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      Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado": Insight and Insanity

      For more than a century and a half Poe's little horror story "The Cask of Amontillado" has been considered one of the author's best stories and is today the Poe tale most often often included in anthologies of short stories in English. The story is so successful because it is more than a gothic thriller. In addition to its appeal as an account of a madman's horrible vengeance, "The Cask of Amontillado" contains some of Poe's best aesthetic effects and, even more importantly, reveals Poe's remarkable insight into the obssessive-compulsive nature of Montresor's insanity. In plain words, the story is more than mere entertainment.

      Even when I read the story in high school, I thought it was really a good story because I -- as well as most of my classmates -- enjoyed horror stories with gruesome and unexpected endings. Such thoughts as being walled up alive and left to die in the clammy, chilly darkness of a catacomb and as being the unsuspecting intended victim of a determined and methodical madman -- such thoughts as those sent chills up my spine, which is obviously what a good horror tale is supposed to do. Furthermore, the story ends with the surprising revelation that the murderer was absolutely successful in his revenge and that fifty years have gone by without anyone even discovering the victim's body. That's the kind of thing I still think is great entertainment.

      Over the years, however, I have come to see that "Cask" can also be enjoyed on the level of aesthetic appreciation. Just one example of what I am talking about can be seen in the description of the murderer Montresor's family coat of arms. That image of a large, bare human foot crushing the head of a poisonous serpent whose fangs are already buried in the foot is visually unforgettable as is the Latin motto on the coat of arms which can be translated as "Nobody injures me and gets away with it." Besides its obvious decorative value as a word picture, that image of the coat of arms summarizes the whole tale: Montresor (the foot) is crushing the life out of Fortunato (the snake), but the snake has already sent its venom into the foot. The picture helps us to see that Montresor's cold-blooded need for revenge has destroyed the murderer himself as well as the victim. When we remember that Montresor tells us the story as old man on the verge of the grave himself and when we recall that he is as unrepentant and proud of his vengeance as ever, we realize that Montresor has destroyed his own soul as much as he destroyed poor Fortunato's life. How skillful Poe was to pack so much decoration and so much meaning into such an image.

      What really raises the value of Poe's tale, however, is its insight into the nature of insanity. Poe lived and wrote long before such thinkers as Freud and Jung put abnormal psychology on a scientific basis, yet his description of Montresor's obsessive-compulsive revenge plot rings very true. Montresor's plan is enormously detailed: the carnival season is deliberately selected, the servants are tricked into leaving the house, the villain relies on Fortunato's vanity as a wine expert, he prepares the bricks and fresh mortar ahead of time, and on and on. All of his cleverness and his compulsive dedication to his task, all of his insane determination ("I vowed revenge") to achieve perfect revenge against imaginary wrongs (no one can name what Fortunato did to add "insult" to injury) -- all of the behavior patterns described by modern psychiatrists were observed and described by Poe long before the science of psychiatry was founded. Unfortunately, many ordinary horror story writers never even come close to realistic depiction of mental illness. With Poe's tale, however, we can learn a great deal about the nature of compulsive-obsessive disorder.

      It is true that most readers first come to enjoy "The Cask of Amontillado" as a horror story such as those written today by Stephen King or R. L. Stine (the author of the Goosebumps series), but over the years I have come to see that Poe's tale is a cut above the ordinary tale of suspense and horror. Poe's aesthetic skill and his insight into mental illness turn what might have been a long forgotten gothic horror story into a minor but remarkable masterpiece of American literature.

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