I mentioned a while back a review I was working on that was kicking my butt. This is it. With any luck, it will be worth it. However, it is pushing over three thousand words, and I haven’t quite reached the end. So it goes up in parts. Hi ho!
Now for a little bit on the spoilers. While this review deals in the main with Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat, I find myself unable to avoid talking about Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart as well. I do so in detail, so there are spoilers a plenty for both. While the works are better than a century old, but I’d hate to ruin a first reading.
In fact, one might want to reread both anyways before proceeding. I’ll cover the whole plot on this one, but I won’t object too much if we are all one the same page, more or less.
Are we all up to speed?
With that out of the way, shall we join the criminally insane?
Basic, Unvarnished Plot
The Tell Tale Heart and The Black Cat share a similar plot line. Stripped of telling details, the stories would look a little like this:
A nameless narrator, caught and condemned, tells his tale of woe. He feels that his actions need to be understood by someone. Though what he relates could be considered the ravings of a madman, he insist he is quite, quite sane.
He lives his life with a companion who does him no harm. This situation is more than adequate until, one day, something changes inside the narrator. Perverse thoughts rule his brain. The end result is that he murders his companion.
As he doesn’t want to be hanged, he moves to protect himself from discover. He hides the body within the house and takes every step to conceal his crime. His efforts are, to his mind, exceptionally clever. So clever, in fact, that when police come to investigate, he has no problem with letting them search to their hearts’ content.
He almost pulls it off. However a inopportune noise reveals his evildoings and he is taken away.
Not very interesting is it? And does dread deus ex machina lurk right there at the end? After all, the narrator doesn’t have any control over a noise, does he? How could any story be good if the outcome is decided by chance?
When the proper details are restored to the proper stories, these doubts are proven foolish. Poe doesn’t lower gods down from on high to resolve his story. He foreshadows the end of each with such skill that the outcomes are solely based on the actions of the characters and not the whim of the author.
Let’s take a quick look at The Tell Tale Heart first. The narrator1 brags about having hearing good enough to listen in on conversations in Heaven and Hell. A sign of madness, true, but it draws our attention to hearing. Poe does so again during the murder itself, with the narrator hears the beating of the old man’s heart. Both foreshadow the climax, where, driven frantic by the sounds he knows he he is hearing, that he knows the police can, too, hear, he reveals just where he has hidden the body.
Every event in the short story hinges on the actions and beliefs of the narrator. His trust in his superior senses leads him down the wrong path. Specifically, he confuses the pounding of his own heart for that of the old man’s. First during the murder itself, then while entertaining the visiting police. Even at the end he truly believes that he and the police themselves are hearing the still living heart of the old man, as the classic final paragraph attests to:
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! –here, here! –it is the beating of his hideous heart!” — The Tell Tale Heart, Edgar Allen Poe
It is an example of the unreliable narrator, telling more about himself and his deeds than he himself knows. It also show how a master storyteller can take something that could be contrived and turning it into one of the classics of Horror Literature.
The Facts in the Case of Mr. B
Now let’s turn to subject of this essay. Like most of Poe’s narrators, the protagonist in The Black Cat is nameless. However, between you and me, I’m tired of writing narrator over and over again. We’ll refer to him as Mr. B and save some wear on my keyboard, shall we?
As suggested, similarities exist on the surface between this tale and The Tell Tale Heart. Mr. B is an average man who finds himself doing horrible things. Unlike the previous story, his madness doesn’t stem from an onset of insanity; instead, his drinking of alcohol leads to his violent behavior. However, in every other way Mr. B could be an exact copy, down to his mistaken belief in his own cleverness. He, too, is an unreliable narrator, telling a story the reader shouldn’t quite take at face value.
Here is a brief synopsis of the story, discounting only the things Mr. B himself considers irrelevant:
Mr. B is a happily married man of some means. He and his wife, Mrs. B, have a large array of pets. Chief among these is a black cat named Pluto.
Things take a downward turn when Mr. B takes up drinking. His demeanor changes and he becomes abusive to all in his household, save Pluto. But in the end, even the cat faces his madness. After a minor exchange, Mr. B takes a pen knife and cuts out one of the cat’s eyes.
Late, he can’t believe he could do such a horrible, horrible thing. But by and by his madness once again focuses on poor Pluto. This time he takes his once loved pet out to the garden and hangs it from a tree.
That night a fire breaks out in his room. While he and his wife are able to escape, Mr. B loses everything else to the blaze. Despite this blow and a despair over the cruelty he has committed, he continues his debaucheries.
On one of his nightly runs, Mr. B encounters another black cat. This animal proves to be Pluto’s double, down to the missing eye. The only difference between the two is that this one has a splotch of white on his breast.
As the cat shows some affection towards him, Mr. B takes it to his new home. This proves to be a mistake, as the longer he is with the animal, the more he begins to dread it. It always follows him around, tripping him, clinging to him, rubbing against him. Worse, the splotch has taken on a more definite form, one of a gallows.
One day, as Mr. and Mrs. B go into the basement on a household errand, the cat nearly causes Mr. B to fall down the stairs. This is tears it as far as he’s concerned. He grabs an ax and chases the beast, determined to end it once and for all. Mrs. B tries to stop him and ends up taking the blow instead.
Frantic over this turn of events, Mr. B tries to think of a way of disposing of the body. In the end, he tears out a wall in the basement and hides her there. This completed, he turns back to finish the cat off once and for all.
Only there’s no sign of the animal anywhere.
Mr. B breathes easy for the first time in forever. Over the next three days he weathers inquires after Mrs. B disappearance, even a search. Nothing is found. The cat is gone. He is free.
Then, on the fourth day, the police come again. They drag Mr. B everywhere they look, especially the basement. He doesn’t bat an eye. He’s hidden his crime so well that no one will ever know.
In the end, the police give in. They start to leave the basement, and, in a moment of perverse bravado, Mr. B brags about how finely constructed the walls in the house are. In demonstration, he taps the very wall his wife now resides in.
A muffled howl comes as a reply. The police tear down the wall and find the body of Mrs. B. On her head, mouth caked in blood, is the black cat.
As both The Tell Tale Heart and The Black Cat came out within the same year as one another, a churlish soul could say that Poe had gone to the same well twice. Whatever paid the bills, don’t you know. Kinder put, maybe the man has a bit of a groove in his record, replaying the same thing over and over again.
But that would be wrong. While the plot is similar, The Black Cat is, in the end, cut from a different cloth. While Mr. B is mad, the story isn’t about just a madman. It is also one of the best ghost stories there is.
This ends the first part of our review. The second should come up no later than tomorrow, though, as always, I remind you that I work by whim around these parts and it might be pushed back a ways.
1 The Wikipedia entry on The Tell-Tale Heart points out that the gender of the narrator is never revealed. The idea that the narrator could be a woman never occurred to me. It more than likely never occurred to Poe, either, but that really isn’t the point, is it? We bring our own baggage to what we we or read.
A woman could do this horrible act, after all. After all, history has given us such delightful people as, say Liz Borden (assuming her guilt, of course) and Elizabeth Báthory (whose guilt needs not be assumed.) The mind need not stretch that far.
Don’t let my use of the pronoun “he” in this essay keep you from thinking about that the next time you read the story.