Short and Sweet
“Ye who read are still among the living, but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows,” begins “Shadow—A Fable.” This tight little two-page tale, published in 1835, describes a “year of terror” in the eighth century, when the plague swept across Greece. Gathered in a hall fortified against any intrusion—meaning plague and death—from the outside are the narrator and six others, carousing hysterically in response to the terror beyond their walls. Everything about this story prefigures the longer tale, “The Masque of the Red Death,” which Poe would write several years later. In “Shadow,” he's experimenting with his materials, doing a sketch for what would become the later, more fully developed work. In this earlier version, Poe makes use of many of his favorite devices: a heavy, claustrophobic atmosphere with luridly described furnishings; death personified; an intense tone brought about by the repeated use of terror and other ominous words; and the headlong rush to the terrible conclusion. That conclusion is strangely milder and more touching than it is in that later story, “Masque.” It's as if Poe decided to ratchet up that “single effect” he believed a good short story should achieve.
For such a brief story, “Shadow” quickly achieves the oppressive atmosphere that became one of Poe's signature devices. “Black draperies, likewise, in the gloomy room, shut out from our view the moon, the lurid stars, and the peopleless streets—but the boding and the memory of Evil, they would not be so excluded. There were things around us and about of which I can render no distinct account—things material and spiritual. Heaviness in the atmosphere—a sense of suffocation—anxiety—and above all, that terrible state of existence which the nervous experience when the senses are keenly living and awake, and meanwhile the powers of thought lie dormant. A dead weight hung upon us. It hung upon our limbs—upon the household furniture—upon the goblets from which we drank; and all things were depressed, and borne down thereby—all things save only the flames of the seven lamps which illumined our revel. Uprearing themselves in tall slender lines of light, they thus remained burning all pallid and motionless; and in the mirror which their lustre formed upon the round table of ebony at which we sat, each of us there assembled beheld the pallor of his own countenance, and the unquiet glare in the downcast eyes of his companions. Yet we laughed and were merry in our proper way—which was hysterical; and sang the songs of Anacreon—which are madness; and drank deeply—although the purple wine reminded us of blood.”
It's interesting, too, to note that just five years after “Shadow” appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger, Poe changed its subtitle from “A Fable” to “A Parable.” What's the difference? Both are short forms of writing for the purpose of instruction. However, a fable uses supernatural elements (sometimes, talking animals) to illustrate a truth, and a parable tells a story to illustrate a moral attitude. The truth in “Shadow—A Fable” is that death comes. Maybe the moral attitude in “Shadow—A Parable” is that you need to acknowledge the power of the dead, and our continuing connections to them. Which is better?