The Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, under the reign of Ferdinand II and Isabella I. It started with the mundane but morally questionable goal of identifying heretics. That was a slippery slope that eventually led to searching for and persecuting all enemies of the church and crown. It became a witch hunt. Its victims numbered 150,000, and between 3,000 and 5,000 were executed. Others were imprisoned and tortured. It lasted almost 400 years, to 1834, when Isabella II ended it. But in 1808, the French Army captured Toledo, the seat of the inquisition, and put a temporary halt to it. Though Edgar Allan Poe took liberties with this history, it provides the context for his “The Pit and the Pendulum.”
Except for “The Tale-Tell Heart,” I think “The Pit and the Pendulum” is Poe’s most famous short story. Perhaps it’s a coin toss whether “The Tale-Tell Heart” or “The Pit and the Pendulum” is more famous, but I believe when the general public hears the name Edgar Allan Poe, their minds turn to “The Raven,” “The Tale-Tell Heart,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”—in that order. Even those who had never read these works have an idea of what happens in them. And if there’s any question what “The Pit and the Pendulum” is about, one only needs to read the title. It’s about a pit and a pendulum.
The unnamed narrator is a victim of the Spanish Inquisition. He never tells us his crime, but he does tell us he’s sentenced to die. Though most condemned by the inquisition were burned at the stake, he must face other means of execution: the pit and the pendulum.
And then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the spect of charity, and seemed white slender angels who would save me; but then, all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fiber in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help. And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.
In the past, I never had much appreciation for this story. It’s fun, it’s well-written, but it ends in a deus ex machina. For those of you who did not study literature, dues ex machina translate to “god from the machine.” It’s a literary device used to rescue protagonists from danger when there’s no other hope for escape. In a strict sense, it implies divine intervention, but in a less strict sense, anything that comes from outside the character or the plot is a deus ex machina. If the cavalry arrives at the last minute to save the besieged fort, that’s a deus ex machina. But if in an earlier scene, we see those trapped in the fort sent word to the cavalry that they were in peril, then it’s not a deux ex machina, because the rescue had been foreshadowed. In “The Pit and the Pendulum,” no such foreshadowing exists. When there was no other hope for salvation, Antoine Lasalle, the general in charge of French forces in Spain, rescued our protagonist.
That, of course, is a spoiler, but I feel no guilt in sharing the ending with you because we know from the first passage that the protagonist survives his ordeal. Otherwise, he would be dead and unable to tell us what happened to him. Since this rescue came from nowhere, lack foreshadowing, I always felt it was a cheat. Feeling cheated, I believed the story was overrated.
But when I read it for this review, my opinion changed. Yes, Lasalle rescued our protagonist in a deus ex machina, but before that rescue, there were several great scenes as the protagonist puzzled out the perils that threatened him. He also decided upon and executed several plans that prolonged his life. He saved himself by surviving both the pit and the pendulum. That speaks to his strength, his will, and his intellect.
These traits make “The Pit and the Pendulum” a character-driven story. Thinking of this as a plot-driven story was another mistake of mine. My defense is that, since there are so many action scenes in it, it reads like a plot-driven story. Also, there is only one character in the story. That’s not exactly true, because the inquisitors are characters, as well as Lasalle. But we never meet the inquisitors on-page, and Lasalle makes his appearance only in the final paragraph. The true antagonist is the dungeon where our hero finds himself imprisoned, the dungeon equipped with the pit, the pendulum, and other devices meant to end his life. The conflict is his wits versus the dungeon.
That conflict reminds me of Escape Room, a movie I had seen earlier this year. Though I found the film a pleasant diversion during its 99-minute runtime, it was far from a great movie. I haven’t thought about it since, not until I read “The Pit and the Pendulum” for this review. Like the characters in Escape Room, Poe’s narrator found himself in a confined room trying to kill him. “The Pit and the Pendulum” could very well have been the original escape room. I mentioned this now to demonstrate how advanced Poe was in his storytelling skills and how he’s influencing our entertainment to this day. I’m not sure if the creators behind Escape Room had read “The Pit and the Pendulum” or made a conscious decision to find inspiration in it. I suspect that the connection between these two thrillers is indirect rather than direct. But I also believe that if Poe had never written “The Pit and the Pendulum,” There would’ve been no Escape Room.
The vibration of the pendulum as at right angles to my length. I saw that the crescent was designed to cross the region of my heart. It would fray the serge of my robe–it would return and repeat its operations–again–and again. Notwithstanding its terrifically wide sweep (some thirty feet or more), and the hissing vigor of its descent, sufficient to sunder these very walls of iron, still the fraying of my robe would be all that, for several minutes, it would accomplish. And at this thought I paused. I dared not go further than this reflection.
We tend to think of Poe as a writer of supernatural tales—“The Black Cat”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”—but the horrors in “The Pit and the Pendulum” are manmade. Poe never answers all the questions his stories ask. Keeping a sense of mystery intensifies the horrors. We never learn why the inquisition condemned the protagonist or why the inquisitors chose these unique devices to end his life. We don’t need to know. Not knowing makes it that much more frightening.
As far as Poe’s short stories go, “The Pit and the Pendulum” isn’t his finest work. Despite my improved judgment of it, I still considered it a weak tale in a strong oeuvre. But if you’re interested in Poe and want to know his work, you have to read “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Skipping it would be akin to skipping Psycho in a study of the films of Alfred Hitchcock. In all the ways Poe had found to frighten us, no device is as frightening as the pendulum.