“At first, I made an effort to shake off this nightmare of the soul. I walked vigorously— faster—still faster—at length I ran. I felt a maddening desire to shriek aloud. Every succeeding wave of thought overwhelmed me with new terror, for, alas! I well, too well understood that to think, in my situation, was to be lost.”
Though ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is likely my favorite Poe story—partly because I have a still vivid memory of closing my eyes with the rest of the students in an elementary school classroom at the behest of our teacher and listening for the first time with excitement and horror to the voice of Vincent Price intoning “‘Fortunado!’ No answer still”—I find myself drawn in near-equivalent measure to the lesser-known tale ‘The Imp of the Perverse.’ It is probably the least-read of his three main imp of the perverse stories (the other two being ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’), but it more directly interrogates the concept at its core because of its formal gambit.
Unlike those other two tales, which are fairly recognizable as the monologues of “mad” narrators from the outset, ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ rather perversely begins as a sensible scientific essay. We realize too late—once the story is half over—that we’re waist-deep in the ravings of another of Poe’s “mad” monologists. What is most notable here, though it is certainly true elsewhere in his stories, is that the supposed madman is more sane than we care to admit. The jargon-filled treatise of the story’s first half seduces us with its rational dissection of a pre-Freudian psychological concept. We may not have committed this narrator’s crimes, but we have no doubt felt the imp of the perverse gnawing at our consciousness. We too are in chains and know but one way to be fetterless. So why will we say that he is mad?
First published in the July 1845 issue of Graham’s Magazine, collected in just about any anthology of Poe’s stories, and available online at PoeStories.com as well as in many audio versions, including one by Vincent Price on YouTube