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.
- '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.
- 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' complete text at the Edgar Allan Poe Society website
- 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' bibliography at the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore
- Commentary at the Watershed Online website
- Commentary at the Arts, Literature and Medicine database website
- Neil Gaiman reading the end of the story as part of his All Hallows Read promotion
- IMDb listing for "Tales of Terror"
- "Tales of Terror" at the Basil Rathbone: Master of Stage and Screen website