Poe’s “The Devil in the Belfry”

“It was a bright cold day in 1839 and the clock was striking thirteen…”

Do you recognize this sentence? Probably not exactly, as I have sacrilegiously tweaked the first sentence of George Orwell’s classic novel “1984.” I often ponder the genesis of literary works and wonder how accurately – if indeed at all – their lineage may be traced. Was Orwell familiar with the following story?

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I was unaware of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Devil in the Belfry” until this past Saturday morning. As is my custom I drew a card from my deck representing my 52 short stories in my annual reading project and was presented with the two of spades. This year “deuces are wild” in my project, so by my “rules” I am allowed to pick any story I want as long as I try to stay within the guidelines of the suit. This year spades represent “stories of a darker nature,” and I was happy to comply.

It’s funny how I decided to pick this story, though. My place is (almost literally) littered with short story anthologies, many of which specialize in “dark” stories. Saturday morning, I had returned to my toasty bedroom to read (it was bitterly cold overnight) and realized I didn’t bring any physical books with me, AND that my iPad (also full of material worthy of the spades suit) and iPhone (loaded with the same Nook app) were now down the hall in my living room charging up. Looking around, I saw my original iPad. Though not as up-to-date with my nook library, it was fully charged and did include The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. And isn’t that all one really needs if he wants to laze around in bed reading a bit before starting his day?

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First published in 1839, this was a truly odd story. It was reminiscent to me of something by Washington Irving, who liked to describe the old (often Dutch) towns of New York State. Poe’s town is in a Dutch borough called “Vondervotteimittis”* (Yeah, I had trouble pronouncing that too, more on this in a minute…) and is kind of a seventeenth century Shangri-La, where nothing much has changed in the collective memories of its inhabitants. It is a well ordered community, where the houses are all essentially the same, as are the crops and even the personalities of its citizens. The dwellings are built in a circular formation, surrounding the borough’s pride and joy, its beautiful, seven-faced clock in the steeple of the “House of the Town Council.” It has seven faces, naturally, so that it may be readily seen from any dwelling in the surrounding village.

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Regularity and uniformity have been carried to the extreme in this place, however, and the reader suspects that a town whose three precious resolutions are: “…it is wrong to alter the good old course of things,” “There is nothing tolerable outside of Vondervotteimittis,” and “…we will stick by our clocks and cabbages” is in for some kind of rude awakening. That reader would be correct.

The story may be read on line at http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/dvlbfyd.htm
If you don’t care to read it, proceed to the spoilers.

***Spoiler Alert***
The existing order is overturned one day when several inhabitants notice a strange personage approaching their town from the surrounding hills. The ’person’ is carrying a fiddle “five times his size” and heads straight to the bell-tower, and attacks the belfry man. The inhabitants are too under the routine spell of the clock (by force of habit, they must count along with it as it rings out the 12 o’clock hour) to stop this devil’s actions. Once the tower has tolled for the twelfth time, though, they are ready to act – only to be confounded when it rings thirteen. The borough is thrown into chaos, and Poe ends the story with an “appeal to all lovers of correct time” to at some point march en masse to evict this devil in the belfry to restore order…

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Here I must also admit that I’ve never read Orwell’s 1984 (yet another serious gap in my cultural literacy). Perhaps this Poe story – which I viewed mainly as just as interesting curiosity – was “sent” to me to remind me to rectify this cultural literacy gap.

Are you familiar with Orwell’s famous novel? Do you know if he was aware of this Poe story? Why do you think the novel begins with the clock striking thirteen? I eagerly await edification.

*say “Vonndervotteimittis” out loud and see what it sounds like… Did you get “Wonder what time it is?”

(below: Charlie Daniels. – The Devil Went Down to Vonndervotteimittis???”)

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