Poe set this famous story not in some vague medieval era, as modern readers might suppose, but in the very recent past, the entry in 1808 of the French General Lasalle into the palace of the Inquisition in Toledo, Spain, just thirty- odd years before the tale was published. Accounts of the instruments of torture which Lasalle found appeared in a number of books and magazines which Poe knew. The Inquisition, moreover, had subsequently been reinstituted; several scholars are sure that Poe had read a detailed and bitter description of how the Catholic Church in Spain enforced orthodoxy, as recently as 1820, through slow death by sharp pendulum (Mabbott 9, II). "The Pit and the Pendulum, then, exploits recent history, political and religious attitudes, and a sensationalism which was unusually powerful because it was grounded in well- known fact.
But the story also conducts Poe's aesthetic and philosophical business. "The Pit and the Pendulum" is about the sources of insight. Its narrator must be brilliant if he is to save himself The progression down to despair and insanity and up to insight is what makes the prisoner "brilliant." Poe is interested in the varieties of inspired creativity--hence the hint that dreams and fainting fits carry knowledge of eternity; the unconscious mind may know what will be known after death. The person just awakening, the reader is told, has dim memories of such knowledge. The narrator, in an abnormal state, tortured and frightened, has glimpses of it while awake. Thus "The Pit and the Pendulum is a "thriller," a historical fiction, and a dramatization of a transcendental worldview.
A note of explanation: The narrator's transformation from torpor to inspiration determines the plot of the tale, for in Poe's fictions, the harder it is for the perceiving character to have the great vision, the more complicated is the story line. Thus we expect and get a plot rich in events in "The Pit and the Pendulum," another tale of salvation from strange surroundings. The brilliance which the narrator needs does not come as naturally as Ellison artistic brilliance in "The Domain of Arnheim," a piece practically without dramatic events. It is more like that of the fisherman in "A Descent into the Maelström," a story which, like "The Pit . . . ," has numerous important turns of plot.
Modern readers may wonder at the amount of space Poe devotes to describing his narrator's precise state of mind during the ordeal. The commercial reasons for such concern are clearly explained in "How to Write a Blackwood Article": "Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations--they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet." Given his theory of inspiration, however, Poe also has philosophical reasons.