Edgar Allan Poe’s “King Pest” – Introduction to the Grotesque

Social status vs. death

A few years ago I bought a beautiful edition of Poe’s complete short stories and devoured it with great pleasure. To my pleasant surprise, Poe rewards his faithful followers. Sure, all of us heard about the infamous “The Black Cat” or “The Fall of the House of the Usher.” Poe is talked about at school to the point that we want to say “Nevermore!” However, it is the author that will reward you with wonderful, little-known gems when you read more that the canon.

“King Pest” is such a precious short story. It was very appropriately included in the collection “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque” in 1840. I think it can illustrate perfectly what the term grotesque means.

The plot is simple, yet the descriptions of places and people create an atmosphere that is rich with meaning. The style is extremely flowery on purpose. It contrasts with the horrific reality. The same with the events: they are treated humorously while remaining scary and disgusting. Add a bit of profanation and sexual exploitation and you have an ambiguous story that critics don’t know how to approach. The ambiguity haunts the grotesque. The bewildered audience is a preferable result.

Image inspired by the Black Death.

“King Pest” is like “The Hangover” if it happened in the 14th century London during the Black Death pandemic. Before the hangover part. It relates the adventure of two drunk sailors who venture into a deserted part of the city, escaping without payment from the local pub. They come across a strange meeting in the house that was previously inhabited by an undertaker. Six people sit around the table, four men, two women. Each of them is grotesque to the point that he or she stops resembling a human being.

It’s hard to choose my favorite. A lady with “a soft smile played about her mouth; but her nose, extremely long, thin, sinuous, flexible and pimpled, hung down far below her under lip, and in spite of the delicate manner in which she now and then moved it to one side or the other with her tongue”? Or a paralyzed man, “habited, somewhat uniquely, in a new and handsome mahogany coffin”?

Each of them calls himself a part of nobility and each of them is dying.

And the setting is so bizarre that it deserves a mention:

“Before each of the party lay a portion of a skull, which was used as a drinking cup. Overhead was suspended a human skeleton, by means of a rope tied round one of the legs and fastened to a ring in the ceiling. The other limb, confined by no such fetter, stuck off from the body at right angles, causing the whole loose and rattling frame to dangle and twirl about at the caprice of every occasional puff of wind which found its way into the apartment. In the cranium of this hideous thing lay quantity of ignited charcoal, which threw a fitful but vivid light over the entire scene; while coffins, and other wares appertaining to the shop of an undertaker, were piled high up around the room, and against the windows, preventing any ray from escaping into the street.”

I think it is every horror fan’s dream come true movie setting. The characters are not familiar but fascinating. The title character is a ruler of this place and he orders our two sailors to drink “a gallon of Black Strap.” If not, they shall be “duly drowned as rebels in yon hogshead of October beer.” The two men disagree and expose King Pest to be Tim Hurlygurly, the stage-player. The result is a brawl which ends up in the whole place being flooded by liquor. Two sailors escape, each kidnapping one lady.

The whole short story can be read here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/King_Pest

Arthur Rackham – Legs and Hugh Tarpaulin escape from King Pest’s court (a fragment)

Atmosphere of prevailing death dominates the story, though the pompous speeches are genuinely funny. I really like this story because it says something about human behavior during hard times. If you knew you were to die (and the whole world you had known with you), would you moan and pray? Or would you gather in a blasphemous setting, with people doomed like you, enjoying drinking, sex, luxury, and imaginary honors? Each reaction is probable, but the second one is  somehow less obvious. It can evoke pity, horror, disgust, laughter. Such mixed feelings are part of the genre called the grotesque.

I hope you enjoyed this opening post and I will see you here again. I plan to write about movies and books that belong to the grotesque genre. You will see what I mean in the next posts. Feel free to comment, like and subscribe. I am here to stay. :)

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