When Society Is the Criminal
Is there a simple way to discuss the difference on the page between horror and terror? Horror appalls; terror repels. Horror plays with your head; terror, with everything else. Horror moves into your head and re-decorates the space. Terror makes your imagination the last thing on your mind. These terms—horror and terror—are used interchangeably about the most famous of Poe's tales. “Masterpieces of terror,” you'll hear, or “tales of horror.” But did Poe really write either?
When Poe first collected his stories he called the volume Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. (The “arabesques” were more mainstream, shot through, he believed, with beauty.) So, by his own definition, what he was writing were “grotesques,” stories filled with frightening distortion and abnormality.
H. P. Lovecraft, the horror/fantasy writer, called Poe “my God of Fiction.” Lovecraft, a Providence, Rhode Island, native whose father was a traveling salesman, was in many ways a second generation Poe. From Poe he developed a taste for horror and the macabre, but from there he used his background in mythology to create his own “weird fiction,” which included a bestiary—and a New England landscape certainly darker than any Emerson or Thoreau would recognize (although Hawthorne might find himself at home).
Do they get all the way to horror—or terror? Possibly, depending on who's doing the reading. Horror and “masterpieces of terror” really refer to the effect of the story on the one taking them in. Two tales that might be considered for the most horrifying/terrifying are “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Both have strange power, but because they are so different from each other, it's better to look at them together in order to decide which gives you “the shivers.” Both stories are reprinted in their entirety in Appendix A, and to appreciate the difference a narrator makes—not to mention the full reach of what Poe is saying about the difference between “mere” madness and state-sanctioned insanity—you might want to read them through.
“It was hope—the hope that triumphs on the rack—that whispers to the death-condemned even in the dungeons of the Inquisition,” Poe wrote in “The Pit and the Pendulum” in 1843. This story is narrated by a man who describes his torture at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.
Established in 1478 by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, before they funded Christopher Columbus's voyage, the Spanish Inquisition refers to the 350-year period of institutionalized torture, trials, and punishment of Jews, Protestants, miscellaneous heretics, bigamists, homosexuals, blasphemers, witches, Freemasons, and pretty much anyone else considered a threat to the state religion. The Inquisition referred to itself as the Holy Office.
Despite brief appearances of other, almost disembodied characters at the very beginning and end (which lends a creepy impersonality to the events), the story is an interrupted account of one man's attempts to evade the Inquisition's death-dealing designs.
The power of the story lies in the “against all odds” efforts of the engaging narrator/victim to save his own life. He keeps the lid on his own despair by approaching each problem methodically. Because he is an intelligent Everyman—and an underdog, trapped in a dungeon, with only his wits to save him—you can identify with him. No sooner does he outwit one manner of execution, though, than he's confronted with the next. Poe ratchets up the suspense by showing the horrifying futility of the narrator's success.