The Devil in Poe

“I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence.” So reveals the main character of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Black Cat,” about a man who plunges ever deeper into alcoholism. Later in the story, “the fury of a demon instantly possessed me,” says the villain, who commits heinous acts of violence against both man and beast. 

It is well known that Poe’s literary corpus—which falls squarely within the genre of gothic or dark romanticism—is filled with references to darkness, brutality, and evil. Common motifs are descents into madness, schemes of torture and murder, and being accidentally (or intentionally) buried alive. Yet it is not simply that the American writer had a fascination with the macabre—no, the very devil himself is in Poe.

I do not mean that Poe was possessed by Satan, or even that he flirted with the demonic—though it’s certainly possible he did the latter, given that occultism and séances were rising in popularity in mid-nineteenth century America. Rather, I would argue that the person of Satan lingers in the background—sometimes quite literally—in most of Poe’s stories, and even some of his poetry. Whether or not it was intended, Poe demonstrated an appreciable understanding of Lucifer and his modus operandi in the world, one that, like C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, serves as an instructional guide for avoiding the devil’s wiles.

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Perhaps the most explicit depiction of Old Scratch in Poe is in “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” about a young man who loves to make rhetorical bets. Upon making a wager with a friend that he can jump a turnstile on a covered bridge, a “little lame old gentleman of venerable aspect” appears and encourages the man to make the attempt. The old man, obviously intended to represent Satan, wears “a full suit of black,” with a perfectly clean shirt, while his head is “parted in front like a girl’s.” The devil comes to us respectable and refined, but also mysterious and androgynous.

In “The Devil in the Belfry,” the devil is a figure playing a large fiddle who mysteriously arrives, enters a belltower, brutally attacks the belfry-man, and rings the bell at odd times. The troublemaker seems to represent not only the violent force of change, but also originality and creativity in his upending of the ancient and peaceful. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” a prince hides in an abbey during a plague and holds a masquerade ball. During the event, a masked figure appears eliciting terror and disgust, his very body “untenanted by any tangible form.” The revelers drop one by one “in the blood-bedewed halls…. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Is it the disease, the devil, or both? 

For Poe, Satan’s power manifests itself in both its inevitability and its opportunism. Our attempts to escape evil are foolhardy and naive, both because Satan remains “lord of this world” and because sin remains an inescapable aspect of human experience. And as soon as we begin flirting with the temptations of sin—that unnecessary glance at the object of one’s sensual desires; that “white lie” to avoid punishment or embarrassment; that antipathy toward another vocalized into gossip—the devil dives in. And what follows is death and despair.

We witness this kind of steady, increasingly irresistible degeneracy of a man in “The Black Cat.” The malevolent protagonist explains:

And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of man.

Poe might be a bit off on philosophy making no account of perversity—presumably he read little if any Augustine or Aquinas—but the broader observation holds true. The more that we submit to our evil inclinations, the more they serve as a stranglehold over our daily life. The occasional indulgence in lust or drunkenness develops into addiction. Lying becomes habitual. Anger turns into violence. “The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind.” Left unchecked, we soon fear we may have committed, “a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it—if such a thing were possible—even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”

This is one of Satan’s most effective tools: he lures us into sinful tendencies with the promise that they will bring relief, happiness, or glory. Yet once the deeds are done, we find ourselves unrelieved, unhappy, and spiritually impoverished. Satan then persuades us that our gratification in the chimeras he presented as panaceas now make us unlovable, irredeemable, and hopeless. What a sly criminal! As Poe writes in “The Raven”: “‘Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!’ Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”

Evil, as Catholic theologians have long taught, is actually nothing, the absence of good. “Vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good,” wrote Augustine. Sin is thus inherently illogical, because it represents an antithesis and dissolution of goodness, truth, and beauty. Iniquity, in a word, is insane. “Oh! Most unrelenting! Oh most demoniac of men!” writes Poe in “The Pit and the Pendulum” as he reflects on the terrible ingenuity of human torture.

We see this trend often at work in Poe. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” death approaches “with his black shadow before him,” stalking and enveloping the victim. Yet after the main character murders and carves up his target and buries the body under the floorboards, he soon goes mad.  “It is the beating of his hideous heart!” he screams uncontrollably after the police have arrived at the house to investigate. 

Even nature itself can be exploited by demonic powers. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” an escaped orangutan brutally murders two women in their apartment and stuffs one up a chimney in a clumsy attempt to hide his crime. And in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” there is a “hideous dropping off of the veil,” defined by “an air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom [that] hung over and pervaded all.” What should be beautiful and consoling becomes repulsive:

“The odours of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light.” At the story’s closure, a lake “sullenly and silently” closes in upon the cursed manor.

Such reflections on the ubiquity and potency of Satan’s powers can lead one to despair. Poe concludes “The Raven”:

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!  

The shadows descend, darkness envelops us, and sorrow reigns. In our most miserable moments, there can be a certain perverse poetic appeal to this sort of thing—Poe was obviously romantically obsessed with the macabre. But it also evinces a turning in on the self, as we the dejected obsess over our own afflictions and loss. It is also exactly what happened to Lucifer in his rejection of the divine. Misery loves company, so they say.

This way of life is ultimately self-defeating and suicidal—Poe himself likely died from some combination of alcoholism and substance abuse. It’s also in contradiction with the same forces of nature the devil often warps for his sadistic purposes. Even in the most remote places of this world, the sun rises. So does the Son, whose resurrective power defeated the forces of death and destruction. 

Through Christ, the history of iniquity is no longer a gothic mystery but a story of salvation in which even the most wicked acts slowly become comprehensible. As the Patriarch Joseph asserts, “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). Death and the devil do not get the last word. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away,” (Revelation 21:4). And through the light of Christ—contra the raven—we will find joy forevermore

[Image: The Devil in the Belfry by Fidan Akhundova]


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