In October of 2021, I posted a reading of a story that I wrote in the weeks leading up to Hallowe’en (The Hole Where the Ghosts Come In). Despite the hasty decision to write and record a Hallowe’en story in such a short period of time, I thoroughly enjoyed the process and have decided to follow-up this year with another Hallowe’en story reading. Alas, this year, I simply didn’t have the time to write a new story – so instead, this year’s ghastly Hallowe’en reading will be something of a classic.
There are many ghastly stories that would have been entertaining to read for the podcast, but the list narrowed significantly when I decided that I absolutely wanted to post something that would be consistent with “philosophical fiction” theme that we’ve established on the podcast.
Clearly, as the title of this essay indicates, I settled on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Imp of the Perverse. I hope that my reading of the story offers some entertainment and a unique voice for the psychopathic murderer.
I became a Poe fan in elementary school when reading his many gothic classics from The Raven, Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-Tale Heart to The Cask of Amontillado. As a result, I can’t be certain when I first read The Imp of the Perverse, but it was almost certainly around that time. Given Poe’s tremendous catalog of horror and gothic stories, it would perhaps have been more in the traditional spirit of Hallowe’en to have read something with more of that grisly imagery that we expect from Poe. The Black Cat, Never Bet the Devil Your Head or The Pit and the Pendulum would have brought that creepy supernatural punch that can make Hallowe’en just so darn entertaining.
On the other hand, The Imp of the Perverse seems to have a lot to offer when it comes to staring-down a marrow-deep psychopath.
Besides being (as I’ve already suggested) more closely aligned to philosophical fiction than most of Poe’s other works, the horror in The Imp of the Perverse is much more subtle to approach. Perhaps because the horror it proposes is significantly more probable and relevant to our daily lives than what appears in most of those other tales. I think it is reasonable to say that we are much more likely to encounter a coldly-calculating, deliberate and un-feeling (and yet still cowardly) psychopath than some unrelenting supernatural force or yet still some grotesque and brutal onslaught. I have found that its the garden-variety sociopaths among us that have caused me the most real-world difficulty.
Following are a few things to consider in reading The Imp of the Perverse.
Rather disappointingly, an actual imp does not appear in the story. Instead, the Imp of the Perverse is a proposed theory by a convicted murder for the compulsion which drove him to needlessly confess to his crime. It is what the murderer suggests as a reasonable cause since the best theories of his day seem inadequate to providing a cause for his drive to confess. The murderer says very little about his drive to murder, apart from the commonplace motive of personal material benefit as the inheritor of any estate.
So it appears that Poe’s villain does his nasty work and demonic intervention is needed only to get him to work against his own best interests and confess (thus speeding his trip to Hell, of course). So Poe’s Imp is a catalyst for confession as damnation rather than confession for salvation.
As a side note, it appears that Poe was once accused of failing to ever write a moral tale. One wonders if that is entirely accurate, or if the moral lessons that Poe proposed were rather different than his contemporaries may have been used to.
The story’s narrator is clearly a psychopath or sociopath, facing a death-sentence for having committed a murder. In contemporary society, psychopaths and sociopaths are something of a commonplace bogeyman. According to the best psychology of our current times, psychopathy has a prevalence somewhere between 1% and 30% of the population. That is a a wildly big variance and is clearly the result of vastly different approaches to assigning the term “psychopath” to a person. Tempting as it may be to comment on this, I’m going to leave it at that – largely because even a one-in-a-hundred prevalence means most of us must engage with more psychopaths than we’d probably prefer.
Despite their nastiness, society still seems to have a terrific appetite to observe them and hear the tales of the exploitations and horrific crimes which they commit. These are not supernatural predators but are our 20th- and 21st-century human, all-too-human predators (however many of them there may be).
The story’s victim is left nameless. Since the story is a first-person narrative, it is interesting to observe that Poe’s villain does not give the victim even the courtesy of being named and recognized. The effect of this anonymity is to convey that the victim is any person whose habits may be studied for a cowardly attack.
The narrator uses the term perverse to define a person working against their own best interests. Doing what is wrong for the sake of the wrongness.
The fact that the narrator’s confession is not driven by guilt (i.e. a moral compulsion to confess due to regret and remorse) but by what he calls perversity – acting against his own self interests (by his definition) is the chilling bit to consider. When the narrator says he did wrong for the sake of doing wrong, this was not the murder; the murder was methodically planned and accomplished for profit. The perversity, as seen by the psychopath, is in going against his own interests. Despite the accusations Poe faced, it seems clear to me that he was able to deliver a moral message via his stories.
Confession of a sin or crime, in the context of Christian religion or even secular criminal law might normally be seen as a virtuous act which could lead to redemption. But let’s say re-stated that in a different way. Confession by a normal person (i.e. not a psychopath) might be seen as a virtuous act. Confession by a non-normal person may be a different situation.
The narrator refers to phrenology several times. Phrenology was a leading theory about brain development in the early 1800’s but had lost most of its authoritative influence by the time Poe published The Imp of the Perverse in 1845. It was a theory that attempted to map out human personalities, capabilities and traits based on the shape of their skull.
Sidebar – the feature image for this post is not an example of a phrenological map (see below for that). Instead, it is a map of common brain injuries following motorcycle accidents. Hallowe’en is a scary thing.
This is interesting to observe as Poe was using an ideological doctrine that had both risen and fallen in popular attention. It seems probable that Poe was aware of this and further aware that he was arguing, indirectly, that the leading methods of the times had failed to adequately explain certain compulsions and behaviours that may be found in society.
The story and modern clinical history have both provided further prospective causes of the drives and compulsions that humans experience. With (depending upon your preferred definition) somewhere between 1% and 30% of the population as a cause for concern – you’d think by now that we’d have more detailed answers than: supernatural causes, brain damage, genetics (nature) and the environment (nurture). Reductio ad absurdum? Sure. I’m happy to let the experts do a better job of assessing the matter – this is just an essay in support of a Hallowe’en story.
In a short-story which is about “wrongness”, it is interesting to note that people do get things wrong from time to time…and sometimes even when it may seem that they are “doing the right thing”, exploration of their motivations reveals that we may have some difficulties to explore. And that it may be in our best interests to have a look at the motivations of the psychopaths around us. It could be in our best interests.
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