"The Oblong Box" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1844, about a sea voyage and a mysterious box.
The story opens with the unnamed narrator recounting a summer sea voyage from Charleston, South Carolina to New York City aboard the ship Independence. The narrator learns that his old college friend Cornelius Wyatt is aboard with his wife and two sisters, though he has reserved three state-rooms. After conjecturing the extra room was for a servant or extra baggage, he learns his friend has brought on board an oblong pine box: "It was about six feet in length by two and a half in breadth." The narrator notes its peculiar shape and especially an odd odor coming from it. Even so, he presumes his friend has acquired an especially valuable copy of The Last Supper.
The box, the narrator is surprised to learn, shares the state-room with Wyatt and his wife, while the second room is shared by the two sisters. However, for several nights, the narrator witnesses his friend's surprisingly unattractive wife leaving the state-room every night around 11 o'clock and going into the third state-room before returning first thing in the morning. While she is gone, the narrator believes he hears his friend opening the box and sobbing, which he attributes to "artistic enthusiasm."
As the Independence passes Cape Hatteras it is caught in a terrible hurricane. Escape from the damaged ship was made via lifeboat, but Wyatt refuses to part with the box and issues an emotional plea but was denied by Captain Hardy. Wyatt decides he cannot part with the box and returns to the ship, ties himself to it with a rope. "In another instant both body and box were in the sea--disappearing suddenly, at once and forever."
About a month after the incident, the narrator happens to meet the captain. Hardy explains that the box had, in fact, held the corpse of Wyatt's recently deceased young wife. He had intended to return the body to her mother but bringing a corpse on board would have caused panic among the passengers. Captain Hardy had arranged, then, to register the box merely as baggage. As passage was already registered with Wyatt and his wife, so as not to arouse suspicion, a maid posed as the wife.
Poe biographer James Hutchisson equates "The Oblong Box" with Poe's series of "tales of ratiocination" or detective fiction stories, a series which includes "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Scott Peeples compares "The Oblong Box" to this genre as well but notes that it is not strictly a detective story because it did not emphasize the character of the detective and his method. He also notes that the protagonist is "bumbling" because he allows his personal opinions to taint the physical evidence, leading him to incorrect conclusions.
In writing "The Oblong Box," Poe recalled his experience while stationed at Fort Moultrie many years earlier by setting the ship's embarking point as Charleston, South Carolina to New York. Just a few months before the story's publication, Poe had recently experienced his own sea voyage when he moved to New York via steamboat. His wife, Virginia, had begun showing signs of her illness about two years before in 1842.
Poe originally offered "The Oblong Box" to Nathaniel Parker Willis for the New Mirror, but Willis suggested it was better suited for the Opal, a gift book edited by Sarah Josepha Hale. It was first published on August 28, 1844, in the Dollar Newspaper in Philadelphia. It was also published in the September 1844 issue of Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book, also edited by Hale.
A 1969 film directed by Gordon Hessler starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee (below)carries the name The Oblong Box. Other than the title, the two share little in common.
"NBC Short Story" aired a dramatic reading of "The Oblong Box" in the 1950s. It is available at Archive.org
The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which ran from January 1974 to December 1982, did an adaptation of "The Oblong Box" which aired on January 8, 1975.
1.^ Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. ISBN 1-57806-721-9
2.^ Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998: 123. ISBN 0-8057-4572-6
3.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 35. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
4.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. Harper Perennial, 1991. ISBN 0060923318
5.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998: 417. ISBN 0801857309
6.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. Checkmark Books, 2001. p. 175. ISBN 081604161X
7.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. Checkmark Books, 2001: 175. ISBN 081604161X