Four Creepy Classics for Halloween.


The Premature Burial by Edgar Allan Poe.
"To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes
which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality."

The first creepy classic for today: The Premature Burial by Poe, first published in 1844 in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. The theme, as the title suggests, is being buried alive, something Poe has written about several times before (for example Berenice, 1835; The Fall of the House of Usher, 1839; The Black Cat, 1843). The story begins,
There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction. These the mere romanticist must eschew, if he do not wish to offend or to disgust. They are with propriety handled only when the severity and majesty of Truth sanctify and sustain them. We thrill, for example, with the most intense of "pleasurable pain" over the accounts of the Passage of the Beresina, of the Earthquake at Lisbon, of the Plague at London, of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, or of the stifling of the hundred and twenty-three prisoners in the Black Hole at Calcutta. But in these accounts it is the fact - it is the reality - it is the history which excites. As inventions, we should regard them with simple abhorrence.
The narrator has become obsessed with death and with the horrifying possibility of a premature burial. He questions the difference between life and death, writing,
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?
Illustration for The Premature Burial by Harry Clarke (1919).
He tells us about death-like trances (catalepsy), then goes on to recount several incidents whereby someone has been buried alive, for example:
The wife of one of the most respectable citizens-a lawyer of eminence and a member of Congress - was seized with a sudden and unaccountable illness, which completely baffled the skill of her physicians. After much suffering she died, or was supposed to die. No one suspected, indeed, or had reason to suspect, that she was not actually dead. She presented all the ordinary appearances of death. The face assumed the usual pinched and sunken outline. The lips were of the usual marble pallor. The eyes were lustreless. There was no warmth. Pulsation had ceased. For three days the body was preserved unburied, during which it had acquired a stony rigidity. The funeral, in short, was hastened, on account of the rapid advance of what was supposed to be decomposition.
The lady was deposited in her family vault, which, for three subsequent years, was undisturbed. At the expiration of this term it was opened for the reception of a sarcophagus; - but, alas! how fearful a shock awaited the husband, who, personally, threw open the door! As its portals swung outwardly back, some white-apparelled object fell rattling within his arms. It was the skeleton of his wife in her yet unmoulded shroud.
A careful investigation rendered it evident that she had revived within two days after her entombment; that her struggles within the coffin had caused it to fall from a ledge, or shelf to the floor, where it was so broken as to permit her escape. A lamp which had been accidentally left, full of oil, within the tomb, was found empty; it might have been exhausted, however, by evaporation. On the uttermost of the steps which led down into the dread chamber was a large fragment of the coffin, with which, it seemed, that she had endeavored to arrest attention by striking the iron door. While thus occupied, she probably swooned, or possibly died, through sheer terror; and, in failing, her shroud became entangled in some iron -- work which projected interiorly. Thus she remained, and thus she rotted, erect.
Edgar Allan Poe.
The narrator, understandably, develops an intense phobia of death and being buried alive: "I was lost in reveries of death, and the idea of premature burial held continual possession of my brain". But one day he is summoned by Death:
Methought I was immersed in a cataleptic trance of more than usual duration and profundity. Suddenly there came an icy hand upon my forehead, and an impatient, gibbering voice whispered the word "Arise!" within my ear.
He goes on,
I endeavored to shriek, and my lips and my parched tongue moved convulsively together in the attempt - but no voice issued from the cavernous lungs, which oppressed as if by the weight of some incumbent mountain, gasped and palpitated, with the heart, at every elaborate and struggling inspiration. 
Will our narrator be buried alive? You can read the whole online here.

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot.
"For I foresee when I shall die, and everything that will happen in my last moments"


