The Pit and the Pendulum, about a man imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition, is one of Edgar Allen Poe’s finest works and it captures horror at its height.
The story begins with a nameless narrator who finds himself on trial before seven severe judges, who sentence him to death as part of the Spanish Inquisition. (The Inquisition was part of the Roman Catholic Church of Spain, which prosecuted non-believers and Protestants from the 16th-18th centuries.) Immediately after his sentence is handed down, the narrator faints and when he awakens finds himself in pitch darkness in the dungeons in Toledo—the famous Inquisition prison of “monkish tortures.”
The man decides to take in his surroundings by feeling the walls around him, discovering the prison shaped like a square, about 50 feet wide. The eerie unknown of what’s ahead gave me a chilling feel, especially when Poe describes the walls as covered in some slippery slime. Another surprise comes along when the narrator slips and falls—his head is hanging over the edge of a deep pit. The narrator’s pulsating fear clutches at readers who may find themselves gasping alongside him, as they follow him into the depths of his unknown doom.
He drifts to sleep again and the next time he awakens, he finds himself bound to a board at the center of his cell. Across the floor slime-covered rats scatter about. Looking up he sees a curve bladed pendulum swinging over his body and with each swing it descends closer to his heart.
The usage of suspense and vivid images of dark, gothic nature in the Pit and the Pendulum sets the mood of the story and immediately pulled me into a spiraling ride.
Known as Poe’s most historically accurate thriller, readers will get a healthy dosage of history. But don’t let “short story” fool you, because the Pit and the Pendulum is a deep read that may prove challenging. So finishing it will certainly be a satisfying reward, with all the probing into the despair and darkness. Death can’t possibly seem more real and imminent than it does in the Pit and the Pendulum.