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Michael J. Cummings...©
fictional tales about extremely terrifying or extremely disgusting events
is in poor taste, the narrator says. But writing stories about appalling
events that actually happenedevents that caused immeasurable suffering,
such as the great earthquake in Lisbon or the devastating plague in Londonis
necessary and useful. Such stories serve the cause of truth.
course, the type of horrifying event that most unsettles readers is one
that happens to a single person rather than to a multitude.
ghastly extremes of agony are endured by man the unit, and never by man
the mass, the narrator observes.
most unspeakably terrifying event that a single human can undergo is to
be buried alive. Yet it has happened many times after mysterious diseases
rendered living persons seemingly lifeless, rigid, dead.
exist attesting that victims of such diseases have been buried alive. One
such victim was the wife of a Baltimore lawyer and member of the U.S. Congress.
After she exhibited no signs of life, she was pronounced dead. A funeral
was held, and she was entombed in a vault. Three years later, the vault
was opened to receive a sarcophagus. At this time, the womans coffin was
found in pieces on the floor. It had fallen from a ledge where it was placed.
An investigation revealed that the woman revived after her entombment and
free herself, causing the coffin to fall and break up. She apparently beat
on the iron door of the vaultto no avail, of coursethen died. Her skeleton,
free of the coffin, attested to her resurrection.
victim of an illness that mimics death was a young French heiress, Victorine
Lafourcade. A poor Parisian journalist, Julien Bossuet, loved herand apparently
she loved himbut she rejected him because of his low social standing and
instead married a banker and eminent diplomat, Monsieur Renelle. However,
he mistreated her and, after several years of marriage, she diedor appeared
toand was buried in a grave in the village where she was born. Devastated
by her death, Bossuet traveled to the village and opened the grave and
coffin at midnight to cut off her beautiful hair as a memento. But just
as he was about to snip away the hair, Victorine opened her eyes. She was
alive but remained in a stupor. After Bossuet carried her to his lodgings,
he revived her. Realizing that she truly loved Bossuet, she fled with him
to America. Twenty years later, they returned to France in the belief that
no one would recognize her. But Monsieur Renelle did recognize her and
tried to reclaim her. However, a court ruled that he had no hold on her
after so long a time.
German medical journal reported a case of a military officer who diedapparentlyafter
falling from a horse and suffering a blow to the head. Three days after
his burial in a shallow grave, a cemetery visitor noticed movement of the
earth while sitting on the grave. The officer was disinterred and revived
in a hospital, where he spoke of the horror of awakening beneath the earth.
It seems that the shallow grave admitted air to keep him alive. Unfortunately,
even though the officer seemed on his way to recovery, doctors performed
experiments on him with a galvanic battery, causing his death.
the use of such a device in London revived a dead manone exhumed from
a grave three days after his burial. Curious doctors wanted to dissect
the body to determine the cause of death, presumed to be typhus. A student
who decided to conduct an experiment on his own attached a wire from the
battery to a muscle. In a moment, the patient stood up and uttered several
words. Later, he made a full recovery.
narrator notes that the cases he has discussed are but a few of many. Premature
burial probably happens frequently, he says, and he can think of nothing
more horrible than finding oneself inside a grave while still alive.
He then discusses his own risk of premature burial, for he suffers from
he says, is an affliction that causes a human to enter a deathlike trance.
A sufferer can reduce his risk of being declared dead if he informs everyone
he knows about his condition.
narrator says the affliction often caused him to fall into half-swoon
in which he could not move or think but was vaguely aware of his surroundings.
At other times I was quickly and impetuously smitten," he says. I grew
sick, and numb, and chilly, and dizzy, and so fell prostrate at once. Then,
for weeks, all was void, and black, and silent, and Nothing became the
illness appeared not to affect his general physical health. However, he
did notice a strange symptom upon awakening from a nights sleep: For several
minutes, he would lapse into a state of confusion, lacking memory and other
he could think only morbid thoughts, and he talked of worms, of tombs,
and epitaphs. Fear of being buried alive possessed his mind. He was afraid
to go to sleep, for he worried that he would awaken inside a grave. After
falling asleep on one occasion, he dreamed about being in a cataleptic
dream and others like it unnerved the narrator. Soon, he was reluctant
to keep company with anyone except those who were aware of his conditionthose
would not bury him prematurely in the event that he fell into a cataleptic
fit. As a further precaution, he redesigned the family vault so that it
admitted air and could be opened from inside. A rope through the hole of
the coffin lid was attached to a bell on the roof. If he were prematurely
buried, he could ring for help.
time came when, upon awakening in the morning, it took him longer to come
to his senses. When he reached full consciousness, an eyelid would quiver
and a pang of terror would shoot through his body when he remembered his
morning, deep despair overwhelmed him as he awoke from another stupor.
