Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, or would be had he lived to be 207 years old. I can’t imagine he would have relished the prospect. When Poe did meet his end, it was under mysterious and rather awful circumstances, fittingly (in a grimly ironic sort of way) for the man often credited with the invention of detective fiction and the perfecting of the gothic horror story.
“True!” begins his most famous story, “The Tell-Tale Heart”—“nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am,” and we surely believe it. But when he finishes his intimate introduction to us, we are much less inclined to trust his word:
But why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
Have we ever been confronted with a more unnerving and unreliable narrator? Poe’s genius was to draw us into the confidence of this terrifying character and keep us there, rapt in suspense, even though we cannot be sure of anything he says, or whether the entire story is nothing more than a paranoid nightmare. And it is that, indeed.
In the animation above by Annette Jung—adapted from Poe’s chilling tale—the madman Ed resolves to take the life of an old man with a creepy, staring eye. In this version, however, a central ambiguity in Poe’s story is made clear. We’re never entirely sure in the original what the relationship is between Poe’s narrator and the doomed old man. In Jung’s version, they are father and son, and the old man is rendered even more grotesque, Ed’s psychological torments even more… shall we say, animated, with clearly comic intent. Jung publishes a web comic called Applehead, and on her short film’s website (in German), she refers to her “Tell-Tale Heart” as “an animated satire.”
Poe’s talent for sustaining controlled hyperbole and for creating unforgettable images like the old man’s evil eye and loudly beating heart make his work especially inviting to animators, and we’ve featured many animations of that work in the past. Just above, see the original animated “Tell-Tale Heart” from 1954. Narrated by the ideally creepy-voiced James Mason, the film received an “X” rating in the UK upon its release, then went on to an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short (though it did not win). Just below, Aaron Quinn—who has also animated Poe’s “The Raven” and other 19th century classics by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll and others—updates Mason’s narration with his own frighteningly stark, animated take on the story. Poe, had he lived to see the age of animation, may not have been pleased to see his story adapted in such graphic styles, but we, as his devoted readers over 150 years later, can be grateful that he left us such wonderfully weird source material for animated films.