I have written elsewhere that my lifetime commitment to mystery fiction can be traced to an early exposure to the novels of Ellery Queen. But my love for the short story dates from my first reading of Edgar Allan Poe. It was in my school textbook that I discovered “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a near-perfect example of the horror and suspense that marked so much of Poe’s work.
From the very beginning with its description of the Inquisition chamber, the reader is caught up in the narrator’s terrible plight. We are to be his companion in the tortures that follow, and it seems that death will be his only release. He drifts between a conscious and dreamlike state, facing first the fate of execution by a swinging, razor-sharp pendulum, a method Poe had no doubt seen described in a contemporary history of the Inquisition. As his narrator describes the slow descent of the pendulum and the scurrying of rats about his chamber, there seems to be no chance of survival.
When he miraculously escapes death by the pendulum, he is immediately faced with an even graver danger. The red-hot walls of his cell begin to close in upon him, forcing him ever closer to the gaping abyss at the center of the room. The suspense builds to a terrifying pitch that holds the reader until the story’s final paragraph. Poe’s ending may be a bit far-fetched, but it has a historical basis. To the reader it is supremely satisfying, the perfect ending to a half hour of nail-biting suspense.
For anyone who wishes to write short stories, there is no better teacher than Edgar Allan Poe. And there is no better example of suspenseful perfection in a short story than “The Pit and the Pendulum.”