illustrated portrait of American author of gothic fiction Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

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What similarities exist in Edgar Allan Poe's stories?

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In his essay "The Importance of a Single Effect in a Prose Tale," Poe writes that he unifies a piece of writing around mood. He writes not primarily to develop a plot or a character but to convey a feeling or what he calls an "effect."

Most often in his stories, Poe wishes to convey a mood or "effect" of horror. He does this through description and imaginative details that relentlessly build up a sense of unsettling terror. For example, in "The Cask of Amontillado," the reader's awareness that Montresor is plotting revenge and the piling up of creepy details about the cold, damp, bone-filled catacombs through which he leads Fortunato builds a mounting sense of tension and deep unease. Similarly, the ebony clock that stops everyone cold when it ominously tolls the hour in "The Masque of the Red Death," reminding people of their mortality in the middle of a deadly plague, contributes to a sense of horror.

Poe also tightens his effects by using a claustrophobic writing style focused on very few characters and often narrated by a person who is troubled or unstable. Poe sometimes horrifies us by putting us into contact with a fevered mind trying to justify its heinous actions, as in "The Tell-tale Heart," or with a claustrophobic nightmare setting, such as that described by the first-person narrator of "The Pit and the Pendulum."

Further, Poe's stories are alike in being startlingly imaginative and original. As you read, you wonder what kind of mind could be so dark and daring as to imagine cutting the eye out of a black cat, envision a giant razor sharp pendulum cutting a person in two while rats swarm around his food, or describe a house disintegrating and sinking in a tarn when its very strange owner dies?

Poe's stories stand out, despite imitators, as being like nobody else's. You are seldom likely to read one of his stories and then later wonder, who wrote that one? You can't help but remember him because of the vivid impact of his effects.

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Edgar Allan Poe is recognized as the father of the mystery story and also the horror story in American Literature.  Poe's life held so much unhappiness that is it not surprising that he chose to write about the type of characters who killed, maimed, and suffered.

From his parents' early deaths to his adopted father disowning him, Poe seemed to have to search for love and security for the rest of his life.  His life appears to have been one struggle after another, culminating in the abuse of drugs and alcohol. 

His most famous stories are familiar to most American literature students:

"The Cask of Amontillado"

"The Fall of the House of Usher"

"The Tell-Tale Heart"

"The Black Cat

These rank among the great short stories in literature.

What did Poe's stories have in common?

Mental Illness

Most of Poe's stories examines a psychological problem in one of the main characters.  Many times, it is the narrator or main character that is battling mental illness.

  • Montresor is obsessed with reeking revenge.
  • Roderick Usher is so mentally ill that his senses have become unbearably painful.
  • The nameless murderer in "The Tell-Tale Heart" kills an innocent man because of his vulture eye. 
  • The nameless murderer in "The Black Cat" kills a cat and his innocent wife.

Most of his narrators spend the story trying to convince the reader that they are not insane.

Limited Number of Characters

There are usually a limited number of characters in the stories.  The main exception to this is "The Masque of Red Death." However, there are only two characters that really count in the story: Prince Prospero and the Red Death.

Death Is the Theme

His stories usually have the element of death as a part of the theme of the story.  Just be aware that someone is not going to make it through the story.

  • Montresor kills Fortunato.
  • Roderick unknowingly buries his sister alive. He dies himself at the end of the story.
  • The narrator smothers the old man to death in "The Tell-Tale Heart."
  • The narrator buries an axe in the head of his wife and hangs his beloved cat, Pluto from a tree in the yard.
  • Everyone dies in "The Masque of Red Death."

The Settings

Most of the settings are in the person's home.

  • Montresor takes Fortunato to his home and the catacombs underneath.
  • Roderick's story circulates around his house and its collapse at the end of the story.
  • The narrator kills the old man in the house that belongs to the old man.
  • The narrator in "The Black Cat" kills his wife in the cellar of their home.

Alcohol and Drugs

Most of the main characters have an abuse problem.

  • Fortunato is drunk when he is lured to his death.
  • Roderick takes drugs for his disease.

The writer spoke of acute bodily illness--of a mental disorder which oppressed him...

  • The killer in "The Black Cat" admits to abusing alcohol.

When reason returned with the morning – when I had slept off the fumes of the night's debauch – I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the crime of which I had been guilty...


The only story that I find any humor in is "The Cask of Amontillado" and Poe's use of irony.  The foolish Fortunato says so many stupid things that his character is humorous as well.

Although there are many commonalities in Poe's stories, each one has its own flavor, interesting characters, and approach to the grotesque.  If anyone is in the mood for a delicious, macabre story, the fabulous Poe is the writer to read.




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