“You have never been willing to admit to yourself that I might have feelings.”
Aristede smiles, as he tightens the straps around Quentin Collins’ wrists. So far, the plan is working out just fine. The razor-sharp axe is suspended by a rigged-up pulley system that allows it to slice in a nice, clean arc. The gears are timed to lower the axe slowly, inch by inch, until it reaches the helpless body strapped firmly to the wooden table. And Quentin will be trapped, watching the blade as it descends inexorably in the direction of down. Unfortunately, it’s still uncertain at what point this turns into anything but a crafts project.
Aristede wants the Legendary Hand of Count Petofi, a powerful artifact that Quentin does not have. And there’s nothing that Quentin can do to help Aristede obtain it, especially not when he’s tied down to this horological murder machine.
The big idea appears to be that Aristede is going to go to Angelique, who actually does have the Hand, and tell her that Quentin only has thirty minutes to live. As the pendulum swings closer to Quentin’s midsection, Angelique will gladly give up the Hand in exchange for her friend’s life.
Now, obviously, he could achieve exactly the same results by just locking Quentin up in a closet and telling Angelique anything he wants. That would have saved him all that time and expense, and probably two trips to Home Depot. This just looks like a whole lot of hassle to me.
So we’re back at the classic literature today, another narrative collision notch on our belts. This time, it’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” an 1842 story by Edgar Allen Poe about an unbelievably inefficient torture chamber.
The story was first published in an annual literary journal called The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843, so that tells you a bit about where people’s heads were at back then, Christmas-wise. Gift Books were a staple of holiday gift-giving in the early 19th century, special hardback collections of stories and poems that you buy for your loved ones every year.
The books included whatever the publisher had at hand, so a murky description of an unlikely session with the Spanish Inquisition was just fine for under your Christmas tree, if you had one.
So the interesting thing about mining Edgar Allen Poe for Dark Shadows storyline ideas is that they’re not actually all that productive. You’d think that they’d be the perfect fit — gloomy black comedies about murder and insanity, how could you go wrong? But they don’t actually provide anything more than a single anxious cliffhanger, and then you have to go and do something else.
Poe wrote four short stories that the Dark Shadows writers borrowed from — “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Premature Burial” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”.
“The Cask of Amontillado” was the most helpful for the show, inspiring a couple of important, memorable plot twists. The story is really just an incident — a wine collector with a grudge lures his victim into a deserted cellar with the promise of a special drink, and then binds his hands and seals him behind a brick wall. There isn’t any more to it — the narrator leaves his friend behind the wall, and then says that nobody’s found it for fifty years, ta-dah.
That doesn’t leave a dramatic adaptation very much room to play with, but it’s a nice closing number for a character that you’re tired of. They do it several times during the course of the series, most memorably with Barnabas walling up Reverend Trask towards the end of 1795, and then the ghost of Trask revenge-walling Barnabas a few months later.
Compared to that, “The Tell-Tale Heart” doesn’t really offer any scope; the entire story is essentially one scene about a murderer imagining that he can hear the heartbeat of his victim from under the floorboards. He ends up giving himself up to the police, and that’s the end. Dark Shadows used this a couple of times, most recently with Edith haunting Quentin after he murdered her for about half an episode.
The third Poe story, “The Premature Burial”, isn’t even much of a story, it’s more of a bad mood. This was the inspiration for Elizabeth’s lengthy burial fixation, and that wasn’t any good either. In the story, the narrator starts talking about how weird it would be if you got buried alive, and then eventually he stops talking about it, and that’s how you know that the story is over. You just turn the page and it’s not happening to you anymore.
Now, I don’t want to sound like I hate Edgar Allen Poe or anything; it’s just that I happen to dislike pretty much everything he’s ever written. But it’s not a big deal. I bet he doesn’t like my stuff either. We’re different people, Edgar Allen and I, and we want different things out of life.
Anyway, “The Pit and the Pendulum”. That’s why I brought this up in the first place. The Dark Shadows budget doesn’t allow for a pit, apparently, so they just set up the pendulum and let ‘er swing. And they’re doing something new with the Poe content this time, namely: making it the centerpiece of an action-adventure sequence.
Quentin lying under the swinging pendulum is just a different way to stage a Perils of Pauline cliffhanger scenario, like tying the heroine up next to a barrel of gunpowder with a hissing fuse, or in a secret base with the self-destruct countdown spinning by. Actually, considering where that axe is poised to strike, the best analogy may be Goldfinger setting up his laser beam to give Agent 007 a slow-onset shock to the shammies.
The actual story of “The Pit and the Pendulum” takes place during the closing days of the Spanish Inquisition, in let’s say 1808. The narrator — unnamed as usual in these dire Poe tales — has been found guilty of some crime that we never hear about. There’s a lot of guff about judges and candles burning down, and then he loses consciousness.
I had swooned; but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost. What of it there remained I will not attempt to define, or even to describe; yet all was not lost. In the deepest slumber — no! In delirium — no! In a swoon — no! In death — no! even in the grave all is not lost.
