The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
Illustration for "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" by Harry Clarke, 1919.
|Author||Edgar Allan Poe|
|Media type||Print (Magazine)|
"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" is a short story by American author Edgar Allan Poe about a mesmerist who puts a man in a suspended hypnotic state at the moment of death. An example of a tale of suspense and horror, it is also, to a certain degree, a hoax, as it was published without claiming to be fictional, and many at the time of publication (1845) took it to be a factual account. Poe toyed with this for a while before admitting it was a work of pure fiction in his marginalia.
The narrator presents the facts of the extraordinary case of Valdemar, which have incited public discussion. He is interested in mesmerism, a pseudoscience involving bringing a patient into a hypnagogic state by the influence of magnetism, a process which later developed into hypnotism. He points out that, as far as he knows, no one has ever been mesmerized at the point of death, and he is curious to see what effects mesmerism would have on a dying person. He considers experimenting on his friend Ernest Valdemar, an author whom he had previously mesmerized, and who has recently been diagnosed with phthisis (tuberculosis).
Valdemar consents to the experiment and informs the narrator by letter that he will probably die in twenty-four hours. Valdemar's two physicians inform the narrator of their patient's poor condition. After confirming again that Valdemar is willing to be part of the experiment, the narrator comes back the next night with two nurses and a medical student as witnesses. Again, Valdemar insists he is willing to take part and asks the narrator to hurry, for fear he has "deferred it for too long". Valdemar is quickly mesmerized, just as the two physicians return and serve as additional witnesses. In a trance, he reports first that he is dying — then that he is dead. The narrator leaves him in a mesmeric state for seven months, checking on him daily. During this time Valdemar is without pulse, heartbeat or perceptible breathing, his skin cold and pale.
Finally, the narrator makes attempts to awaken Valdemar, asking questions which are answered with difficulty as Valdemar's voice emanates from his throat and lolling tongue while his lips and jaws are frozen in death. In between trance and wakefulness, Valdemar begs the narrator to quickly put him back to sleep or to wake him. As Valdemar shouts "Dead! dead!" repeatedly, the narrator takes Valdemar out of his trance; in the process, Valdemar's entire body immediately decays into a "nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putrescence."
Poe uses particularly detailed descriptions and relatively high levels of gore in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", suggesting Poe deeply studied medical texts. Valdemar's eyes at one point leak a "profuse outflowing of a yellowish ichor", for example, though Poe's imagery in the story is best summed up in its final lines: "...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." The disgusting imagery almost certainly inspired later fiction including that of H. P. Lovecraft. Those final lines make up one of the most powerfully effective moments in Poe's work, incorporating shock, disgust, and uneasiness into one moment. This ending shows that attempts to appropriate power over death will have hideous results and, therefore, ultimately be unsuccessful.
Poe biographer Jeffrey Meyers notes that "Valdemar" roughly translates to "valley of the sea". The name suggests both solid and liquid states; this meaning is emphasized in the imagery in the story as Valdemar's body goes from its normal solid state to liquid in the final climactic lines. Poe also uses teeth as a symbol; he typically uses teeth in his works to symbolize mortality. Other uses include the "sepulchral and disgusting" horse's teeth in "Metzengerstein", obsessing over teeth in "Berenice", and the sound of grating teeth in "Hop-Frog".
Valdemar's death by tuberculosis, and attempts to postpone his death, may have been influenced by Poe's wife, Virginia. At the time of this story's publication, she had been suffering from tuberculosis for four years. Poe's extreme detail in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" may have been based on Virginia's actual suffering. Additionally, Poe may have been inspired by Andrew Jackson Davis, whose lectures on mesmerism he had attended. Valdemar's death, however, is not portrayed sentimentally as Poe's typical theme of "the death of a beautiful woman" portrayed in other works such as "Ligeia" and "Morella". The death of this male character contrasts as brutal and sensational.
While editor of The Broadway Journal, Poe printed a letter from a New York physician named Dr. A. Sidney Doane which recounted a surgical operation performed while a patient was "in a magnetic sleep"; the letter served as inspiration for Poe's tale. "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" was published simultaneously in the December 20, 1845, issue of the Broadway Journal and the December 1845 issue of American Review: A Whig Journal—the latter journal used the title "The Facts of M. Valdemar's Case". It was also republished in England, first as a pamphlet edition as "Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis" and later as "The Last Days of M. Valdemar".
Reception and critical response
Many readers thought the story to be a scientific report. Robert Collyer, an English magnetic healer visiting Boston, wrote to Poe saying that he himself had performed a similar act to revive a man who had been pronounced dead (in truth, the man was actually a drunk sailor who was revived by a hot bath). Collyer reported of the story's success in Boston: "Your account of M. Valdemar's case has been universally copied in this city, and has created a very great sensation." Another Englishman, Thomas South, used the story as a case study in his book Early Magnetism in its Higher Relations to Humanity in 1846. Medical student George C. Eveleth wrote to Poe: "I have strenuously held that it was true. But I tell you that I strongly suspect it for a hoax." A Scottish reader named Archibald Ramsay wrote to Poe "as a believer in Mesmerism" asking about the story. "It details... most extraordinary circumstances", he wrote, concerned that it had been labeled a hoax. "For the sake of... Science and of truth", he requested an answer from Poe himself. Poe's response: "Hoax is precisely the word suited... Some few persons believe it—but I do not—and don't you." He received many similar letters, replying to one such letter from a friend, he added the succinct postscript: "P.S. The 'Valdemar Case' was a hoax, of course." In the Daily Tribune, editor Horace Greeley noted "that several good matter-of-fact citizens" were tricked by it but "whoever thought it a veracious recital must have the bump of Faith large, very large indeed."
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to Poe about the story to commend him on his ability of "making horrible improbabilities seem near and familiar". Virginia poet Philip Pendleton Cooke also wrote to Poe, calling the story "the most damnable, vraisemblable, horrible, hair-lifting, shocking, ingenious chapter of fiction that any brain ever conceived or hand traced. That gelatinous, viscous sound of man's voice! there never was such an idea before." Literary critic and professor George Edward Woodberry said that the story "for mere physical disgust and foul horror, has no rival in literature." Scholar James M. Hutchisson refers to the story as "probably Poe's most gruesome tale."
Rudyard Kipling, an admirer of Poe, references "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" in his story "In the House of Suddhoo". The story suggests the disastrous results of sorcery in trying to save his sick son's life. One spell requires the head of a dead baby, which seems to speak. The narrator says, "Read Poe's account of the voice that came from the mesmerised dying man, and you will realise less than one half of the horror of that head's voice".
"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" was adapted into film in Argentina in 1960 as a segment of Masterpieces of Horror, first shown in the United States in 1965. It was also the last one of the three Poe-inspired segments in the 1962 Roger Corman film Tales of Terror. Narciso Ibáñez Serrador included an adaption into his Historias para no dormir (Tales not to sleep) in 1966, which he remade sixteen years later with the same actors, this time in color. It was later adapted by George A. Romero in Two Evil Eyes (1990). The radio drama series Radio Tales produced an adaptation of the story entitled "Edgar Allan Poe's Valdemar" (2000) for National Public Radio. The story was also loosely adapted into the black comedy The Mesmerist (2002).
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|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Full text from E. A. Poe Society
- "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" with annotated vocabulary at PoeStories.com
- LibriVox audiorecording of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar".