’t ventured to imagine, save for when he wrote that 'the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell'. But those events really were too horrible for the purpose of legitimate fiction, and so Poe’s stories reverted to literature. They became a place of comfort, albeit angular and strange. I visit it still.

In writing this post I thought I might have more use for Robert Newsom’s essay 'Fear of Fictions'. But there you go, a reference of sorts.

If you missed the launch of the revamped New Inquiry website last week, with the addition of writers like Evan Calder Williams, Aaron Bady, Imp Kerr and Rob Horning, do take a look. And consider subscribing, it costs very little and the first issue of the digital magazine is a thing of beauty.


David W. Kasper said...

Excellent, but you're a bit unfair on Ray Milland. His speciality was playing hollow, nondescript characters driven by terrifying, crippling compulsions.

But Poe - probably the first 'grown-up' writer to make an impression on me - has me thinking to this day of the many hundreds, thousands of people in previous centuries who went to their graves fully aware of what was happening to them.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"-- Behold!"

I looked; and the unseen figure, which still grasped me by the wrist, had caused to be thrown open the graves of all mankind, and from each issued the faint phosphoric radiance of decay, so that I could see into the innermost recesses, and there view the shrouded bodies in their sad and solemn slumbers with the worm. But alas! the real sleepers were fewer, by many millions, than those who slumbered not at all; and there was a feeble struggling; and there was a general sad unrest; and from out the depths of the countless pits there came a melancholy rustling from the garments of the buried. And of those who seemed tranquilly to repose, I saw that a vast number had changed, in a greater or less degree, the rigid and uneasy position in which they had originally been entombed. And the voice again said to me as I gazed:

"Is it not -- oh! is it not a pitiful sight?"

George D said...

I don't have much to add, but I do wonder if we've stepped past boundaries of credulity. The authorial weight of the past and the veracity of the written word has been reduced.

It seems to me that the Bible was allowed to command absolute truth, and that this stood alongside similar belief in fictions. It's my experience that highly religious canonical readings of biblical literature don't allow for the ironic or the interpretative in sufficient quantity. That's where the true horror lies.

Just a few twigs to throw in the fire. And yes, I'd give a minor organ to be able to write like Poe.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"The authorial weight of the past and the veracity of the written word has been reduced."

For this, rather than relying on The Golden Bough, I usually go to Calvino.