George Eliot.
The Lifted Veil by George Eliot was first published in 1859 in Blackwood's Magazine in 1859. She called it here "jeu de melancholie", and, from the author who wrote Middlemarch (1871-72) it is quite a surprise. This not the realism we associate with Eliot, this is a pure horror story in the realms of Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818). She writes on death, life, fate, and the idea of extrasensory perception. The narrator, Latimer, can in short see the future. The story begins,
The time of my end approaches.  I have lately been subject to attacks of angina pectoris; and in the ordinary course of things, my physician tells me, I may fairly hope that my life will not be protracted many months.  Unless, then, I am cursed with an exceptional physical constitution, as I am cursed with an exceptional mental character, I shall not much longer groan under the wearisome burthen of this earthly existence.  If it were to be otherwise—if I were to live on to the age most men desire and provide for—I should for once have known whether the miseries of delusive expectation can outweigh the miseries of true provision.  For I foresee when I shall die, and everything that will happen in my last moments.
Just a month from this day, on September 20, 1850, I shall be sitting in this chair, in this study, at ten o’clock at night, longing to die, weary of incessant insight and foresight, without delusions and without hope.  Just as I am watching a tongue of blue flame rising in the fire, and my lamp is burning low, the horrible contraction will begin at my chest.  I shall only have time to reach the bell, and pull it violently, before the sense of suffocation will come.  No one will answer my bell.  I know why.  My two servants are lovers, and will have quarrelled.  My housekeeper will have rushed out of the house in a fury, two hours before, hoping that Perry will believe she has gone to drown herself.  Perry is alarmed at last, and is gone out after her.  The little scullery-maid is asleep on a bench: she never answers the bell; it does not wake her.  The sense of suffocation increases: my lamp goes out with a horrible stench: I make a great effort, and snatch at the bell again.  I long for life, and there is no help.  I thirsted for the unknown: the thirst is gone.  O God, let me stay with the known, and be weary of it: I am content.  Agony of pain and suffocation—and all the while the earth, the fields, the pebbly brook at the bottom of the rookery, the fresh scent after the rain, the light of the morning through my chamber-window, the warmth of the hearth after the frosty air—will darkness close over them for ever?
He becomes obsessed with Bertha Grant, his brother's cold, cruel, and flirtatious fiancée (perhaps her character was a precursor for Rosamund Vincy of Middlemarch). He knows she will kill him - this is revealed very quickly:
The gardens, the summer sky, the consciousness of Bertha’s arm being within mine, all vanished, and I seemed to be suddenly in darkness, out of which there gradually broke a dim firelight, and I felt myself sitting in my father’s leather chair in the library at home.  I knew the fireplace—the dogs for the wood-fire—the black marble chimney-piece with the white marble medallion of the dying Cleopatra in the centre.  Intense and hopeless misery was pressing on my soul; the light became stronger, for Bertha was entering with a candle in her hand—Bertha, my wife—with cruel eyes, with green jewels and green leaves on her white ball-dress; every hateful thought within her present to me . . . “Madman, idiot! why don’t you kill yourself, then?”  It was a moment of hell.  I saw into her pitiless soul—saw its barren worldliness, its scorching hate—and felt it clothe me round like an air I was obliged to breathe.  She came with her candle and stood over me with a bitter smile of contempt; I saw the great emerald brooch on her bosom, a studded serpent with diamond eyes.  I shuddered—I despised this woman with the barren soul and mean thoughts; but I felt helpless before her, as if she clutched my bleeding heart, and would clutch it till the last drop of life-blood ebbed away.  She was my wife, and we hated each other.  Gradually the hearth, the dim library, the candle-light disappeared—seemed to melt away into a background of light, the green serpent with the diamond eyes remaining a dark image on the retina.  
But this realisation and fear manifests in a shocking and horrific way at the end that cannot be predicted. So awful it is that John Blackwood, her publisher, wrote and recommended she remove the scene entirely, arguing that it was 'in poor taste', adding "I think you must have been worrying and disturbing yourself about something when you wrote it," though conceding later after publication "Lovers of the painful are thrilled and delighted". It is a disturbing tale, and, though strange, it is almost recognisably Eliot's with her sensitivity and concerns with not only human frailty but human relationships, sympathy, and lack of. You can read the story in full online here.

The Signal Man by Charles Dickens.
"Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood."

Clayton Tunnel.
The Signal Man by Charles Dickens first appeared in  'All the Year Round' in 1866, five years after The Clayton Tunnel rail crash of 1861 in which 23 passengers were killed and 173 injured after two trains collided in the tunnel. It is said that one of the signal men, Signalman Killick, had worked a full 24 hour shift and that possibly was one of the causes of this accident.

The incident quite possibly inspired The Signal Man. In this the narrator of the tale is told by a signal man of supernatural goings on. The signal man tells him,
"One moonlight night," said the man, "I was sitting here, when I heard a voice cry, ‘Halloa! Below there!’ I started up, looked from that door, and saw this Some one else standing by the red light near the tunnel, waving as I just now showed you. The voice seemed hoarse with shouting, and it cried, ‘Look out! Look out!’ And then attain, ‘Halloa! Below there! Look out!’ I caught up my lamp, turned it on red, and ran towards the figure, calling, ‘What’s wrong? What has happened? Where?’ It stood just outside the blackness of the tunnel. I advanced so close upon it that I wondered at its keeping the sleeve across its eyes. I ran right up at it, and had my hand stretched out to pull the sleeve away, when it was gone."
Charles Dickens.
After that and every other vision tragedy strikes: after one -
"Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood."
And another,
"That very day, as a train came out of the tunnel, I noticed, at a carriage window on my side, what looked like a confusion of hands and heads, and something waved. I saw it just in time to signal the driver, Stop! He shut off, and put his brake on, but the train drifted past here a hundred and fifty yards or more. I ran after it, and, as I went along, heard terrible screams and cries. A beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments, and was brought in here, and laid down on this floor between us."
The narrator, though unnerved, is sceptical. The next day he returns to visit his new friend the signal man and he sees a group of men apparently investigating an incident on the line -
With an irresistible sense that something was wrong — with a flashing self-reproachful fear that fatal mischief had come of my leaving the man there, and causing no one to be sent to overlook or correct what he did — I descended the notched path with all the speed I could make.
I'll leave it to the reader to find out what happens next... It can be read full online here.

