At Killer Nashville, I was in the audience for a panel titled You've Got 5,000 Words: How to Write Short Stories. At one point, the panelists were asked to name their favorite short story. Of course no one could pick just one story. Both Bob Mangeot and Warren Moore listed The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allen Poe, among their favorites.
Inspired by the knowledge level of the panelists, I decided it was time for me to delve into the classics. Poe is an excellent author to examine, as he is often credited with inventing the detective story. He is the symbol of the Mystery Writers of America.
I pulled my college American literature book off the shelf, and found The Cask of Amontillado. There is no mystery, as the narrator delivers his intentions in the first paragraph. The narrator desires revenge "with impunity" for the many insults Fortunato has dealt him. He's thought about this a long time, and has come up with a plan. The reader follows the two men into a wine cellar, and then into the depths of catacombs, searching for that cask of Amontillado.
The Cask of Amontillado is a lesson in proper short story writing. Note two dialogue exchanges with few dialogue tags (he said, I said). They are not needed, as the reader can readily tell which person is speaking. Everything about the story is trim and to the point. Descriptions? Spare at best. And yet the gloomy, dreadful atmosphere is painfully clear.
I had read the story ages ago, and remembered the ending. That's not the important part. It's the getting there that is so creepy. We've all been insulted by obnoxious people, and perhaps even dreamed of avenging ourselves. This guy goes way over the top. I think the best part of the writing is being so thoroughly in the narrator's mind, while Fortunato happily blunders into the cunning trap.
Maybe you read The Cask of Amontillado as an assignment in English class. Maybe you somehow missed this gem. In either case, I strongly suggest you read, then re-read this story.
And what is Amontillado, by the way? A Spanish sherry wine.
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