Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s “A Torture by Hope” occupied a unique place in the imagination of late nineteenth and early twentieth century literary critics curious about the conte cruel and Edgar Allan Poe’s alleged influence on this French author. In such comparisons Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” was frequently named a literary antecedent to Villier’s “A Torture by Hope,” and though both stories relate horrifying details of protagonists tortured by Spanish inquisitors, a formal analysis of them reveals distinct differences in the respective aesthetic and moral effects, namely the ironic reversals in plot that were distinctive of Villiers’ conte cruel. This essay contextualizes the early twentieth-century debate among literary scholars before offering a comparison of the two stories ending with a review of contemporary scholarship on the conte cruel and its historical significance to horror fiction.

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