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Poe’s Devices for Heightening the Effect of Terror and Horror in Short Stories Essay

Edgar Allan Poe, an American poet, critic and writer of the XIX-th century, is a world- recognised master of the horror genre. Poe’s Tales of Arabesque clearly demonstrate his talent for cultivation of mystery, terror, and macabre. The process of this horror cultivation is very subtle and complicated. Poe, like an artist of arabesque who intertwines and interlaces flowers into an elaborate pattern, weaves a net of mystery and horror and entangles the reader in it. Poe starts any work ‘with consideration of the effect’ it would have on the reader.

All other stages of story creation and literary devices used for it depend on that main effect. Thus, the genre of Poe’s works, their plot structure, type of narration, word choice, and imagery are the devices, with the help of which Poe creates and heightens the effect of terror and horror. Such works as ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, ‘MS Found in a Bottle’, and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ serve as vivid examples of Poe’s sophisticated but very effective horror creating technique. The effect produced by the work on its reader largely depends on the genre of this work.

It is no mere chance that Poe chooses the genre of a short story for his works of horror. On the one hand, a short story provides the writer with enough space to intrigue the reader, to rouse his interest in the plot. ‘MS Found in a Bottle’, for example, invites the reader to take part in a fantastic adventure in the midst of the stormy ocean. On the other hand, the plot unfolds very quickly, leaving no time for reasoning and meditation, keeping the senses heightened and sharp. Thus the perception of horror deepens and strengthens.

Short forms of a short story bind the reader to pay closer attention to every word, to every comma and exclamation mark. Words used to create the atmosphere of terror and mystery become more colourful, more significant and profound: metaphors grow into symbols, symbols – to allegories. In ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, for example, the suspense of something terrible increases with every step Fortunato makes into the depth of the Montresors’ catacombs, with his every cough, with every proposal of Montresor to come back.

But the effect of horror is heightened not only by length of a story, but also by its plot structure. A very short introduction or its complete absence and the disjunction placed at the very beginning of the story put the reader into the coarse of events at once. The events are mostly proleptic; being unaware of their meaning readers start experiencing nervousness and alarm, they feel that some dark, arcane mystery is about to uncover. The reversal in a short story comes to the end and it always comes unexpectedly.

With the help of this device the writer shocks the reader, greatly intensifying his horror. Thus, terrified with the gloomy atmosphere of the Roderick’s castle and the constant sensation of trouble, the reader gets truly horrified at the sight of Roderick’s dead sister, lady Madeline, suddenly revived to life. The absence of a resolution prolongs the shock from the terrible mystery uncovered; or, as it is in ‘MS Found in a Bottle’, – the mystery that can never be resolved. The manner in which the story is narrated is no less important for heightening the effect of horror than its very plot.

Though all the three stories proposed for this study are narrated in the first person, they are told in various types of the first person. These types differ by four main aspects. The first one is the part that the narrator plays in the story and his influence on the course of events. The narrator of the ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is the central figure of the plot, moreover, he is its moving force. The reality of the story is revealed to us through Montresor’s eyes and is estimated by him. The reader is always with the narrator and as the narrator is a murderer the reader becomes his unwilling accomplice to murder.

The horror of being a murderer is absolute. The narrator of ‘MS Found in a Bottle’ is also the central figure of the plot, all the events happen to him and are described by him. Being always together with the narrator, the reader embarks on a dangerous, perilous, hair-rising adventure, which ends as unexpectedly as it begins. Unlike the previous two stories, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is not a story about the narrator. It is Roderick Usher who is in the centre of the plot, it is his mind and his life that we are interested in.

But as we are with the narrator, who is an observer and estimator of events, we can only feel the dark mystery of the House of Usher, but can not penetrate into. There is no greater horror than that of mystery and no greater terror than that of the unknown. The second aspect in which the three first person narrations differ is the use of tenses. Poe intentionally tells ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ in the past and presents all the events in chronological order. This device helps the writer to show the mind and actions of an insane person, who carefully plans a murder and methodically carries it out.

Because of such step- by-step development of the plot the feeling of horror progressively grows higher and sensations of terror deposit. In ‘MS Found in a Bottle’ the writer builds up the narration in a way to bring the story closer to the reality and to the reader. That’s why he makes use not only of the past tense, but also of the present and even the present continuous. By describing the mysterious ship in the present the writer transports the reader on its deck, makes him feel the tossing of the ship, inhale the salty air.

The use of the present continuous in the very end of the story heightens the horror and despair of being ‘amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering of ocean and of tempest’. The syntactic structure of the final passage – short abrupt sentences separated by dashes – creates the effect of the stream of consciousness and makes the reader not only the witness, but a participant of the final scene. The three main tenses of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’- past perfect, past, and future – expand the borders of the events narrated.

