The Pit and the Pendulum is a tale written by Edgar Allan Poe, whose title has come to embody a sense of helplessness, horror and impending doom. The story’s narrator is confined in a pitch black underground cell, where he is subjected to a variety of tortures, including a blade suspended from a pendulum that inches ever closer to him. The knowledge that he may stumble into a deep pit in the centre of his cell in the impenetrable darkness constantly terrifies him, but the whole account is a masterpiece on account of its ability to inspire dread in a reader.
The story is unusual in as much as it is one of the few tales written by Poe that did not include a supernatural element, so it’s interesting to see why it had such a profound effect upon its readers. The notion of underground confinement, torture and impending doom needs no explanation, but the mention of ‘the pit’ in the title and in the narrative is bound to strike a chord in many of us
, albeit a subconscious one. It is used as a metaphor for Hell in the King James Bible, as a translation for the Hebrew word ‘Sheol’, but the ancient Greeks and Romans also envisaged hell as an abyss, or a pit.
The British Isles have many supposed ‘entrances to the underworld’, but these are invariably gateways to fairy realms or other worldly kingdoms. Britain had no equivalent of Hell, or the Pit, until fox-hunting came along, but if you think the idea of a literal Hell on Earth in Britain is far-fetched, then you’ve not seen the terrier men that follow the hunt at work.
No independent observer could be present at one of these fox-baiting sessions and seriously doubt that they were in the physical presence of the most disturbing activity. The terrified and exhausted animal has bolted down a tunnel, often a badger’s sett, thinking that it has found sanctuary. This was a concept allowed in mediaeval law, where a wanted criminal could seek refuge in a church, but this option is not open to the fox. Terriers are sent scrambling down the tunnels, but with no guarantee that they will meet their prey face to face. This means that the fox, unable to turn around in the cramped tunnel, will be eaten alive from behind, suffering terrible wounds to its hindquarters, while it will often have to face a demented, snarling adversary from the front at the same time, in the foetid darkness.
The hunt followers and terrier men deliberately and wantonly inflict this living nightmare upon the fox, but as this struggle is underground and therefore out of sight, they generally prefer to inflict the indignities upon the creature where they can witness them, hence the euphemism of ‘digging out’, and this is where the hellish metaphor of the Pit becomes a physical reality. The fox is a creature akin to a slender whippet in its build and countless observers have reported foxes being seen off by domestic cats. As such, it stands no earthly chance against a variety of muscular and ferocious dogs in the confines of the Pit, but as this minority pastime cannot possibly be defined as a sport, then the element of the fox having any hope whatsoever of evading its tormentors just doesn’t exist.
It is not simply the sight of a fox being baited to death in such a way that brings sensual pleasure to the spectators, because the air is heavy with the rank odour of urine and faeces, where the terrified fox has fouled itself, so the miasma of terror literally hangs in the air around the Pit. Worse than the assault on normal senses delivered by the smells and sights are the sounds – the insane snarling of the dogs is sheer primeval savagery, while even hardened huntsmen over the years have been sickened by the piercing wails and screams made by a fox when its soft parts are torn and ripped by yellow fangs. As for touch, the creatures are often manhandled by the diggers before being baited or thrown to the hounds, while there are many pictures and videos showing huntsmen and terrier men kissing and nuzzling their dogs afterwards.
On the exceedingly rare occasions when such people respond to outraged questions about their minority pastime, they use plain lies and euphemisms to try to disguise the vileness of their actions, often referring to the fox as their quarry or prey, in an attempt to make the baiting seem justified or less than one-sided. Human multiple killers often employ such a vocabulary, but the rest of us are used to more straightforward language and we speak of victims, rather than prey or quarry.
The process that a baited fox goes through before its death is akin to being fed alive into a meat-grinder, but in the case of the fox, it is a far more protracted affair where the jaws and teeth sink into its flesh and soft parts and nerve endings over the course of a matter of hours. Eventually, this defenseless creature will succumb to loss of blood or exhaustion, or perhaps the terrier men will tire of the increasingly weak struggles and cries of their victim and stamp it to death in the Pit. But for a while, for some hours, England will have yet again been home to the physical manifestation of a Hell on Earth. As for the Pendulum, it is yet again swinging back towards its victim in the form of the continued efforts by some to revive and legalise the utterly barbaric pastime of hunting foxes and other animals with dogs.
“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes, 1911.