It’s strange to think of a short story (published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine) that is almost two hundred years old (it was published in 1830) being more scary than one written today but in the case of The Iron Shroud I think this could be a winner.
Unlike many late Georgian/early Regency Gothic stories there are no ghosts in Mudford’s tale of the young man, Vivenzio, taken prisoner and thrown into a prison where he sees no one and can interact with no one.
” It was evening when Vivenzio entered his dungeon, and the approaching shades of night wrapped it in total darkness, as he paced up and down, revolving in his mind these horrible forebodings. No tolling bell from the castle, or from any neighbouring church or convent, struck upon his ear to tell how the hours passed Frequently he would stop and listen for some sound that might betoken the vicinity of man; but the solitude of the desert, the silence of the tomb, are not so still and deep as the desolation by which he was encompassed. His heart sunk within him, and he threw himself dejectedly upon his couch of straw. Here sleep gradually obliterated the consciousness of misery, and bland dreams wafted his delighted spirit to scenes which were once glowing realities for him, in whose ravishing illusions he soon lost the remembrance that he was Tolfi’s prisoner.”
The thought of living out one’s life in this situation is bad enough (and not unique you only have to think about other stories including The Man in the Iron Mask) but what really turns this into something quite disturbing is the fact that the reader lives the prisoner’s last few days with him.
It is so well crafted that the reader can sense his panic, his despair and finally his resignation as each window disappears with the movement of the walls.
“Oppressed with this belief, and distracted more by the dreadful uncertainty of whatever fate impended, than he could be dismayed, he thought, by the knowledge of the worst, he sat ruminating, hour after hour, yielding his fears in succession to ever haggard fancy. At last a horrible suspicion flashed suddenly across his mind and he started up with a frantic air. “Yes!” he exclaimed, looking wildly round his dungeon and shuddering as he spoke—”Yes! it must be so! I see it!—I feel the maddening truth like scorching flames upon my brain! Eternal God! — support me! It must be so! Yes, yes, that is to be my fate! Yon roof will descend!—these walls will hem me round—and, slowly, slowly, crush me in their iron arms! Lord God! look down upon me, and in mercy strike me with instant death! Oh, fiend—oh, devil—is this your revenge?””
Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Bronte and Sir Walter Scott are all said to have been inspired by Mudford.
You can listen to the story being read on YouTube but it’s better to read it for yourself – see http://www.litgothic.com/Texts/iron_shroud.html – best to read it alone, when it’s quiet!!