So, you see? Already the guy is getting on my nerves. I know he’s just been sentenced to death, but get ahold of yourself.
Finally, after three pages from Zen and the Art of Losing Consciousness, he opens his eyes — or “uncloses” them, as he puts it — and finds himself in total darkness. He knows he’s been condemned, but he doesn’t know what’s supposed to happen to him now. Terrified that he’s been buried alive, he springs to his feet and jumps around, and satisfies himself that he’s not in a tomb.
Was I left to perish of starvation in this subterranean world of darkness; or what fate, perhaps even more fearful, awaited me? That the result would be death, and a death of more than customary bitterness, I knew too well the character of my judges to doubt. The mode and the hour were all that occupied or distracted me.
So that’s what we’re doing for the rest of the story, trying to figure out the mode and the hour of his death. He gets several chances.
He reaches out a hand and feels a stone wall, and then spends a little time trying to figure out how big the cell is. He tears a part of his robe and leaves it as a marker, and then paces around the dungeon. But he gets fatigued halfway through, so he loses consciousness again.
When he wakes up, he finds a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water next to him, which in my view is the first of many wasteful choices on the part of the Inquisition. They want the guy to die — in fact, as we’ll see, they have taken steps to make sure the guy will die pretty soon — but they sneak in while he’s sleeping, and leave amenities for him. I don’t really get it.
Anyway, he eats and then he finishes his circuit of the cell, hooray.
Up to the period when I fell I had counted fifty-two paces, and upon resuming my walk, I had counted forty-eight more;– when I arrived at the rag. There were in all, then, a hundred paces; and, admitting two paces to the yard, I presumed the dungeon to be fifty yards in circuit. I had met, however, with many angles in the wall, and thus I could form no guess at the shape of the vault; for vault I could not help supposing it to be.
So that was pretty much a waste of time, then. “Many angles in the wall”? How do you suppose they built the world’s first trapezoidal dungeon? But this place is full of architectural eccentricity, just wait and see.
Now that he’s walked the perimeter, he decides to try walking across the room. He goes about ten paces, and then he trips on the ripped hem of his robe and falls flat on his face, go figure. This guy has trouble staying upright from one paragraph to the next.
But in that pose, he makes a shocking discovery — his head is resting on the edge of a hole in the middle of the floor.
I put forward my arm, and shuddered to find that I had fallen at the very brink of a circular pit, whose extent, of course, I had no means of ascertaining at the moment.
Groping about the masonry just below the margin, I succeeded in dislodging a small fragment, and let it fall into the abyss. For many seconds I hearkened to its reverberations as it dashed against the sides of the chasm in its descent; at length there was a sullen plunge into water, succeeded by loud echoes.
At the same moment there came a sound resembling the quick opening, and as rapid closing of a door overhead, while a faint gleam of light flashed suddenly through the gloom, and as suddenly faded away.
So, to review: There is a very deep pit in the center of his jail cell, which is kept in utter darkness. The torturers are poised outside, probably giggling and shushing each other, as they wait for the sound of his body tumbling over the edge of the pit. When they hear the bit of stone dropping into the pit, they open the door for a second to see if he’s fallen in yet.
Now, here’s my question: Why did they give him a whole pitcher of water?
I mean, it’s only by sheer luck that he happened to trip just in the right place, to notice the pit without walking straight into it. This must be the longest that anyone has ever survived in this cell before; he is now the all-time champion of this particular game. So what are the torturers hoping for, exactly? Do they want him to fall into the pit, or not? And if they do, why don’t they just go and push him in?
But no, he just skitters back to the wall and sits there, panting. Eventually he passes out, and when he regains consciousness, guess what.
Upon arousing, I found by my side, as before, a loaf and a pitcher of water.
Seriously! Another one! I do not even want to think about the budget problems this must be causing. This is probably why they closed the Inquisition down; they think pitchers of water grow on trees.
A burning thirst consumed me, and I emptied the vessel at a draught. It must have been drugged; for scarcely had I drunk, before I became irresistibly drowsy. A deep sleep fell upon me — a sleep like that of death. How long it lasted of course, I know not; but when, once again, I unclosed my eyes, the objects around me were visible.
Okay: again, “unclosed”, which is ridiculous. But more importantly: why do you need to drug him? He’s your prisoner. You’re the Spanish Inquisition, for fuck’s sake. Why are you so bad at this?
And then, this:
In its size I had been greatly mistaken. The whole circuit of its walls did not exceed twenty-five yards. For some minutes this fact occasioned me a world of vain trouble; vain indeed! for what could be of less importance, under the terrible circumstances which environed me, than the mere dimensions of my dungeon?
Really? Well, then what have we been talking about for the last eight pages? It’s just — I know I’m getting upset over nothing. I just hate when these unnamed narrators waste my time.
But there’s more surprises to come:
I had been deceived, too, in respect to the shape of the enclosure. In feeling my way I had found many angles, and thus deduced an idea of great irregularity; so potent is the effect of total darkness upon one arousing from lethargy or sleep! The angles were simply those of a few slight depressions, or niches, at odd intervals. The general shape of the prison was square.