Mustering courage, he opened his eyes to face the new day, but everything
was dark. He tried to shriek but could not. When he noticed that he was
lying on something hard, he threw up his arms. They struck solid wood.
could no longer doubt that I reposed within a coffin at last," he says.
remembering the alterations he made in the vault, he took heart. First,
he pushed on the coffin lid. It would not move. Then he reached for the
rope to ring the bell. It was not there. When he noticed that he could
smell moist earth, he realized he was not in the family vault. He concluded
that he must have suffered a cataleptic fit while away from home, surrounded
by strangers, and was buried in the earth in a common coffin. He again
tried to shriek. This time he succeeded, giving out a long cry of agony.
answered. Then three others spoke, one saying Get out o that!
of them shook him, and he was restored to the world of light and the living.
The incident took place when he went on a "shooting expedition" with a
friend along the James River near Richmond, Va. When a storm came up in
the evening, they took shelter in the cabin of a small boat, where they
spent the night. The narrator slept in a berth 18 inches wide and 18 inches
high. In the morning upon awakening, he assumed he was in a coffin. The
smell of the earth had come from cargo on the boat. Those who shook him
to his senses were crewmen.
that time forward, he became a new mantraveling, exercising, avoiding
morbid thoughts and burning medical books he had been reading. In time,
his symptoms of catalepsy disappeared. He realized that the human imagination,
like a cavern, cannot be explored to its fullest without risking dangerous
results. And, although terrifying thoughts may have some basis in reality,
they must sleep, or they will devour usthey must be suffered to slumber,
or we perish.
action takes place in the middle of the 19th Century at the narrators
home in Richmond, Va., and on a small, single-masted sailing vessel
(sloop) on the James River. The narrator takes shelter on the boat during
Narrator: A man who
says he suffers from catalepsy, an illness which temporarily incapacitates
a person in a condition mimicking death. The narrator lives in abnormal
fear that he will be pronounced dead during a cataleptic trance and buried
Unnamed Friend: This
friend accompanies the narrator on a gunning expedition along the James
Boat Crewmen: Men
on a sloop providing shelter for the narrator and his friend when a storm
interrupts their expedition.
of Work and Publication Date
"The Premature Burial" is
a short story of in the horror genre written in first-person point of view.
It was first published on July 31, 1844, in the Philadelphia Dollar
The central theme of "The
Premature Burial" is extreme terror and its effects on the human mind.
The narrator's terror is the result of his dwelling obsessively on morbid
Being cut off, being isolated
from the world of the living, is in part the cause of the narrator's abnormal
fear of being buried alive. The thought of being alone and abandoned, without
hope of ever seeing another human being, petrifies the narrator. Ironically,
to avoid the possibility of premature burial, he avoids leaving his home
to be among people. "I hesitated to ride, or to walk, or to indulge in
any exercise that would carry me from home," he says.
Let the Sleeping Mind
At the end of the story,
the narrator says the deep recesses of the human mind, where reside unknown
and inscrutable terrors, are better left alone, unexplored. "The imagination
of man is no Carathis," he says, "to explore with impunity its every cavern."
The "demons" in the mind "must sleep, or they will devour usthey must
be suffered to slumber, or we perish." Here, Poe seems to be saying that
it is unhealthful to dwell on morbidity and vague fears. If one focuses
incessantly on an imagined illness, he will become ill. If he focuses incessantly
on what could go wrong, nothing will go right. The mind has its own secret
hell; to awaken its demons is to awaken bale and bane.
Poe as narrator declares
in the opening paragraph of the short story that the author of fiction
must avoid concocting extremely horrifying tales, for they could offend
or disgust the reader. Accounts of ghastly events from real life are another
matter, he says. Writers may freely report them in the cause of truth.
This position gives the reader the impression that The Premature Burial
will report a true account of a premature burial of which the narrator
has firsthand knowledge. However, Poe first presents several documented
accounts of premature burials he has read about to point out that such
interments do occur from time to time. These accounts make the story read
like an expository essay. But after presenting a paragraph that describes
in detail the excruciating mental agony of being buried alive, Poes narrator
announces that he himself underwent such an experience. Here, Poe switches
seamlessly from essay to short story, from nonfiction to fiction. Nevertheless,
the rest of the story rings as true, like the accounts from real life.
The narrative has verisimilitude. Of course,
except for the documented accounts, the story is complete fabrication.
But it is also devilishly terrifying entertainment, with nice touches of
irony and humor. Consider that Poe gives us a narrator who is not only
terrified of dying but also terrified of remaining alive (inside a coffin).
The poor fellow. And what is his solution? He rigs his final resting place
with a bell attached to a rope running through a hole in the lid of the
coffin. In the event that he is buried alive, he has only to tug on the
rope to alert the outside world that he is still alive. This little embellishment
is reminiscent of the jingling bells on the carnival fools cap worn by
Fortunato in The Cask of Amontillado before
the narrator entombs him in a brick wall.
