"The Oblong Box" is a short story by the American mystery and horror writer Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in the August 28, 1844 issue of the Dollar Newspaper of Philadelphia. It was also published in the September 1844 issue of Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book.
The story's unnamed narrator is a man who plans to travel from Charleston, South Carolina to New York by sailing ship. He finds that another one of the ship's passengers is an acquaintance of his, the artist Cornelius Wyatt. Cornelius Wyatt is traveling with his two sisters, whom the narrator has met before, and his wife, whom the narrator has not met before. Strangely, Wyatt has booked three cabins on board the ship for his group. Wyatt and his wife share one cabin. His two sisters share another. The narrator concludes that the extra cabin must be for the storage of some precious piece of luggage. This seems to be confirmed when a large rectangular wooden box is taken on board the ship for Wyatt. The mystery deepens, however, when the rectangular box is taken into the cabin where Wyatt and his wife sleep.
"The Oblong Box" has been adapted for radio.
The story's unnamed narrator is due to sail from Charleston, South Carolina to New York on board the ship Independence on June 15. He is happy to see the name of Cornelius Wyatt on the list of the ship's passengers. Wyatt is an artist who studied at the same university as the narrator. Although Wyatt is often gloomy and unsociable, the narrator considers him to be a true friend. Wyatt is traveling with his wife and his two sisters. The narrator knows Wyatt's sisters well. Wyatt has only recently married and the narrator has not yet met his wife. Wyatt has, however, told the narrator that his wife is extremely beautiful and intelligent.
The narrator sees that Wyatt has booked three cabins for himself and his party on board the Independence. The narrator is puzzled as to why the four people need three cabins. He thinks that the third cabin might be for a servant. Checking the passenger list again, he sees that Wyatt is not traveling with a servant. He was, however, originally going to travel with one. The words "and servant" have been crossed out on the passenger list. It then occurs to the narrator that Wyatt probably intends to use the extra cabin as a storage room for a particularly precious piece of luggage, probably a painting that he has recently purchased.
On June 14, the narrator goes on board the Independence to make some preparations before the ship sails. Captain Hardy, the ship's captain, had told the narrator that Wyatt would be on the ship that day too. The narrator waits on board the ship for Wyatt and his new bride to arrive. He is eventually informed that Mrs. Wyatt is "a little indisposed" and that he will have to wait until the ship sails the next day to meet her.
The following day, Captain Hardy approaches the narrator and tells him that the ship will not sail that day "owing to circumstances". The narrator tries to get Captain Hardy to tell him what is causing the delay. The captain, however, refuses to tell the narrator what the problem is. The ship is not ready to sail until almost a week later.
On board the ship, the narrator approaches Wyatt, his sisters and his wife. Wyatt's wife is wearing a veil. Wyatt is in a very gloomy mood and does not even introduce his wife to the narrator. The introduction has to be made by one of Wyatt's sisters. Mrs. Wyatt lifts her veil. The narrator sees that she is not beautiful at all and is almost ugly. He is not surprised, however, because he knows that Wyatt is prone to exaggeration, especially when describing female beauty.
A rectangular pine box is brought on board for Wyatt. The narrator is certain that it is the piece of luggage to be stored in the third cabin. The box is six feet long and two feet wide. It is an odd shape and size for a box containing a painting. The narrator concludes that it must contain a copy of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper painted by an Italian artist called Rubini the Younger that the narrator knows was recently offered for sale. Painted on the lid of the box are the words, "Mrs. Adelaide Curtis, Albany, New York, Charge of Cornelius Wyatt, Esq. This side up. Handle with care." The narrator knows that Mrs. Adelaide Curtis is Wyatt's mother-in-law. He does not think, however, that the box will travel farther than Wyatt's studio in New York City. Surprisingly, the wooden box is not taken into the third empty cabin. It is instead taken into the cabin where Wyatt and his wife sleep.
For most of the voyage, Wyatt looks extremely miserable, which is not unusual for him. What is unusual, however, is that his sisters stay in their cabin and do not socialize with anybody. In contrast, Wyatt's wife is extremely sociable and enjoys chatting to all the passengers. The majority of the passengers have to conclude that, although she means well, Mrs. Wyatt is not only unattractive but also lacking in intelligence. The narrator cannot understand why Wyatt married her.
The narrator is not pleased that Wyatt has said nothing to him about buying Rubini the Younger's Last Supper. He wants to let Wyatt know that he has figured out that is what he has in the rectangular wooden box. The narrator approaches Wyatt, mentions the odd shaped box, smiles, winks and gently pokes Wyatt in the ribs. Wyatt turns red, then pale and then laughs madly for ten minutes before collapsing. Wyatt is revived and carried back to his cabin. The narrator believes that Wyatt has gone mad. Captain Hardy appears to agree because he advises the narrator to avoid Wyatt for the rest of the voyage.
On two different nights, the narrator sees Mrs. Wyatt leave the cabin that she shares with her husband at about 11pm to spend the rest of the night in the third empty cabin. He thinks that Wyatt and his wife may be about to get divorced. The narrator also hears the sound of Wyatt pry open the lid of the rectangular box with a chisel and a mallet muffled with wool or cotton, cry and then use the muffled mallet to nail the box shut again.
There is a terrible storm at sea. The Independence takes in a lot of water and is in danger of sinking. Most of the passengers and crew get into one lifeboat. Captain Hardy, the narrator and a few other passengers get into another. When the boat has gone some way from the ship, Wyatt asks the captain to go back so that he can get the box. The captain refuses. Wyatt jumps into the sea and swims back to the ship. He swims back towards the lifeboat with the box tied to his body by a rope. Wyatt drowns when he and the box sink into the stormy sea.
The narrator and the rest of the passengers in the lifeboat sit in silence for an hour. The narrator then comments on how suddenly Wyatt and the box sank. Captain Hardy says that Wyatt's body and the box will rise again when the salt melts. He indicates to the narrator that he will explain what he means later when they are not in the presence of Mrs. Wyatt and Wyatt's two sisters.
A month later, the narrator happens to meet Captain Hardy in New York. The captain then explains the mystery to the narrator. Wyatt married a beautiful and intelligent woman who suddenly took ill and died on June 14. He wanted to take his wife's body back to New York with him on the Independence but knew that most of the ship's passengers would not want to travel on board a ship that was carrying a dead body. So that nobody would know there was a corpse on board, Captain Hardy arranged to have the body partially embalmed and placed with a large amount of salt in a wooden box of the kind used for carrying merchandise. Wyatt decided to say nothing about his wife's death to any of the other passengers, none of whom had ever met her. He got his late wife's maid to impersonate her during the daytime. She slept in the third cabin that Wyatt booked each night.
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Oblong Box" was adapted as an episode of the 1950s American radio series NBC Short Story. It was also adapted as an episode of the American radio series CBS Radio Mystery Theater that first aired on January 8, 1975.
The Oblong Box is the title of a 1969 British horror film directed by Gordon Hessler. It stars Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. It is notable for being the first movie in which the two famous horror actors appear together. The film tells a tale which involves African witch doctors, premature burial, grave robbery, a horribly disfigured man who, in the style of The Phantom of the Opera, hides his ugliness beneath a mask, murder and revenge in Victorian England. It has nothing in common with Edgar Allan Poe's short story apart from the title.