What personally I find so compelling in the literature of Edgar Allen Poe is the way that he is able to capture the thoughts, feelings and sensations of madmen and create a convincing persona that makes incredibly unsettling reading. He is the master of the unreliable narrator, and what is so excellent about his work is that he stays in that character whilst allowing the reader to see the various chinks in the character's psyche that reveal them to be mad. Whether it is the husband in "The Black Cat," Montresor in "The Cask of Amontillado" or the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart," the unreliable narrator in each of these stories is a person that is utterly convincing and as a reader you get the feel that you are taken on a tour through the terrain of a maddened brain. Note, for example, the opening paragraph of "The Tell-Tale Heart":
True!--nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses --not destroyed --not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
On the one hand, the narrator insists that he is not mad, yet at the same time he says he is able to hear things that occur both in heaven and hell. The way he continues to argue to be listened to as somebody who is sane whilst clearly professing a belief in something that indicates he has lost his sanity is absolutely fascinating, and points out, from the very opening of this paragraph, that the reader is privy to the thoughts of an extremely disturbed individual. It is this that makes Poe's work so interesting and such a powerful contribution to literature in general.
- What is intriguing is the technique of arabesque which Poe employs with his narrators. That is, there is often a pattern of returning to an initial disturbing idea.
In the "Tell-Tale Heart," for instance, the narrator's fixation is upon the eye of his victim,
...a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold..
....I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eye..
Then, too, he becomes obsessed with the "hellish tattoo of the heart of the old man, a fixation that eventually causes the narrator to cry out and confess so that the sound will stop.
In another story, "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe's crazed narrator engages in arabesque with the niter that has formed upon the labrinyth of narrow chambers in the catacombs.
- The Gothic element for Poe lies in the realm of the narrator, as well. For Poe, it is not so much preternatural beings that characters must fear; instead, the real horror lies within the human beings themselves and what they are capable of doing.
In "The Cask of Amontillado," for example, the relationship of Montresor and Fortunato has become perverted through Montresor's use of reverse psychology--"We will go back; you will be ill, and...there is Luchesi--"; "I drink...to your long life"--until finally, the the narrator cries out his victim's name.:
My heart grew sick--on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor.
Here the narrator realizes the evil that lies within him and he feels a sense of horror for what he himself has done that overshadows his pride of accomplishment. Similarly, in "The Fall of the House of Usher," the mind of Roderick Usher is tortured by its own imaginings.