“THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO” by Edgar Allan Poe #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: It’s #CreepypastaThursday! This week I share a classic horror tale from the master, Edgar Allan Poe, called “The Cask of Amontillado”!
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ABOUT THE CASK OF MONTILLADO…
The narrator, Montresor, opens the story by stating that he has been irreparably insulted by his acquaintance, Fortunato, and that he seeks revenge. He wants to exact this revenge, however, in a measured way, without placing himself at risk. He decides to use Fortunato’s fondness for wine against him. During the carnival season, Montresor, wearing a mask of black silk, approaches Fortunato. He tells Fortunato that he has acquired something that could pass for Amontillado, a light Spanish sherry. Fortunato (Italian for “fortunate”) wears the multicolored costume of the jester, including a cone cap with bells. Montresor tells Fortunato that if he is too busy, he will ask a man named Luchesi to taste it. Fortunato apparently considers Luchesi a competitor and claims that this man could not tell Amontillado from other types of sherry. Fortunato is anxious to taste the wine and to determine for Montresor whether or not it is truly Amontillado. Fortunato insists that they go to Montresor’s vaults.
Montresor has strategically planned for this meeting by sending his servants away to the carnival. The two men descend into the damp vaults, which are covered with nitre, or saltpeter, a whitish mineral. Apparently aggravated by the nitre, Fortunato begins to cough. The narrator keeps offering to bring Fortunato back home, but Fortunato refuses. Instead, he accepts wine as the antidote to his cough. The men continue to explore the deep vaults, which are full of the dead bodies of the Montresor family. In response to the crypts, Fortunato claims to have forgotten Montresor’s family coat of arms and motto. Montresor responds that his family shield portrays “a huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.” The motto, in Latin, is “nemo me impune lacessit,” that is, “no one attacks me with impunity.”
Later in their journey, Fortunato makes a hand movement that is a secret sign of the Masons, an exclusive fraternal organization. Montresor does not recognize this hand signal, though he claims that he is a Mason. When Fortunato asks for proof, Montresor shows him his trowel, the implication being that Montresor is an actual stonemason. Fortunato says that he must be jesting, and the two men continue onward. The men walk into a crypt, where human bones decorate three of the four walls. The bones from the fourth wall have been thrown down on the ground. On the exposed wall is a small recess, where Montresor tells Fortunato that the Amontillado is being stored. Fortunato, now heavily intoxicated, goes to the back of the recess. Montresor then suddenly chains the slow-footed Fortunato to a stone.
Taunting Fortunato with an offer to leave, Montresor begins to wall up the entrance to this small crypt, thereby trapping Fortunato inside. Fortunato screams confusedly as Montresor builds the first layer of the wall. The alcohol soon wears off and Fortunato moans, terrified and helpless. As the layers continue to rise, though, Fortunato falls silent. Just as Montresor is about to finish, Fortunato laughs as if Montresor is playing a joke on him, but Montresor is not joking. At last, after a final plea, “For the love of God, Montresor!” Fortunato stops answering Montresor, who then twice calls out his enemy’s name. After no response, Montresor claims that his heart feels sick because of the dampness of the catacombs. He fits the last stone into place and plasters the wall closed, his actions accompanied only by the jingling of Fortunato’s bells. He finally repositions the bones on the fourth wall. For fifty years, he writes, no one has disturbed them. He concludes with a Latin phrase meaning “May he rest in peace.”
The terror of “The Cask of Amontillado,” as in many of Poe’s tales, resides in the lack of evidence that accompanies Montresor’s claims to Fortunato’s “thousand injuries” and “insult.” The story features revenge and secret murder as a way to avoid using legal channels for retribution. Law is nowhere on Montresor’s—or Poe’s—radar screen, and the enduring horror of the story is the fact of punishment without proof. Montresor uses his subjective experience of Fortunato’s insult to name himself judge, jury, and executioner in this tale, which also makes him an unreliable narrator. Montresor confesses this story fifty years after its occurrence; such a significant passage of time between the events and the narration of the events makes the narrative all the more unreliable. Montresor’s unreliability overrides the rational consideration of evidence, such as particular occurrences of insult, that would necessarily precede any guilty sentence in a non-Poe world. “The Cask of Amontillado” takes subjective interpretation—the fact that different people interpret the same things differently—to its horrific endpoint.
