In The Cask of Amontillado—perhaps the most terrible and the most perfectly executed of all Poe’s tales—the note of grim irony is sustained throughout. The jingling of the bells and the devilish profanity of the last three words—Requiescat in pace—add a final touch of horror to a revenge, devised and carried out with consummate artistry.
Poe, like Hawthorne, loved to peer curiously into the dim recesses of conscience. Hawthorne was concerned with the effect of remorse on character. Poe often exhibits a conscience possessed by the imp of the perverse, and displays no interest in the character of his victim. He chooses no ordinary crimes. He considers, without De Quincey’s humour, murder as a fine art. In The Black Cat the terrors are calculated with cold-blooded nicety. Every device is used to deepen the impression and to intensify the agony. In The Tell-Tale Heart, so unremitting is the suspense, as the murderer slowly inch by inch projects his head round the door in the darkness, that it is well-nigh intolerable. The close of the story, which errs on the side of the melodramatic, is less cunningly contrived than Poe’s endings usually are. In William Wilson, Poe handles the subject of conscience in an allegorical form, a theme essayed by Bulwer Lytton in one of his sketches in The Student, Monos and Daimonos. He probably influenced Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In The Pit and the Pendulum, Poe seems to start from the very border-line of the most hideous nightmare that the human mind can conceive, yet there is nothing hazy or indefinite in his analysis of the feelings of his victim. He speaks as one who has experienced the sensations himself, not as one who is making a wild surmise. To read is, indeed, to endure in some measure the torture of the prisoner; but our pain is alleviated not only by the realisation that we at least may win respite when we will, but by our appreciation of Poe’s subtle technique. He notices the readiness of the mind, when racked unendurably, to concentrate on frivolous trifles—the exact shape and size of the dungeon; or the sound of the scythe cutting through cloth. Mental and physical agonies are interchanged with careful art.
Poe’s constructive power fitted him admirably to write the detective story. In The Mystery of M. Roget he adopts a dull plot without sufficient vigour and originality to rivet our attention, but The Murders of the Rue Morgue secures our interest from beginning to end. As in the case of Godwin’s Caleb Williams, the end was conceived first and the plot was carefully woven backwards. No single thread is left loose. Dupin’s methods of ratiocination are similar to those of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Poe never shirks a gory detail, but the train of reasoning not the imagery absorbs us in his detective stories. In his treasure story—The Gold Bug, which may have suggested Stevenson’s Treasure Island—he compels our interest by the intricacy and elaboration of his problem.