How “The Tell-Tale Heart” Ticks
Although the graphic sights and sounds of the horror movies glisten more vibrantly than the written word, the Halloween season is a great time to revisit horror fiction. One of my perennial favorites to read this time of the year is Edgar Allan Poe, whom no genre fan is a stranger towards. Poe was not just a superb storyteller in the realm of horror, but his work stands as that of a master craftsman in the (relatively new for his time) art of the short story. Just as movies have tighter narratives and less lag than a serialized, weekly TV programs (see The Walking Dead’s second season), so too is a short story is able to vividly portray a terrorific jolt while remaining in the confines of a few pages. This shorter form constricts the writer to a more economical with his words than a novelist. But, while it meant that Poe’s stories would be stripped any superfluous language, the essential details would remain clear and a singular chilling moment would be distilled to haunt the reader’s imagination.
A perfect example Poe’s craftsmanship and economy of language is “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which at a mere 2000 thousand odd words, is short and to the point. Now, while the tale’s brevity may make it more appealing to modern readers, what makes this an effective horror story that has stood the test of time is Poe’s pacing and use of repetition in his writing. Although some of Poe’s other stories, such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat,” would also feature murderous narrators retelling their evil deeds, it is my opinion that “The Tell-Tale Heart” establishes this maniacal fiend not only the best in Poe’s body of work, but probably in the entire canon of dark fiction.
Before diving into what makes “The Tell-Tale Heart” tick, have a look at the story’s opening paragraph:
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.
Again, the two key elements that make this story so effective — pacing and repetition — are both present from the opening lines. From the onset — from the very first word — the pacing is quick. This narrator’s mind and heart is racing, and the reader speeds along with him, not only because of the words that Poe chooses — “nervous/dreadfully/disease/sharpened” — but also because of the internal rhythm of the sentences he constructs. Each word is a short explosion — a hammering — punctuated only by the next. This is not some Lovecraftian lugubrious and slowly unfolding story, this is Edgar Allan Poe at his most frenetic and fanatical. Consider how the exclamation point after the first word bursts forth from the page. Consider how the next word — nervous — is not recited simply as a matter of fact, but as a condition of being. No one calmly says that they feel nervous, no, this word bounces off the page as an actor, or a murder would actually speak it. There is a stuttering in this text, but it further serves to quicken the pace. Read the next word — very — and there is a comma afterwards telling you to stop, to slow down, but that is all too much as you are already sucked in. The words move more quickly now, pausing only momentarily at the semicolon, and then racing off to the question mark, where, despite the narrator’s pleas to be considered mentally sound, the reader has likely already reached the sobering realization that he is unreliable, if not altogether off his rocker. The second sentence continues this frantic pace, all while reaffirming to the reader that this man, claiming to have been imbued with superhuman hearing following an act of murder, is certifiably insane.
It isn’t just punctuation or word order that contributes to the quickened pace, but also the very words themselves. All of them are short. In this opening paragraph there is not a single word longer than three syllables. Neither the narrator’s, nor the reader’s heart is at rest, and neither can simply plod through the text. These are hearts under stress, and although the shorter syllabic structure makes the reading more rhythmic, it also serves to speed things up. The narrator’s palpitations are palpable to the reader because of Poe’s control over the pacing of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Naturally, Poe pulls back as he eases into the rest of the story, but it is interesting to note how he starts this tale with the same heart-pounding pace as the horrific reveal at the finish.
As with pacing, repetition is something that Poe could could use very, very effectively — see “The Raven,” and especially, “The Bells.” In “The Tell-Tale Heart” the first sentence contains repetition of the words ‘very’ and ‘nervous.’ Our dear narrator isn’t just nervous — he isn’t even just very nervous — he is nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous. Poe’s repetition isn’t confined to just repeating words, as starting from the second line Poe uses a repeating sentence construction: not destroyed –not dulled and continues on with repetitious sentences: I heard all things … I heard many things. What does this repetition serve? It ties the reader closer to the subject matter as we are compelled to feel as the narrator feels. We are hearing the same thing, in our head, over and over again, just as the narrator is hearing, over and over again, incessantly, maddeningly, that beating of the dead man’s heart.
Poe’s language heightens the reader’s sense of awareness as one falls in line with the narrator’s speech pattern. This is deliberate, to make your heart speed up and to make you short of breath with the heavy H sounds in the last few lines of the opening. Speak them out loud yourself. These are heavy, breathy sounds — hearken, how healthily, whole story — and they serve to slow the pace as the narrator, and you the reader catch your breath from the fantastic opening of the story.
And what a story it is! “The Tell-Tale Heart” is as archetypal and influential as any other in the genre of horror. This horrific Halloween holiday season, I would urge you to get back the roots of horror and rediscover one of the monumental pillars of the genre (and all of fiction). Go and pull your Poe off of your bookshelf (any self-respecting horror fan ought to own a tome!) and revisit “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Or you can read a copy of it online here.
Finally, check out this wonderful animated version of the story narrated by James Mason. His rendition of the madman is strikingly similar to the one in my head! Be warned though, that even though it is excellently rendered and recited, this story is slightly abridged from Poe’s original masterpiece.