The past tense helps the writer to describe Roderick Usher as a reserved, mysterious, gloomy, melancholic, and abnormally sensitive person. The flash back made into Roderick’s childhood with the help of the past perfect shows that he has always been that kind of person and all his ancestors were like him. The future shows that though the House of Usher fell the mystery of it will never be solved. Thus the sense of ‘insufferable gloom’ and FEAR, which Roderick and his house arouse in the reader, roots in the ancient past and prolongs itself into the future.

The final aspect that makes each of the three stories unique is the structure of the narration. ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is formed of a combination of dialog, monologue, and description. These are the dialogues here that are of particular interest to the study. Dialogues of ‘The Cask’ are short and abrupt. Answers given to the questions are brief and concrete ( ‘Nitre? ‘ he asked, at length. ‘Nitre,’ I replied. ). This device makes every single word symbolic. Dialogues here are the part of the imagery that helps to draw the picture of horror and expectation of threat. Dialogues of ‘The House of Usher’ differ from those of ‘The Cask’.

They are long, descriptive, and complicated. Some dialogues between the narrator and his friend grow into the monologues of Roderick. The final monologue of Roderick composed of broken and disconnected sentences shows the shock of horror Roderick experienced when he felt that Madeline was back from her tomb. This shock extends to the narrator and to the reader. ‘MS Found in a Bottle’ consists of a single monologue. The changing speech of the narrator reflects his mood and influences the mood of the reader. But the main function of this monologue is to create the hostile, tense, and gloomy atmosphere of the confusing reality.

The main thing that influences the way in which the story effects the reader is the setting. Poe uses various stylistic devices to create a sinister setting and thus heighten the effect of horror and terror in his short stories. Metaphor is one of the most important stylistic devices. It enables the writer to describe implicitly the thing or notion for which there is no name in the common language, or a feeling ‘which will admit to no analysis’. Thus, for example, the supernatural wild ocean is named ‘watery hell’ or ‘chaos of water’. Simile helps to describe the indescribable in a more explicit form.

Such similes as ‘waters rear heads like demons of the deep’, or ‘crew glide like the ghosts of the buried centuries’ arouse associations with death, mystery, and myth. And the comparison of the windows of the house of Usher with blind eyes inspires us to take the house as a living creature, strange and dangerous. Another device, used to animate inanimate objects is personification. Whatever Poe personifies – the wind (‘breath of wind’), silence (‘obstinate silence’), tempest (‘bellow of the tempest’), or air (‘wild air’) -it becomes brighter and more profound.

Epithets carry out a chief function in creating the main images of the stories and drawing their sinister and horrifying settings. Thus, the ocean in ‘MS Found in a Bottle’ is described as unfathomable, terrible and thundering; the ship is gigantic and supernatural; the house of Usher is melancholy and ancient, it has bleak walls, dark intricate passages, Gothic archways, vaulted ceilings, and it inspires a ‘sense of insufferable gloom’ and ‘unredeemed dreariness’; the vaults of the Montresors are dark, damp and sombre. Poe frequently uses epithets that show the extreme quality, power, or size of an object described.

Such epithets as intolerably hot wind, extreme fury, immense pressure, terrific breakers, and colossal supports form the fantastic reality of Poe’s works. An immense impact on our senses and feelings is made by colour and light words. Poe paints his gloomy settings with four main colours: black, red, grey, and yellow. These colours, however, never repeat those that we are used to, they are always unique and special. Poe sees every subtle hue of the colour and observes the way it ‘behaves’. Red, for example, is presented in two main hues: dusky-red and blood-red; it glares, streams down, or gleams in encrimsoned light.

Red is the colour of blood and is therefore associated with pain and murder. Black, ebony black, and deep dingy black are the colours of ‘eternal night’ and ‘pitchy darkness’. They symbolise death, burial, fear, horror, and misfortune. Grey and leaden-hued arouse associations with ghosts, shadows, something elusive, mysterious, and imperceptible. Yellow or sickly yellow is traditionally regarded as the colour of disease, sickness, and insanity. The light in the stories is never bright but is always indiscrete, feeble, sluggish, faintly discernible, ghastly and mystic.

And the gloomy setting created with the help of these hues of light can arouse in the reader nothing but the sensation of growing fear. In the conclusion it would be necessary to mention, that Edgar Allan Poe is an unsurpassed master of the horror creating technique. He uses such devices as genre, structure of the plot, type and structure of narration, vivid imagery, settings, colour, and light to heighten the effect of terror and horror in his short stories. The contribution he made into the development of the horror genre can not be overestimated.


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