In Masque of the Red Death, Poe excelled at dread through a pronounced description of setting. Here, setting is present but it's mainly dread through the creative viewpoint of the man's internal monologue and desperation.
“I call to mind flatness and dampness; and then all is madness - the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things.”
Emotion is high and strong throughout during the terrible ordeal - The Inquisition has taken place, the man has been sentenced, and he passes out when hearing he will be punished. He awakens in a dark room and feels around the walls, having to use the sense of tough to try and figure out where he is, what's in store for him, if there is a possibility of escape. He ends up fainting again, but this time awakens to drink drugged water. He awakes another time strapped down to a series of wooden boards, and this time he can see.
His mind is constantly thinking of all the horrible stories that are told about this place, and he fears what he has in store for him. Really most of the dread and genuine horror Poe conveys in this tale is through anticipation. Fear about waking alone in the room and wondering where you are and what is to happen, then fear about the unknown choice of death that awaits him. Finally he knows how he is set to do, but the torturers have added a new depth - a slow death where he must lay and wait, helpless, for the death to finally come.
At the beginning of the tale the man has a tendency to faint from horror and helplessness. His own terror keeps him prisoner later (or so it appears to him.) Even when the pendulum is slowly coming down, he begins to hope for it to rush down quicker, just to end it and get it over with. Finally, he begins to become crafty and manages to free himself from the impeding doom through calm rationale and a will to survive.
"...the agony of my soul found vent in one loud, long, and final scream of despair."
Bleak and cruel, this story was a good one. As with Murders in the Rue Morgue, I do feel Poe was a little awkward with his opening. He seems to ramble slightly at first and fails to grab the attention enough. As with Rue Morgue, I had to keep reading to become engrossed. It's almost as if he is mentally finding his way and the right path to place his steps when the story starts, and once confidence has entered, it's an easier transition for the reader.
I do have to say through the long buildup and everything in so much detail, the ending rush being contained in a single paragraph almost feels cut off. A major thing has occurred - surprise - a few sentences - it is done! I know the point of the story was the horrible dread, the awful hopelessness that must have been experienced during the dreadful Inquisition, a man's fight of survival in overwhelming odds. Still, the jarring ending was almost like a glass of water to the face, interrupting the flow in such a jarring manner that it could have been longer to seem more true to the tale.
As always, Poe writes beautifully, especially after the first few pages and when he has more sure footing with his work. He had a talent for expressing the mournful, horrible bleakness that erupts from darkness to envelop humanity. With words he can make one clearly picture and actually feel being so frightened, so desperate, so surrounding by darkness and despair.
To the victims of its tyranny, there was the choice of death with its direct physical agonies, or death with its most hideous moral horrors. I had been reserved for the latter. By long suffering my nerves had been unstrung, until I trembled at the sound of my own voice, and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me.