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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Cold War
Soon after World War II when Russian leader Joseph Stalin set up satellite communist states in Eastern Europe and Asia, the ‘‘cold war’’ began, ushering in a new age of warfare and fear, triggered by several circumstances: the emergence of the United States and the USSR as superpowers, each country's ability to use the atomic bomb, and the conflict between communist expansion and the determination to keep it in check. Each side amassed stockpiles of nuclear weapons that could not only annihilate each country, but the world. Both sides declared the other the enemy and redoubled their commitment to fight for their own ideology and political and economic dominance.

As China fell to communism in 1949 and Russia crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956, the United States appointed itself as a sort of world police, and the Cold War accelerated. In 1950, the United States resolved to help South Korea repel communist forces in North Korea. By 1953, 33,629 American soldiers had been killed in the Korean war.

The Cold War caused anxiety among Europeans and Americans fearing annihilation by Russians and the spread of communism. Citizens were encouraged to stereotype all Russians as barbarians and atheists who were plotting to overthrow their governments and brainwash their citizens. The fear that communism would spread to the United States led to suspicion and paranoia. Many suspected communists or communist sympathizers saw their lives ruined.

This ‘‘Red Scare’’ intensified with the indictment of ex-government official Alger Hiss (1950) and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1951) for passing defense secrets to the Russians. Soon, the country would be engaged in a determined and often hysterical witch-hunt for communists, led by Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). (In 1954, McCarthy was censured by the Senate for his unethical behavior during the Committee sessions.) By the time of McCarthy's death in 1957, almost six million Americans had been investigated by government agencies because of their suspected communist sympathies, yet only a few had been indicted.

In response to the cold war threat, Americans and Europeans built bomb shelters and conducted air raid drills, which frightened school children and heightened the atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust.

Horror Story
The horror story has been an important genre in British and American literature for the last two hundred years and provides a notable link to the gothic novel. Subjects popular with horror stories include murder, suicide, torture, and madness. The stories can involve ghosts, vampires, and demons and the practices of exorcism, witchcraft, and voodoo.

The thrust of the horror story involves testing the central characters' courage and endurance as they experience physical as well as psychological danger. The terror that fills them can result from emotional chaos and push them to the edge of sanity and barbarism. These stories reflect the attempt to understand deeply rooted and primitive urges and fears as they are linked to concepts of death, punishment, and evil.

Elements of the horrific occur in classical literature as far back as Virgil's Aeneid and Lucan's Pharsalia through the Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies, to the Gothic novel and short story in the nineteenth century. Early stories in this genre focused on the terrors of eternal damnation as outlined by various religious doctrines and on the secular ‘‘hell’’ of madhouses and prisons. Twentieth-century horror stories examined punishment as well as the dark recesses of the mind. Notable authors in this genre include E. T. A. Hoffman (‘‘Die Elixiere des Teufels’’ and ‘‘Ignaz Denner’’) Edgar Allan Poe (‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and ‘‘The Black Cat’’) Henry James (‘‘The Turn of the Screw’’), Ambrose Bierce (‘‘The Man and the Snake’’ and ‘‘A Watcher by the Dead’’), and contemporary writer Stephen King.

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)


(The entire section is 4,391 words.)