Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial” was adapted for film in 1962. Usually this would result in a reprint of the original book with new cover art to promote the movie. In this case, however, another writer—the mysterious “Max Hallan Danne”—was hired to pen a novelization of the screenplay, written by Twilight Zone alumni, Charles Berumont. So this book is actually an adaptation of an adaptation. And it’s way better than it should be. Dare I say, it may be even superior to the original source material.
Poe’s “The Premature Burial” has always been lackluster for me. The premise of a man going to maddening lengths to avoid being buried alive is fabulous, but the conclusion lacks intensity and is too happy for my taste. During the climax, when the narrator mistakenly believes he is buried alive, Poe delivers a scarce few sentences of agonizing torment before revealing the gag. Almost as if he wanted to avoid terror so that the tone aligned more with comedy.
After reading a ton of Poe, I realize that he was also a gifted satirist. A surprising number of his stories are hysterically funny. In a dark way, of course, but still very funny. I think “Premature Burial” may be a problematic story due to its mixed messaging. Is it horror or is it comedy? Hard to say.
This novelization—and I presume the film, though I haven’t actually watched that yet—takes liberties with its source material while remaining astonishingly true to the original plot and subtext.
Our protagonist, Guy Carrell, is consumed by fear of being buried alive, but his anxiety is more mental than in Poe’s tale. His family has a long history of sustained, brutal deaths. This includes being torn to meat by a pack of dogs, being burnt alive, and the agonizing death of poison. His father, he believes, was accidentally buried alive in error because of catalepsy. As a child, he remembers hearing his father’s entombed voice, though no one else heard it. Guy himself has shown no symptoms of catalepsy, but that doesn’t stop him from believing it “runs in the family” and will happen to him.
Further infecting his brain are a series of chilling events. This includes witnessing the results of an actual alive burial in a graveyard and a cat accidentally stuck in the wall. What if he hadn’t heard the cat mewling? It would have died, of course. Slowly and horribly. Trapped.
Thus traumatized, he can now only sleep with the aid of sedatives. He’s so woebegone that he considers canceling his marriage to the woman he loves. He feels his life is a ticking bomb of certain doom, and it’s best not to harm anyone else with his predestined horror. She does not give up so easily on him, however, and their wedding is held amid violent thunderstorms.
It’s clear right away that the wedding was not a good idea. Guy is instantly fussy with his new bride, berating her severely for simple misunderstandings, such as decorating the mansion with delphiniums. “Funeral decorations!” he raves before shutting himself off from her completely.
That night things get even worse when Guy witnesses another horrific phenomena. The family dog is struck by lightning and pronounced dead. Just as they prepare to bury the hound, the dog rises up, revealing it was merely stunned. Once again Guy imagines what would have happened if he would have buried the dog before it awoke. Buried alive! The certainty that this will happen to him increases further, descending him deeper into madness.
Most of these specific events are not in Poe’s original story—but they are implied. The novelization expands on all the juicy, unexplored elements of the story, including the fear of conspirators who might willingly bury the narrator alive to get their hands on his inheritance.
The novelization further expands the original story by jazzing up descriptions. When Guy is finally buried alive, the author milks the horror for all it’s worth. Using impressive literary technique, he provides vivid details of all the agonizing horror of being buried alive. And, much to my delight, it goes on for several pages rather than a few sentences.
Most importantly, however, there’s not a trace of humor in the novelization. No “it was all a dream” type finale. This is Gothic horror through and through, all the way to the violent conclusion. And since the language is so well-written, it doesn’t feel like knockoff Edgar Allan Poe. It feels like an improvement.
I’ve put in a great effort to identify “Max Hallan Dane” but the only reference to such a name is found in this book. Given how wonderfully constructed the prose is, it’s hard to believe this was the author’s only publication. It seems more likely an experienced author took up this project and used a pseudonym. If that’s the case, we may never know his (or her) true identity.
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