And the Beat Goes On
Edgar Allan Poe was fascinated with premature burials, with characters who felt some need to bury people alive. For instance, there’s the story entitled “The Cask of Amontillado” in which, for some past slight, Montresor invites Fortunato to descend to his cellar to sample a special wine. There Montresor chains his guest to the back wall of an alcove and slowly seals up the opening with masonry. “I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. In pace requiescat. ” Then there’s the character Roderick in “The Fall of the House of Usher” who prematurely entombs his twin sister in a basement vault, only to hear the vault’s iron door clang open; to hear her footsteps on the stairs; to behold her standing enshrouded upon the threshold of his study!
And then there’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Of all the movies and plays I’ve seen in my lifetime, my high school’s dramatization of that Poe tale remains memorable to me - particularly its special effects. You know the story. The main character couldn’t stand the presence of an old man who shared his house. “One of his eyes,” he complains, “resembled that of a vulture - a pale blue eye. Whenever it fell on me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees I made up my mind to rid myself of the eye forever.” So he did away with the old fellow, took up the floorboards, deposited the corpse and “replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye . . . could have detected anything wrong.” No sooner had he finished the task than three policemen knocked at his door responding to a neighbor’s report of a scream during the night. “I bade them search - search well,” he says, for he was quite confident no trace of the deed would be found. Except that, while he conversed with the police, a low, dull, quick sound began to pulsate throughout the room.
This is where our special effects crew riveted the audience’s attention. From a low, barely perceptible thump, thump, thump, thump to an ever-louder THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP the buried heart crescendoed throughout the theatre - while the main character became increasingly mad! “O God! what could I do? I foamed - I raved - I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise continually increased. I felt that I must scream!”
Beyond mere entertainment, Poe had a far deeper intent in telling such stories. Some think he was anticipating modern materialism’s effort over the past two hundred years to bury both God and the human heart - to evaluate everything in terms of “profitability” and to repress such things as conscience and sentiment as romantic nonsense - to bury them well beneath the floor boards of our psyche so as not to impede “progress”. But note how in most of these stories the beat goes on! The buried person revives, even as God and the human heart will revive, no matter how much a cynical society would stifle their influence.
In such stories Poe stands well within our Gospel tradition, which pivots upon another premature burial - the attempt of a totalitarian Empire to entomb Christ, only to be foiled by his resurrection on the third day. And what was Christ’s resurrection but overture to our own resurrection every time Christ summons us (as he summoned Lazarus from his tomb) to emerge from all that would suffocate our bigness of mind and heart. Could it be that, consciously or unconsciously, all those Poe stories were ultimately influenced by passages from our biblical heritage like: “You were buried with him in baptism, . . . you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God who raised Christ from the dead.”