Dead Men Tell No Tales by Émile Zola.
"I died on a Satuday morning at six a.m., after an illness lasting three days."

Dead Men Tell No Tales, or The Death of Olivier Becaille (La Mort d'Olivier Bécaille) was first published in Vestnik Evropy in 1879. It is, I do believe, the most disturbing of these tales. The theme is a return to Edgar Allan Poe's story The Premature Burial: the narrator, Olivier, is seized with catalepsy - he is more than just paralysed: he appears very much to be dead:
I heard everything, but the sounds seemed to come from a great distance. My left eye still detected a faint glimmer, a whitish light in which all objects melted, but my right eye was quite bereft of sight. It was the coma of my whole being, as if a thunderbolt had struck me. My will was annihilated; not a fiber of flesh obeyed my bidding. And yet amid the impotency of my inert limbs my thoughts subsisted, sluggish and lazy, still perfectly clear.
His wife discovers him, and through the panic he ponders life and death -
Was it really death? I had pictured to myself a darker night, a deeper silence. As a little child I had already felt afraid to die. Being weak and compassionately petted by everyone, I had concluded that I had not long to live, that I should soon be buried, and the thought of the cold earth filled me with a dread I could not master — a dread which haunted me day and night. As I grew older the same terror pursued me. Sometimes, after long hours spent in reasoning with myself, I thought that I had conquered my fear. I reflected, "After all, what does it matter? One dies and all is over. It is the common fate; nothing could be better or easier." 
He wishes he could calm his wife and he looks forward to recovering from this so they can comfort each other, their love quite possibly strengthened by such a terrifying incident. Yet he remains calm - the doctor will arrive and examine him, and they will all realise he is still alive. Then the doctor arrives - 
The lamp had been lit when a knock was heard at the door.
“It must be the doctor at last,” said the old woman.
It was the doctor; he did not apologize for coming so late, for he had no doubt ascended many flights of stairs during the day. The room being but imperfectly lighted by the lamp, he inquired: “Is the body here?”
“Yes, it is,” answered Simoneau.
Marguerite had risen, trembling violently. Mme Gabin dismissed Dede, saying it was useless that a child should be present, and then she tried to lead my wife to the window, to spare her the sight of what was about to take place.
The doctor quickly approached the bed. I guessed that he was bored, tired and impatient. Had he touched my wrist? Had he placed his hand on my heart? I could not tell, but I fancied that he had only carelessly bent over me.
“Shall I bring the lamp so that you may see better?” asked Simoneau obligingly.
“No it is not necessary,” quietly answered the doctor.
Not necessary! That man held my life in his hands, and he did not think it worth while to proceed to a careful examination! I was not dead! I wanted to cry out that I was not dead!
“At what o’clock did he die?” asked the doctor.
“At six this morning,” volunteered Simoneau.
A feeling of frenzy and rebellion rose within me, bound as I was in seemingly iron chains. Oh, for the power of uttering one word, of moving a single limb!
“This close weather is unhealthy,” resumed the doctor; “nothing is more trying than these early spring days.”
And then he moved away. It was like my life departing. Screams, sobs and insults were choking me, struggling in my convulsed throat, in which even my breath was arrested. The wretch! Turned into a mere machine by professional habits, he only came to a deathbed to accomplish a perfunctory formality; he knew nothing; his science was a lie, since he could not at a glance distinguish life from death — and now he was going — going!
“Good night, sir,” said Simoneau.
There came a moment’s silence; the doctor was probably bowing to Marguerite, who had turned while Mme Gabin was fastening the window. He left the room, and I heard his footsteps descending the stairs.
Preparations for his burial begins - but is he really dead? Is this narrated from the grave? What causes the death of Olivier Becaille? This is one of Zola's most dramatic tales, without a doubt the most horrifying I've read. And if you'd like to read it it can be read online here.


Happy Halloween, everyone!


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