Suspense à la Edgar
How does he do it? Where are the colorful silks up the sleeve of his black greatcoat? The element of suspense in a story keeps you reading, getting used to that half-sick discomfort of wanting to find out and wanting to slam the book shut forever. But how does it work? It doesn't just happen: it's the result of the kind of careful execution that Poe championed in the development of the national literature. He himself was a master of careful artistic execution. One of his frequently anthologized stories, “The Cask of Amontillado” (Godey's Lady's Book, 1846), makes a good specimen for an anatomy of The Shivers.
Drawing the Reader In
Not simply a tale of revenge, “The Cask of Amontillado” is a tale of revenge as supreme private joke between the narrator and the reader. In the very first line of the story, Montresor, the narrator, declares his intention to avenge himself on Fortunato, for some unnamed “insult.”
“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled—but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
“It must be understood, that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.
“He had a weak point—this Fortunato—although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity—to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack—but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially: I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.
“It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend. He accosted me with excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much. The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him, that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand.
“I said to him—’My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day! But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts.’
‘How?’ said he. ‘Amontillado? A pipe? Impossible! And in the middle of the carnival!’
‘I have my doubts,’ I replied; ‘and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain.’
‘I have my doubts.’
There you have it, the whole direction of the tale—not the least of which is Montresor's masterful manipulation of his quarry. This raises questions, of course, about this revenge. How gruesome will it be? How final? Is it justified? Will you care? Will it succeed? Again, will you care? Your senses are put on alert. Because you expect an assault of some kind against Fortunato, you interpret everything you read thereafter—clues—as somehow contributing to it. A clue appears, disclosing a piece of information that begins to inspire your suspense.
Master of Suspense
But despite what any clue gives you, it withholds just about as much at the same time. It throws in your face all that you still don't know. For instance, never once after the narrator announces revenge as his goal, does Poe disclose the bold plan. He does not, in other words, short-circuit the tension. At the outset, the narrator outlines some preliminaries about his feigned goodwill toward the unsuspecting Fortunato, who fancies himself a wine connoisseur. Playing murderously on his victim's pride, Montresor lures the other man to his wine cellar to show off a rare sherry. Will Fortunato come? He does. Will he turn back? He does not. Montresor entraps him. Will he relent? Every little action and detail leads to larger, darker questions that create a pattern of growing suspense. The farther along you go in Montresor's catacombs, the more utterly inevitable the ending feels. The fascinating horror of that inevitability induces “the shivers.” Like his avenging narrator, Poe has carefully laid brick on brick—and enclosed his readers behind a wall of pure suspense.
Mystery Writers of America annually presents the Edgar Awards® for excellence in crime writing. The coveted “Edgar,” which bears a strong likeness to Poe's Ultima Thule picture, honors Bests in Novel, First Novel, Paperback Original, Critical/Biographical, Fact Crime, Short Story, Young Adult, Juvenile, Play, TV Episode Teleplay, and Motion Picture Screenplay.
“The Cask of Amontillado” is also a good example of Poe's brand of black comedy: you share Montresor's inside jokes as he lures Fortunato to the place of execution. Poe leavens this murder-in-the-making with a heap of drollness and irony. And, finally, that irony is all yours: if you laugh, are you immoral?