I just… I can’t. I absolutely can’t even with this right now.
All right, so here’s the new normal.
I now lay upon my back, and at full length, on a species of low framework of wood. To this I was securely bound by a long strap resembling a surcingle. It passed in many convolutions about my limbs and body, leaving at liberty only my head, and my left arm to such extent that I could, by dint, of much exertion, supply myself with food from an earthen dish which lay by my side on the floor.
So obviously, again with the catering. This guy gets more meals than I do. Why do they keep feeding him?
I saw, to my horror, that the pitcher had been removed. I say to my horror; for I was consumed with intolerable thirst. This thirst it appeared to be the design of my persecutors to stimulate: for the food in the dish was meat pungently seasoned.
That one, I can’t even parse. I have no idea what he’s talking about. All I can say is that this is the craziest Yelp review I’ve ever seen.
So then there’s more about the walls and the ceiling, which have been painted with strange menacing figures and skeletons and whatnot. Again, the attention to detail is astonishing. They even manage to theme the axe-swinging experience.
It was the painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that, in lieu of a scythe, he held what, at a casual glance, I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum such as we see on antique clocks. While I gazed directly upward at it, I fancied that I saw it in motion. In an instant afterward the fancy was confirmed. Its sweep was brief, and of course slow. I watched it for some minutes, somewhat in fear, but more in wonder.
Then they let some rats in, so the guy’s distracted trying to keep the rats away from the meat that he doesn’t want to eat anyway. I don’t really understand the rats part. They go away eventually.
It might have been half an hour, perhaps even an hour, before I again cast my eyes upward. What I then saw confounded and amazed me. The sweep of the pendulum had increased in extent by nearly a yard. As a natural consequence, its velocity was also much greater. But what mainly disturbed me was the idea that it had perceptibly descended.
I now observed — with what horror it is needless to say — that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel, about a foot in length from horn to horn; the horns upward, and the under edge evidently as keen as that of a razor. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass, and the whole hissed as it swung through the air.
So again, I have to ask the Spanish Inquisition: How do you have this much free time? They have invented an interactive murder experience that I can’t believe they’re wasting on this one guy, especially since he could have stumbled into the pit, like, three pitchers of water ago. What would they have done with the rest of this equipment?
And then he gets saved by the rats.
I know, I don’t get it either. He takes the spicy meat drippings left in the bowl and uses his hand to spread the delicious oily spew on the straps that are holding him down. And then the rats spring to attention.
Forth from the well they hurried in fresh troops. They clung to the wood — they overran it, and leaped in hundreds upon my person. The measured movement of the pendulum disturbed them not at all. Avoiding its strokes they busied themselves with the anointed bandage. They pressed — they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps.
That works, obviously, because he’s playing MYST, and every problem can be solved by careful observation and the use of whatever objects you have in your inventory. So he brushes the heaps of rats away, and they flee obediently, just in time for him to wriggle out of the straps and escape from the pendulum.
And then I can’t even get into what happens next. The hellish pendulum axe is drawn back up into the ceiling, and then the walls begin to glow.
Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions, where none had been visible before, and gleamed wth the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal.
They make the walls hot. Obviously. The walls are made of burning hot iron, and they move.
The Inquisitorial vengeance had been hurried by my two-fold escape, and there was to be no more dallying with the King of Terrors. The room had been square. I saw that two of its iron angles were now acute — two, consequently, obtuse. The fearful difference quickly increased with a low rumbling or moaning sound. In an instant the apartment had shifted its form into that of a lozenge.
So — wait, what? They had the pit, and the rats, and the meat, and the pendulum, and the painted figures, and the pitchers of water, and now the stone walls have turned into moving iron plates? Who signed off on this project?
I swear to god, if Edgar Allen Poe had written a prequel that was just 200 pages of minutes from the Inquisition budget committee meetings, it would be my favorite book of all time. Just think about the staff expenditures in constructing and maintaining this Disneyland of death, it’s unreal. Architects and bricklayers and painters and mechanics and craft services and rat wranglers. And then it turns out they had the wrong guy anyway, and they let him go. It’s heartbreaking. I don’t know if they ever caught the real guy. I bet they didn’t even try.
Monday: Death and Taxes.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Barnabas complains that he summoned Angelique, and she didn’t respond. She says, “I saw no reason to return to Collinwood to continue an argument.” She means the Old House.
Barnabas tells Julianka, “I’ve done what I said I would do. The next step is up to you. You must get that — cure that, uh — that curse immediately.”
When Julianka tries to run off into the woods with the Hand, Barnabas tells her, “You will stay here until you finish the curse.” A moment later, he assures her, “I had no intentions of dealing you with this way.”
In act three, Angelique sees Aristede through the window and leaves the house. The camera fades to a shot of the Hand at the Old House, and you can hear Julianka whisper to Barnabas: “Then I say ‘yes, of course’.” The camera pans up to find them together. “I will keep this hand until you need it,” Barnabas says. “Yes,” Julianka replies, “of course.”
Monday: Death and Taxes.
— Danny Horn