Clocks and Cabbages: A Look at "The Devil in the Belfry" by Edgar Allan Poe
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Listen, it has been months since I’ve last talked about Poe. So as a late birthday present to myself, I’m gonna talk about Poe today.
Meet “The Devil in the Belfry.” Most of the time Poe spends a lot of time talking about cabbages and clocks. It’s an odd little tale published all the way back in 1839. Slightly odd to think about how we’re quickly approaching its 100 anniversary. There’s still quite some time before that happens though, but it’s still weird to think about.
As I was saying, this is an odd tale where the world building is all about cabbages. Forget The Clockwork Orange, Poe brings you The Clockwork Cabbage. I’m sorry, I’ll go home.
Outside of all the talk of cabbages, Poe creates a tiny, Dutch village of Vondervotteimittiss; AKA wonder-what-time-it-is. Here, the inhabitants are all well-mannered, put together, and care immensely for time. These people pride themselves in their ability to keep true time.
Things go to shit when a mysterious stranger appears on the mountain side one day. With inhuman speed, this man makes his way down the mountain with only a fiddle and snuff box in his possession. Once in town, this mysterious stranger proceeds to beat the crap out of the man in charge of the belfry with a hat. Poe describes the sound this abuse brings as that a bass drum would make.
Anyway, once the belfry-man loses his post, the mysterious man leaps/dances into the belfry and causes time to fast-forward. The villagers call out the hour as the clock tower chimes, but instead of reverting back to one after the clock strikes twelve, time continues to hour thirteen.
Oh no, how ever shall this village survive? It’s not like there’s another version of time that dates back all the way to 2100 B.C.E. that is known as military time!
I lowkey love this story, it’s just so outlandish and weird. Fearing time is something I expect from Lovecraft instead of Poe. You can’t tell me the fear of time doesn’t fit in with Lovecraft’s fear of an air conditioner.
This is not a comparison between Lovecraft and Poe. This is also not a review of “The Devil in the Belfry.” Nay, nay, I say. Today I bring you an idea about “The Devil in the Belfry.” Much like when I covered “House Taken Over” by Julio Cortazar, I bring you a different way to read “The Devil in the Belfry.”
Let me set the scene. You live in a picturesque town, you’re a farmer with pigs and you grow cabbages. There’s not much excitement in your small town, perhaps a pig will wander off once in awhile, but everything is perfect. There are no issues between neighbors, everyone lives in the exact same style of house, everyone is well feed and clothed to the point where everyone has double chins and luxurious clothing. Clocks are the pride and joy of this town. The clock tower in town hall should be worshipped as it never rings a second late or early. The world is great. Your life is great. Nothing could go wrong. Unless someone comes to mess up your village’s clock!
This is where I tell you that you are not an actual person. No, you are a figurine on the Devil’s clock. Everything you know is a lie. The land you farm isn’t real. The cabbages you have are fake. The Devil will grow bored of his mantel piece eventually, and he will come to mess with you.
Upon reading “The Devil in the Belfry” this past week, I noticed that Poe makes note of the size and location of things quite a bit. The village itself is cut off from main roads, visitors are a rarity and traveling to outside markets isn’t mentioned. Poe all but describes the men on the town council as circles. Their other features are exaggerated to the point where they look like carton characters.
The mysterious stranger who this story focuses on is described as the opposite of the townspeople. He is described with tiny eyes, large nose, and is tall and stringy. A la “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” this mysterious stranger carries a fiddle which Poe describes as “nearly five times as big as himself.”
Unfortunately, instead of having a fiddle battle, the Devil jumps into the clock tower and fucks with time. I would have preferred a fiddle battle, but I guess Poe didn't want that.
It should also be mention that at the beginning of the story, Poe claims that no one in this village goes past the mountains that border it so it was incredibly odd that someone was coming down the mountain.
Once again, I have no evidence outside of the descriptions of the townspeople vs. the Devil. But it makes no sense that visitors wouldn’t come to this village that has 60+ homes; especially if the cabbages the village grows are the greatest things ever.
Things are not right here. No one leaves this village, and no one seems to come into the village either. Everything is too picturesque…almost like an antique clock. You know the ones I’m talking about. Those cuckoo clocks that have little animals or people in scenic locations, and some of the figurines pop out of tiny houses. Imagine that, but on a vastly larger scale. Also imagine that clock surrounded by hellfire on the Devil’s mantel. And this clock design is the village of this tale.
I mean, why else is this village so obsessed with time? Also, why would the villagers think that they have the time correct al the way down to the millisecond? They’re in a clock. That’s it, that’s the answer.
Again, I have no concrete evidence that this is actually a possibility. But this is the hill I choose to die on.