How does Poe create suspense in "The Pit and the Pendulum"?
One way that Poe creates suspense from the very beginning is by giving us an unreliable narrator to narrate the events. He opens the narrative by telling us that he himself doesn't fully trust his senses:
I was sick—sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.
If the narrator himself doesn't feel that he has full control of his senses and faculties, how can we be sure of the details that follow? How will he portray the events?
Suspense is further generated by the setting. Part of the narrator's torture is that his punishment is hidden in darkness:
At length, with a wild desperation at heart, I quickly unclosed my eyes. My worst thoughts, then, were confirmed. The blackness of eternal night encompassed me. I struggled for breath. The intensity of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me. The atmosphere was intolerably close.
The unknown terrors that lay waiting for the narrator in the darkness increase his sense of panic, and therefore, the reader's as well. Darkness is often symbolic of evil, and this sense of foreboding danger intensifies as the narrator attempts to navigate his dark surroundings.
Thus, the narrator's reaction to his torture increases suspense. Perspiration bursts from every pore. His eyes strain for hope. He thrusts his arms wildly in all directions.
And then, of course, there is the method of torture itself. A swinging pendulum that ends in a sharp blade which descends ever closer to the narrator, with potentially disastrous results, creates a building sense of terror. The pendulum descends slowly, allowing the narrator much time to consider his gruesome end and time for the reader's anticipation to build, as well.
Poe masterfully crafts a language that furthers an eerie tone, utilizing words such as "relentlessly," "unspeakable," "devoured," "struggled," and "annihilated"—and weaving this language throughout the story to increase the story's suspense.