‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ by Edgar Allan Poe

‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valde­mar’ by Edgar Allan Poe is one of his short­est sto­ries but is also one of his most effective.

The uniden­ti­fied nar­ra­tor is sum­moned to the deathbed of an old acquain­tance, whom he had mes­mer­ized in the past. The acquain­tance, one M. Valde­mar, expressed his desire to be placed in a mes­mer­ic trance just before death.

It want­ed about five min­utes of eight when, tak­ing the patient’s hand, I begged him to state, as dis­tinct­ly as he could, to Mr. L —— l, whether he (M. Valde­mar,) was entire­ly will­ing that I should make the exper­i­ment of mes­mer­iz­ing him in his then condition.

He replied fee­bly, yet quite audi­bly, “Yes, I wish to be mes­mer­ized” — adding imme­di­ate­ly after­wards, “I fear you have deferred it too long.”

While he spoke thus, I com­menced the pass­es which I had already found most effec­tu­al in sub­du­ing him. He was evi­dent­ly influ­enced with the first lat­er­al stroke of my hand across his fore­head; but although I exert­ed all my pow­ers, no far­ther per­cep­ti­ble effect was induced until some min­utes after ten o’clock, when Doc­tors D—— and F—— called, accord­ing to appoint­ment. I explained to them, in a few words, what I designed, and as they opposed no objec­tion, say­ing that the patient was already in the death agony, I pro­ceed­ed with­out hes­i­ta­tion — exchang­ing, how­ev­er, the lat­er­al pass­es for down­ward ones, and direct­ing my gaze entire­ly into the right eye of the sufferer.

By this time his pulse was imper­cep­ti­ble and his breath­ing was ster­to­ri­ous and at inter­vals of half a minute.

This con­di­tion was near­ly unal­tered for a quar­ter of an hour. At the expi­ra­tion of this peri­od, how­ev­er, a nat­ur­al although a very deep sigh escaped the bosom of the dying man, and the ster­to­ri­ous breath­ing ceased — that is to say, its ster­to­ri­ous­ness was no longer appar­ent; the inter­vals were undi­min­ished. The patient’s extrem­i­ties were of an icy coldness.

At five min­utes before eleven, I per­ceived unequiv­o­cal signs of the mes­mer­ic influ­ence. The glassy roll of the eye was changed for that expres­sion of uneasy inward exam­i­na­tion which is nev­er seen except in cas­es of sleep-wak­ing, and which it is quite impos­si­ble to mis­take. With a few rapid lat­er­al pass­es I made the lids quiver, as in incip­i­ent sleep, and with a few more I closed them alto­geth­er. I was not sat­is­fied, how­ev­er, with this, but con­tin­ued the manip­u­la­tions vig­or­ous­ly, and with the fullest exer­tion of the will, until I had com­plete­ly stiff­ened the limbs of the slum­ber­er, after plac­ing them in a seem­ing­ly easy posi­tion. The legs were at full length; the arms were near­ly so, and reposed on the bed at a mod­er­ate dis­tance from the loins. The head was very slight­ly elevated.

When I had accom­plished this, it was ful­ly mid­night, and I request­ed the gen­tle­men present to exam­ine M. Valdemar’s con­di­tion. After a few exper­i­ments, they admit­ted him to be in an unusu­al­ly per­fect state of mes­mer­ic trance.

The nar­ra­tor keeps M. Valde­mar in this state for sev­er­al weeks, but even­tu­al­ly he wants and begs to be allowed to die.

“For God’s sake! — quick! — quick! — put me to sleep — or, quick! — wak­en me! — quick! — I say to you that I am dead!

I was thor­ough­ly unnerved, and for an instant remained unde­cid­ed what to do. At first I made an endeav­or to re-com­pose the patient; but, fail­ing in this through total abeyance of the will, I retraced my steps and as earnest­ly strug­gled to awak­en him. In this attempt I soon saw that I should be suc­cess­ful — or at least I soon fan­cied that my suc­cess would be com­plete — and I am sure that all in the room were pre­pared to see the patient awaken.

For what real­ly occurred, how­ev­er, it is quite impos­si­ble that any human being could have been prepared.

As I rapid­ly made the mes­mer­ic pass­es, amid ejac­u­la­tions of “dead! dead!” absolute­ly burst­ing from the tongue and not from the lips of the suf­fer­er, his whole frame at once — with­in the space of a sin­gle minute, or even less, shrunk — crum­bled — absolute­ly rot­ted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole com­pa­ny, there lay a near­ly liq­uid mass of loath­some — of detestable putrescence.

Com­men­tary: When the sto­ry was first pub­lished, the gen­er­al con­sen­sus of the read­ing pub­lic was that it was fac­tu­al, not fic­tion­al, some­thing Poe delib­er­ate­ly left ambigu­ous. Cer­tain­ly the descrip­tions were quite fac­tu­al and quite explicit.

Adden­da:

  • ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valde­mar’ was one of three Poe tales (‘The Black Cat’ and ‘Morel­la’ being the oth­er two) includ­ed in Tales of Ter­ror” (1962)1,2. Basil Rath­bone plays the nar­ra­tor and Vin­cent Price plays M. Valdemar.

Ref­er­ences:

Resources:


Foot­notes:

  1. IMDb list­ing for “Tales of Terror”
  2. “Tales of Ter­ror” at the Basil Rath­bone: Mas­ter of Stage and Screen website

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