Poe carefully makes every
word, every phrase, every sentence in the story contribute to the overall
effect, horror, accompanied by oppressing morbidity and anxious anticipation
of terrifying events. Notice, for example, the tenor of the words in the
following in the following paragraph. I have highlighted those that support
It may be asserted, without
hesitation, that no event is so terribly
well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental
distress, as is burial before death.
The unendurable oppression of the lungsthe
fumes from the damp earththe clinging to the death
of the narrow housethe
the absolute Nightthe silence
like a sea that overwhelmsthe unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror
Wormthese things, with the thoughts of the air
and grass above, with memory of dear
friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate,
and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informedthat
our hopeless portion is that of the
really deadthese considerations, I
say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates,
a degree of appalling and intolerable
horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. Use
As in his other short stories,
Poe frequently uses anaphora in "The Premature Burial." Anaphora is a figure
of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of a clause
or another group of words. Anaphora imparts emphasis and balance. Here
are boldfaced examples from the story
careno hopeno effort.
And now the first
positive effort to think. And now the first endeavor to remember.
now a partial and evanescent success. And now the memory has
so far regained its dominion, that, in some measure, I am cognizant of
Despairsuch as no
other species of wretchedness ever calls into beingdespair alone
urged me, after long irresolution, to uplift the heavy lids of my eyes.
I uplifted them. It was darkall dark. I knew that the fit was over.
knew that the crisis of my disorder had long passed. I knew
that I had now fully recovered the use of my visual facultiesand yet it
was darkall darkthe intense and utter raylessness of the Night that endureth
Following is a glossary of
the allusions and references in "The Premature Burial":
sorcerer in Shah-nameh (Book of Kings), by Abu Ol-qasem Mansur
(935-1020), who wrote under the pen name Ferdowsi.
Beresina (usually spelled
River that was in western Russia before that country's boundaries changed
in the 20th Century. It was the site of heavy French losses during the
Napoleonic wars. Here is what happened: After the Russians held their ground
at Moscow in 1812, Napoleon's army retreated. While crossing the Berezina
on his way back to central Europe between November 26 and 29, 1812, Napoleon
lost more than 10,000 men under bombardment from Russian artillery. The
Berezina River is now in Belarus, a region of the old Russia that became
an independent nation in 1991.
British physician (1729-1805) who wrote Domestic Medicine: Or a Treatise
on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines.
Apparently, the narrator of "The Premature Burial" perused this book for
information about catalepsy.
One of the most devastating earthquakes on record, registering between
8.5 and 9 on the Richter scale. It occurred on Nov.1, 1755, beginning between
9:20 and 9:40 a.m. and lasting several minutes. The earthquake and its
aftermathincluding tsunami waves and fireskilled approximately 60,000
of the 250,000 residents of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, and 30,000
to 40,000 more in other countries in Europe and Africa.
St. Bartholomews Day
Massacre: Mass murder of Huguenots on August 23 and 24, 1572, ordered
by King Charles IX of France at the insistence of his mother, Catherine
de Médicis. Thousandsor perhaps tens of thousandsof Huguenots
died. St. Bartholomews Day falls on August 24.
The narrator of "The Premature
Burial" suffers not only from catalepsy (which is actually a symptom of
other disorders) but alsoit appearsfrom obsessive/compulsive disorder.
Here is a brief look at both afflictions.
Catalepsy is a condition
that causes muscle rigidity and temporary loss of consciousness and feeling
for several minutes, several hours, and, in some cases, more than a day.
Generally, it is not an illness in itself but a symptom of an illness,
such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, hysteria, alcoholism or a brain tumor.
Certain drugs, too, can trigger a cataleptic episode. The victim does not
respond to external stimuli, even painful stimuli such as a pinch on the
Besides suffering from catalepsy,
the narrator appears to suffer from what psychologists today term obsessive/compulsive
The symptoms and severity
of this disorder vary from patient to patient. However, in one variety
of this affliction, the patient dwells obsessively on a situation, a place,
a person, or an idea that he fears. For example, a person may dread speaking
in public, which is a requirement of his job. Or he may fret over meeting
people or be anxious about his physical health. It is normal, of course,
for a person to be concerned about making a speech, meeting people, or
passing his next physical examination. It is abnormal, however, to experience
intensesometimes debilitatinganxiety about a present or future event,
or about an unplanned or unexpected turn of events. A person obsessed with
an abnormal fear can think of nothing else but that fear. He is like the
narrator of "The Premature Burial," who cannot shake his preoccupation
with the possibility that he will be buried alive. This preoccupation can
trigger deep depression.
Edgar Allan Poe was born
on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was
taken into the home of a childless coupleJohn Allan, a successful businessman
in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poes godfather.
At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools
there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied
at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S.
Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem The Raven in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never
really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several
people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble
paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing
cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.