Poe’s final tale of horror was inspired by two actual events: the first was the social scandal aroused by a spurned woman, and the other was a ghastly event of Medieval French history called the Ball of Burning Men. After the shattering loss of his wife Virginia, Poe blamed her rapid deterioration on a gossip ring that had falsely accused Poe of infidelity and lunacy. Jealous and spiteful after Poe rebuked her “disgusting” attraction to him, Elizabeth F. Ellet and seven of her friends (including the Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller and Thomas Dunn English – of Fortunato fame) began a libelous smear campaign about Poe’s relationship with a married woman.
On her deathbed, Virginia accused “Mrs. E.” of murdering her. It is generally assumed that the king of “Hop-Frog” is Ellet and the ministers are her circle friends whom Poe held responsible for the misery of his “defenseless” Trippetta and the unwarranted defamation of his character as a drunk and lunatic. Even more graphic than his (first) literary revenge against English, “Hop-Frog” borrows its hellish climax from an ill-conceived decision by King Charles VI of France and five of his friends – to dress as demons in combustible resin and flax at a wine-sopped wedding party.
In a non-descript, vaguely European country, the king’s court – dominated by seven churlish counsellors – entertain themselves by abusing the court jester, Hop-Frog. A dwarf with a limp and an embarrassing sensitivity to alcohol, Hop-Frog was abducted from his home country when the king invaded it and forced to be the king’s fool. However, he is bizarrely strong and has the agility of a monkey, making him simultaneously pathetic and powerful. His only friend is the equally diminutive Trippetta, a beautiful dancer, who is also forced to entertain the court.
One night the courtiers are especially raucous, and they decide to force Hop-Frog to drink several goblets of wine, even though one is more than enough to make him drunk. They laugh at his slovenliness and cruelly mock him, but he doesn’t have the will to resist them. Trippetta intervenes and tries to stop them, but the king shoves her down and throws a goblet of wine in her face.
The eight men burst out in laughter but are interrupted by the strange sound of grinding which seems to be coming from Hop-Frog’s hideous teeth. His rage has sobered him up, and the courtiers turn to him for advice on an upcoming masquerade ball. Clear-eyed and calm, Hop-Frog advises them against conventional costumes. Instead, he suggests that they frighten the guests by appearing as a band of orangutans chained together. The illusion could be achieved, he points out, by wearing tight-fitting pants and shirts daubed in tar and covered in shaggy wads of dried flax. A chain twisted about the waist of each man, locked together in a circle, and crossing at right angles in the middle, would create the impression that the band had escaped from a zoo.
Delighted at the idea, the seven courtiers and their king prepare for their stunt. At the stroke of midnight on the night of the ball, they burst into the crowded ballroom growling and flailing, clanking their chain and sending the attendees rushing towards the walls, clearing the center of the room. The guests attempt to flee, but the doors are locked, and Hop-Frog has the keys. The dwarf himself revels in the ruse, and adds his own spin to it by having a chandelier chain lowered from the ceiling and hooked to the intersection of the chains crossing in the middle of the circled men. Someone in the rafters begins to hoist the chain up, and the costumed men are lifted high above the crowd.
Still acting, the jester shouts to the frightened party-goers that he thinks he can identify the pranksters if only he could get close enough; scuttling up the wall like a spider, he plucks a torch from its socket, and leaps from the wall to the chain. As he thrusts the flambeau into their faces, the crowd is now aware of a horrible grinding sound: Hop-Frog’s fanglike teeth. His face is now distorted in rage, and his voice cracks violently as he declares to have recognized them, in the same instant that he lights the king’s flammable suit afire. All eight men are quickly devoured by flame and Hop-Frog climbs up the chain to avoid the lapping tongues.
Before disappearing through a skylight, Hop-Frog gloats: "I now see distinctly… what manner of people these maskers are. They are a great king and his seven privy-councillors,—a king who does not scruple to strike a defenceless girl and his seven councillors who abet him in the outrage. As for myself, I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest." Meanwhile, “the eight corpses swung in their chains, a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass.”
Hop-Frog and Trippetta – his presumed confederate – escape back to their own country, never to be seen again.
Like its spiritual brother, “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Hop-Frog” has little literary merit to recommend itself other than its status as a highly cathartic revenge fantasy. It does, however, successfully blend many of Poe’s favored motifs – masquerades, resentment of the aristocracy, the folly of alcohol, intimidating teeth, elaborate revenge, the number seven, mental instability, and a frail-but-beautiful woman. Like Metzengerstein (who meets a fiery end) and Prince Prospero (whose ribald masquerade is cut short by his grisly death), the king of “Hop-Frog” represents the prototypical Poe villain – a vain, insensitive, presumptuous aristocrat. In fact, “Hop-Frog,” the last of Poe’s horrors, is somewhat fittingly an amalgamation of “Metzengerstein” – Poe’s first horror – and “Masque of the Red Death” – nearly in the middle of Poe’s oeuvre. While it lacks in psychological profundity and literary complexity, it is perhaps a perfect caricature of Poe’s horror fiction, rich in Schadenfreude, catharsis, and grisly horror the likes of “Berenice” and “Valdemar.”