NOTE: This is the second in a series of 31 reviews of scary short stories and novels. As part of All Hallow’s Read, I will be sharing all the scary stories that I think you should consider giving to someone for Halloween. Because this is a tradition intended for people of all ages, some of these titles will be for children and young adults, while others are meant strictly for adults. Happy Reading.
The Tell-Tale Heart
By, Edgar Allan Poe
Let’s go back, you and I, to the mid-’90s. Not because of the current fad of children born in December of 1999 going around celebrating how great it was to be a “‘90s kid”, but because I actually was a kid in the ‘90s. A lot of who I am was shaped during that time. Like this particular afternoon I’m trying to take you to now.
It was October 31st, 1996, as close as I can figure it. My entire school was turned into a parade of Halloween tropes. In costume, we left the building and circled the outside while faculty and parents clapped and cheered to see their little ones dressed as princesses, pirates, hobos, ghosts, various mythological beasts, and superheroes.
You’ll forgive me if I spare you all the details of my particular outfit. You see, Batman Forever had come out a year prior, and I had a bit of an obsession with Robin. Needless to say, a child of my…build was not meant to wear Robin’s outfit.
Ignoring the atrocity of my wholly inappropriate costume, this was really the only day at school I ever looked forward to. The halls were always filled with half made-up kids, running, laughing, pretending. Creativity buzzed and popped in the atmosphere. It was a celebration of imagination. Add to it the vibrant foliage inherent in the season and you have a Ray Bradbury level nostalgic vision of Halloween in childhood.
Amongst all that buzzing imagination, I was first introduced to one of America’s (let’s be fair, the world’s) greatest imaginations.
After the parade, we all returned to our classes for an end of the day party. That meant snacks, drinks, jokes, and planning Trick-or-Treating routes.
This year was a little different. My teacher let us have all the teeth-rotting goodies we wanted, but instead of devising our greedy treat getting plans, she thought it would be better to share a scary story with us.
She often read to us just after lunch. It was my favorite part of the day. It required no participation on my part but listening and dreaming.
While dressed in the dark robe of the Grim Reaper, she held an old red book in her hand, walked amongst our desks, and relayed to us the haunting memoir of a disturbed man, driven to a murderous act by an old man’s eye.
My attention span has never been very long. Books written for children my age rarely captured my imagination like this. I saw it all, just as she described.
A thin beam of light cutting through pitch darkness and falling on the open eye that roused such malice. The violent deed itself. His growing paranoia. The splintering of the floorboards to reveal the ghastly remains of what he’d done.
This is really the story that changed me. Not only was it more vivid and terrifying than anything else I’d ever experienced, but it actually got me thinking differently about stories.
After her reading, we talked about it. Why did this obviously crazy man deny his madness? Was he really hearing the heart or was it his own? What does this say about the power of secrets, or guilt? Pretty heady stuff for a fifth grader, but perfect at the same time. We were all about to leave the tiny contained world we’d been so safe in and make the first step on the road to adulthood. We had to start thinking differently or be left behind.
I don’t think there is anyone alive (no one literate, anyway) who doesn’t know and respect the works of Poe. So I’m not marching into any new territory here. I also won’t waste your time going into what makes Poe so great. If you don’t already know, read this story. Below are a few links where you can read it yourself or hear it performed by the incredible Mr. Vincent Price.
Sharing this story with someone could possibly make their Halloween. Since first hearing it, whenever I think of perfect horror I see heavy shadows, Gothic architecture, creaking floorboards, and the frailty of the human heart.
There is no single story of true horror that comes close to Poe’s classic. Nothing holds a candle to it…or even a thin beam of lantern light.
Read it here: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/poe/telltale.html
Watch it here: