How does Poe create atmosphere and tension in his short stories?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Poe's stories are suspenseful in part because they are written in the voice of the narrator, who seems strange and unreliable. For example, "The Tell-Tale Heart" begins, "True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" This is a captivating beginning, as the narrator states that he has been troubled with anxiety, and then he asks the reader whether he or she might consider him to be mad. The narrator becomes even more wildly eccentric when he addresses the reader, saying, "Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!" (he is referring to the light he uses to illuminate the old man's bed chamber). The use of a first-person narrator who is arrestingly strange, along with the narrator's direct address of the reader (using the word "you"), makes the tale suspenseful.

In addition, the tales proceed quickly. They are generally short, and the action in such tales as "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado" proceed inexorably—and swiftly—as the narrators become more and more deranged. The reader witnesses the very rapid dissolutions of the narrators' minds and the narrators' fast descents into madness and violence. 

engtchr5 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

First things first: Poe creates atmosphere by setting a tone and mood from the outset of all his short stories. We as readers are led into dark and foreboding places, and the stories themselves build from that darkness.

Tension is created by Poe's use of language. Whether it's the constant heartbeat in "The Tell-Tale Heart," or the finger-tapping suspense in "Fall of the House of Usher," we as readers are kept waiting in suspense for the next plot event.

Overall, Poe's characters and settings contributed to the gothic feel of each of his works. We can picture the stony, shadowed places that he leads us, and as a result, we become more involved with each piece.

ladyvols1 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Poe’s Gothic short stories like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and his portraits of madmen and grotesques such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” he is a master at building suspense and horror through his settings.  Many of the stories take place in dark damp dungeons, or prisons and crypts.  The mood is heavy and the dark setting and the tone of the author creates the weird feeling many get when they read today's Gothic novels like Steven Kings novels.  Poe's short stories like "Fall of The House of Usher" contain “everything needed; a Gothic house, a terrified narrator, live burial, madness, and horrific catastrophe.”

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