The Sphinx by Edgar Allan Poe, 1846
The magic trick:
Establishing a feeling of panic, fear, and superstition early in the story
This is a special story for me because I was able to hear and see it live at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, with my wife. She set up the visit to celebrate our second wedding anniversary, so I will always remember the story very fondly.
It’s also a very good story. That helps too.
The story sets up two key ideas before the plot really gets moving. One: we learn that our narrator is moving up north of New York City to avoid the cholera epidemic. So he’s got death and disease all around. Secondly, the narrator discusses with his friend the nature of omens – are they real? Figments of a superstitious mind?
The plot ramps up. Terror ensues.
But it’s all about those initial premises: disease and omens. I don’t want to say more, for fear of ruining the story for those who haven’t read it. But the ending does a neat job of commenting on the way disease and omens can plague one’s mind. And that’s quite a trick on Poe’s part.
During the dread reign of the Cholera in New York, I had accepted the invitation of a relative to spend a fortnight with him in the retirement of his cottage ornee on the banks of the Hudson. We had here around us all the ordinary means of summer amusement; and what with rambling in the woods, sketching, boating, fishing, bathing, music, and books, we should have passed the time pleasantly enough, but for the fearful intelligence which reached us every morning from the populous city. Not a day elapsed which did not bring us news of the decease of some acquaintance. Then as the fatality increased, we learned to expect daily the loss of some friend. At length we trembled at the approach of every messenger. The very air from the South seemed to us redolent with death. That palsying thought, indeed, took entire possession of my soul. I could neither speak, think, nor dream of any thing else. My host was of a less excitable temperament, and, although greatly depressed in spirits, exerted himself to sustain my own. His richly philosophical intellect was not at any time affected by unrealities. To the substances of terror he was sufficiently alive, but of its shadows he had no apprehension.
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