Poe’s use of color imagery is central to his questioning of Montresor’s motives. His face covered in a black silk mask, Montresor represents not blind justice but rather its Gothic opposite: biased revenge. In contrast, Fortunato dons the motley-colored costume of the court fool, who gets literally and tragically fooled by Montresor’s masked motives. The color schemes here represent the irony of Fortunato’s death sentence. Fortunato, Italian for “the fortunate one,” faces the realization that even the carnival season can be murderously serious. Montresor chooses the setting of the carnival for its abandonment of social order. While the carnival usually indicates joyful social interaction, Montresor distorts its merry abandon, turning the carnival on its head. The repeated allusions to the bones of Montresor’s family that line the vaults foreshadow the story’s descent into the underworld. The two men’s underground travels are a metaphor for their trip to hell. Because the carnival, in the land of the living, does not occur as Montresor wants it to, he takes the carnival below ground, to the realm of the dead and the satanic.
To build suspense in the story, Poe often employs foreshadowing. For example, when Fortunato says, “I shall not die of a cough,” Montresor replies, “True,” because he knows that Fortunato will in fact die from dehydration and starvation in the crypt. Montresor’s description of his family’s coat of arms also foreshadows future events. The shield features a human foot crushing a tenacious serpent. In this image, the foot represents Montresor and the serpent represents Fortunato. Although Fortunato has hurt Montresor with biting insults, Montresor will ultimately crush him. The conversation about Masons also foreshadows Fortunato’s demise. Fortunato challenges Montresor’s claim that he is a member of the Masonic order, and Montresor replies insidiously with a visual pun. When he declares that he is a “mason” by showing his trowel, he means that he is a literal stonemason—that is, that he constructs things out of stones and mortar, namely Fortunato’s grave.
The final moments of conversation between Montresor and Fortunato heighten the horror and suggest that Fortunato ultimately—and ironically—achieves some type of upper hand over Montresor. Fortunato’s plea, “For the love of God, Montresor!” has provoked much critical controversy. Some critics suggest that Montresor has at last brought Fortunato to the pit of desperation and despair, indicated by his invocation of a God that has long left him behind. Other critics, however, argue that Fortunato ultimately mocks the “love of God,” thereby employing the same irony that Montresor has effectively used to lure him to the crypts. These are Fortunato’s final words, and the strange desperation that Montresor demonstrates in response suggests that he needs Fortunato more than he wants to admit. Only when he twice screams “Fortunato!” loudly, with no response, does Montresor claim to have a sick heart. The reasons for Fortunato’s silence are unclear, but perhaps his willing refusal to answer Montresor is a type of strange victory in otherwise dire circumstances.
THE CASK OF MONTILLADO, by Edgar Allan Poe…
Fortunato had hurt me a thousand times and I had suffered quietly. But then I learned that he had laughed at my proud name, Montresor, the name of an old and honored family. I promised myself that I would make him pay for this — that I would have revenge. You must not suppose, however, that I spoke of this to anyone. I would make him pay, yes; but I would act only with the greatest care. I must not suffer as a result of taking my revenge. A wrong is not made right in that manner. And also the wrong would not be made right unless Fortunato knew that he was paying and knew who was forcing him to pay.
I gave Fortunato no cause to doubt me. I continued to smile in his face, and he did not understand that I was now smiling at the thought of what I planned for him, at the thought of my revenge.
Fortunato was a strong man, a man to be feared. But he had one great weakness: he liked to drink good wine, and indeed he drank much of it. So he knew a lot about fine wines, and proudly believed that he was a trained judge of them. I, too, knew old wines well, and I bought the best I could find. And wine, I thought, wine would give me my revenge!
It was almost dark, one evening in the spring, when I met Fortunato in the street, alone. He spoke to me more warmly than was usual, for already he had drunk more wine than was good for him. I acted pleased to see him, and I shook his hand, as if he had been my closest friend.
“Fortunato! How are you?”
“Montresor! Good evening, my friend.”
“My dear Fortunato! I am indeed glad that I have met you. I was just thinking of you. For I have been tasting my new wine. I have bought a full cask of a fine wine which they tell me is Amontillado. But….”
“Amontillado! Quite impossible.”
“I know. It does not seem possible. As I could not find you I was just going to talk to Luchresi. If anyone understands wines it is Luchresi. He will tell me….”
“Luchresi? He does not know one wine from another!”
“But they say he knows as much about wines as you know.”
“Ho! — Come. Let us go.”
“To your vaults. To taste the wine.”
“No, my friend, no. I can see that you are not well. And the vaults are cold and wet.”
