Some years ago, I heard concern voiced over the fact that children seemed to adore a series of horror books written for that audience, and recently a parent told me she feared Harry Potter was “too intense” for her fifth-grader. I’m not a parent, so I would never attempt to judge what a child of today could cope with, but I do recall who scared the socks off me at the age of ten: Edgar Allan Poe.
Upon hearing how much I had enjoyed being terrified by “The Tell-Tale Heart,” my father suggested I read “The Cask of Amontillado.” It had been a while since he had read it, but as he said the name of the story, he gave a little shiver in reminiscence. Naturally, I hurried to search out a copy of the story. Like many young booklovers, I used to read with a flashlight under the bedcovers long after I was supposed to be asleep. For reasons you’ll understand as you read “The Cask of Amontillado,” those covers got tossed back when I read this one. For some weeks after I read it, I repaid my father the favor of his recommendation by refusing to sleep with the bedroom door closed.
Every time I’ve reread “The Cask of Amontillado” as an adult, I’ve found it’s still a tale guaranteed to incite claustrophobia. Now, though, I better appreciate how skillfully Poe told this tale. “The Cask of Amontillado” is a master’s lesson in storytelling. Every element-the voice of the narrator, the setting, the interplay between characters, even the clothing of the victim-contributes to its mood, its tension, and its relentless drive to its conclusion.
Consider how we are lured into a journey with a killer, much as Fortunato is lured into doing the same. At first, we feel sympathetic to Montresor. Who among us has not known a Fortunato and wished him his comeuppance? A pompous connoisseur of fine wines, he easily represents the know-it-alls we’ve encountered in our own lives. Perhaps we’ve also known someone who has dealt us a “thousand injuries” or insults we’ve been forced to bear in smiling silence.
Soon we realize, though, that Montresor is a madman, not to be trusted. He’s prone to exaggerating slights all out of proportion, and he’s bent on revenge. We begin to fear for Fortunato, dressed as a fool and behaving like one. We descend with this pair from the street, where the carnival season is in full swing, down into the catacombs beneath the Montresor palazzo. Every step inexorably takes us away from the excesses and frivolity of the celebrations above-down into a dark and chill place, where even the bells on a fool’s cap become fuelfor nightmares. We may have seen more graphically violent representations of the mind of a killer in fiction, but Montresor, capable of mocking both his victim’s prayers and his screams, is as heartless as any.
With the power of a conjurer, Poe knew exactly how to summon our fears. Read “The Cask of Amontillado.” Then feel free to sleep with the light on and the bedroom door open.