The Cask of Amontillado Introduction
In A Nutshell
Edgar Allan Poe, an American short-story writer, essayist, and poet, published “The Cask of Amontillado” in 1846. It was his last, and some say greatest, short story. It’s a tale of revenge, murder, torture, and addiction set in a vast underground Italian catacomb (underground cemetery). It’s also a journey into the dark and mysterious recesses of the human psyche.
Poe was born on January 19, 1809 to actors David and Eliza Poe. He and his brother and sister were orphaned shortly before Poe’s second birthday, and were each taken in by different families. Maybe this helps explain why he was attracted to the dark themes.
His biography is fascinating, and the subject of much debate, gossip, and speculation. For example, he’s rumored to have died from the bite of a rabid dog, but he probably passed away as a result of drug- and alcohol-related complications. He was a heavy drinker, and also addicted to the drug laudanum. This information helps us decipher a difficult symbol in the story, which you can read about in “Symbols, Imagery, Allegory.”
If you are interested in getting to know Poe better, we’ve provided you with lots of handy links in “Did You Know?” The most important thing you need to know about Poe is that he was a truly brilliant, visionary, and influential writer. He basically invented the genre of mystery or detective fiction as well as science fiction, and he had very precise ideas about what stories are supposed to do and be, as is reflected in his essays.
Why Should I Care?
Why is horror so popular? Our culture is awash with it. Although some may avoid scary movies and books, most of us crave that occasional tingle running down our spines.
But that doesn’t answer our question: Why? Why do we want to be scared, and why do all these people want to scare us? There are several answers, not limited to what we talk about here.
Horror writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, author of the dismal tale at hand, will tell you that scary stories are a great way to express social and personal anxieties over sex, drugs, parents, children, bullies, and war, to name a few. We want to talk about them because we want to understand them, but we can’t always find the right time or place.
For the person reading or watching horror, it’s also a kind of freedom. The horror story is an argument, usually a dark and mysterious one, about human nature. By reading or watching, we participate in this argument.
Horror-master Steven King says, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones” (source). In some ways, we read and watch horror for the same reason: our own lives often seem nice and calm after a few hours of fear.
Plus, Edgar Allan Poe's stories are fun because they're complicated puzzles. You have to exercise your brain muscles to figure them out. And because “The Cask of Amontillado” is so very short, we can really focus on its details, and we can read it as many times as we want.