The interesting story of Poe’s excellent story.
-The Voice before the Void
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
“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.
Poe uses particularly detailed descriptions and relatively high levels of gore in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” displaying his own studies of 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. These final lines incorporate shock, disgust, and uneasiness into one moment. The ending may also suggest that attempts to appropriate power over death have hideous results and are bound to be unsuccessful.
Jeffrey Meyers notes that “Valdemar” may be roughly translated as “valley of the sea,” perhaps suggesting both solid and liquid states, as emphasized in the imagery deployed as Valdemar’s body goes from its normal solid state to liquid in the final lines.
Poe typically uses teeth to symbolize mortality, as with “sepulchral and disgusting” horse’s teeth in “Metzengerstein,” the obsession with teeth in “Berenice,” and the sound of grating teeth in “Hop-Frog.”
Valdemar’s death by tuberculosis, and the attempts to postpone his death, may have been influenced by the experiences of Poe’s wife, Virginia. At the time the story was published, 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 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.” In contrast, the death of this male character is brutal and sensational.
While editor of The Broadway Journal, Poe printed a letter from a New York physician named Dr. A. Sidney Doane that 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 that the story was 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 drunken 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, published in 1846. A 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 was that “Hoax is precisely the word suited. … Some few persons believe it — but I do not — and don’t you.” Poe received many similar letters, and replied to one such letter from a friend: “P.S. The ‘Valdemar Case’ was a hoax, of course.” In the Daily Tribune, its editor, Horace Greeley, noted “that several good matter-of-fact citizens” were tricked by the story, 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 talent for “making horrible improbabilities seem near and familiar.” The 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.” George Edward Woodberry wrote that the story, “for mere physical disgust and foul horror, has no rival in literature.” 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,” which suggests the disastrous results of the sorcery used by a man 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.”