“I do not care. Let us go. I’m well enough. The cold is nothing. Amontillado! Someone is playing games with you. And Luchresi! Ha! Luchresi knows nothing about wines, nothing at all.”
As he spoke, Fortunato took my arm, and I allowed him to hurry me to my great stone palace, where my family, the Montresors, had lived for centuries. There was no one at home. I had told the servants that they must not leave the palace, as I would not return until the following morning and they must care for the place. This, I knew, was enough to make it certain that they would all leave as soon as my back was turned.
I took down from their places on the wall two brightly burning lights. I gave one of these to Fortunato and led him to a wide doorway. There we could see the stone steps going down into the darkness.
Asking him to be careful as he followed, I went down before him, down under the ground, deep under the old walls of my palace. We came finally to the bottom of the steps and stood there a moment together. The earth which formed the floor was cold and hard. We were entering the last resting place of the dead of the Montresor family. Here too we kept our finest wines, here in the cool, dark, still air under the ground.
Fortunato’s step was not sure, because of the wine he had been drinking. He looked uncertainly around him, trying to see through the thick darkness which pushed in around us. Here our brightly burning lights seemed weak indeed. But our eyes soon became used to the darkness. We could see the bones of the dead lying in large piles along the walls. The stones of the walls were wet and cold.
From the long rows of bottles which were lying on the floor, among the bones, I chose one which contained a very good wine. Since I did not have anything to open the bottle with, I struck the stone wall with it and broke off the small end. I offered the bottle to Fortunato.
“Here, Fortunato. Drink some of this fine Medoc. It will help to keep us warm. Drink!”
“Thank you, my friend. I drink to the dead who lie sleeping around us.”
“And I, Fortunato — I drink to your long life.”
“Ahh! A very fine wine, indeed! But the Amontillado?”
“It is farther on. Come.”
We walked on for some time. We were now under the river’s bed, and water fell in drops upon us from above. Deeper into the ground we went, past still more bones.
“Your vaults are many, and large. There seems to be no end to them.”
“We are a great family, and an old one. It is not far now. But I can see you are trembling with the cold. Come! Let us go back before it is too late.”
“It is nothing. Let us go on. But first, another drink of your Medoc!”
I took up from among the bones another bottle. It was another wine of a fine quality, a De Grâve. Again I broke off the neck of the bottle. Fortunato took it and drank it all without stopping for a breath. He laughed, and threw the empty bottle over his shoulder.
We went on, deeper and deeper into the earth. Finally we arrived at a vault in which the air was so old and heavy that our lights almost died. Against three of the walls there were piles of bones higher than our heads. From the fourth wall someone had pulled down all the bones, and they were spread all around us on the ground. In the middle of the wall was an opening into another vault, if I can call it that — a little room about three feet wide, six or seven feet high, and perhaps four feet deep. It was hardly more than a hole in the wall.
“Go on,” I said. “Go in; the Amontillado is in there.”
Fortunato continued to go forward, uncertainly. I followed him immediately. Soon, of course, he reached the back wall. He stood there a moment, facing the wall, surprised and wondering. In that wall were two heavy iron rings. A short chain was hanging from one of these and a lock from the other. Before Fortunato could guess what was happening, I closed the lock and chained him tightly to the wall. I stepped back.
“Fortunato,” I said. “Put your hand against the wall. You must feel how the water runs over it. Once more I ask you, please, will you not go back? No? If not, then I must leave you. But first I must do everything I can for you.”
“But…But the Amontillado?”
“Ah, yes, yes indeed; the Amontillado.”
As I spoke these words I began to search among the bones.
Throwing them to one side I found the stones which earlier I had taken down from the wall. Quickly I began to build the wall again, covering the hole where Fortunato stood trembling.
“Montresor! What are you doing!?”
I continued working. I could hear him pulling at the chain, shak- ing it wildly. Only a few stones remained to put in their place.
“Montresor! Ha-ha. This is a very good joke, indeed. Many times will we laugh about it — ha-ha — as we drink our wine together — ha-ha.”
“Of course. As we drink the Amontillado.”
“But is it not late? Should we not be going back? They will be expecting us. Let us go.”
“Yes. Let us go.”
As I said this I lifted the last stone from the ground.
“Montresor! For the love of God!!”
“Yes. For the love of God!”
I heard no answer. “Fortunato!” I cried. “Fortunato.”
I heard only a soft, low sound, a half-cry of fear. My heart grew sick; it must have been the cold. I hurried to force the last stone into its position. And I put the old bones again in a pile against the wall. For half a century now no human hand has touched them. May he rest in peace!