Ruler of the Realm: Edgar Allen Poe as the Founder of American Horror


In Penguin’s new Horror Series edition of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Guillermo Del Toro delivers an introduction that gets to the heart of American horror. He discusses the merits of the genre as a way to “fully surrender to a tide of truths and wills infinitely larger than ourselves” (xii). Horror is a confrontation with the psyche, and American horror our particularly American psyche, and to understand that genesis we have to move back first to those tightly buttoned Puritans in the early days of the country. From their restrictive roots the Gothic emerges, hoping that “goblins, ghosts, and demons provided some necessary release to a puritanical society” (Del Toro xiii). The Gothic is the past that lingers on, and it’s a literature that speculates on echoes from earlier ages. By the end of this period these same haunted castles and misty moors were taken up by the hands of “young, skillful, and powerful writers” who “began to utilize the shiny artifices of science, psychology, and other avant-garde tools to lend plausibility to [their] phantoms”. These are the Dark Romantics, the tales of Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe, who, instead of the optimism found in the Transcendentalists, explored elements of human fallibility and the psychological through their writings, and thus the modern horror story “starts evolving from its Gothic roots and delivers bold, very experimental works that shape the language in exciting and innovative new ways” (Del Toro xiv). Of all the Dark Romantics, Edgar Allan Poe remains a most towering figure in his contribution to original early American literature and his solidifies his legacy as the father of American horror.

Poe’s gothic horror tales contain the window dressings of a love affair with old Europe, but they are staunchly rooted in the everyman’s fears, in the iniquitousness of the human condition, “if in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul” (Grotesque). Poe took the horror story to a new level, both in his ability to lead his reader simultaneously through titillation and terror, as well as his skill at encapsulating narratives in what he and Hawthorne deemed as “tales”, but what the literary world has recognized as a total mastery over the short-story form.

Poe may not have invented the horror story, but for his time he was the best at exploiting it for his “unity of effect”, especially in regards to his ideas about “single sitting” tales and the incorporated effect their readings inspired, “…for, if two readings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed” (“Philosophy”). Poe understood the mechanics of affecting the reader, and elevated horror with the sensibilities of a true literary genius, whereas before most horror tales had existed in “Penny Dreadfuls” written inartistically and denoting a lack both of skill on the author’s part and taste on the reader’s. And like comic book writers pre-1980, the pejorative of the form became attached to its penman as well.

Yet it’s important to not that Poe was not the supernatural nut his legacy may have imposed on him in the nearly two centuries since his death. Poe was a rationalist, no surprise from the man who invented the detective story, but it’s an often-overlooked fact. Had Poe simply been a schlockmeister with a purveying interest in the gloomy and spooky, his works simply would not have endured the test of time. It was Poe’s ability to pit rational, intelligent characters against events or symptoms out of their control, along with his precision skill at building to a climax where every phrase was assembled just so that not only influenced the later burgeoning horror scene, but set the example for it as well. Poe’s tales still have a powerful “unity of effect” even today, and with his dismissive critics long dead it is Poe’s attention to his work, his skill as a sculpting scrivener that lives on and continues to influence.

Infamous in his time and especially in the fifty years after his death, Poe met with little of the esteem he deserved while alive. Disdained especially by American critics like the New York Tribune as having “no earnestness of character, no sincerity of conviction, no faith in human excellence, no devotion to high purpose—not even the desire to produce a consummate work of art” and Henry James thought “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection” and “to take him with more than a certain degree of seriousness is to lack seriousness one’s self” (Hutcherson 212-13). Yet his work outlives and out shadows nearly all of his contemporaries in its influence on modern American horror and fantastic literature, as well as the creation of the detective story and the blueprint for Sherlock Holmes.

“In the eighteen-thirties occurred a literary dawn directly affecting not only the history of the weird tale, but that of short fiction as a whole; and indirectly moulding the trends and fortunes of a great European aesthetic school. It is our good fortune as Americans to be able to claim that dawn as our own, for it came in the person of our illustrious and unfortunate fellow-countryman Edgar Allan Poe,” (Lovecraft). So begins the seventh section of Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” treatise, which firmly redeems Poe as the “opener of artistic vistas” for those who would follow his lead, not the least of which was Lovecraft himself (Lovecraft).

Poe’s stories were not required to end happily, and indeed often ended with narrators reaching the peak of their madness or being hauled off to jail, without any hollow morality that had been more typical of horror stories before him. And while Poe played with aesthetics from the Gothic he was more focused on psychological sources of fear, and wrote with “an analytical knowledge of terror’s true sources” (Lovecraft). Del Toro makes an astute observation when mentioning earlier horror stories and their tendency to make the soul the root of evil, but it’s not until Poe that the seat of evil is transferred back to its proper place—the human mind (xvi).

One of Poe’s greatest explorations of the dark side of the human mind is his story “The Black Cat”. Already, by making the titular animal a figure fixed in superstition, Poe begins by putting the reader ill-at-ease, despite the narrator’s attempts to reassure them that the tale is only a “series of household events”, as though these events could happen to any of us (“Cat” 695). Poe’s narrator notes his “docility and humanity”, implying that he is connected to the human race, that he is linked to us as the reader (“Cat” 695). Recounted from the point of view after the events have already taken place, the narrator, “possesses the opportunity and capability to receive penance for his deed”, yet he dodges blame for any of his actions and uses “rhetorical tricks” to “succeed as a rhetorician, [but] also induces him to fail as a human being” (Badenhausen 496). By the story’s end, any identification the reader may have had with the narrator is twisted into repulsion, not especially for the mad criminal himself (this would be only a superficial fear of the Other, as in most banal horror pulp), but for oneself, and in recognizing this inner fear, this possibility that might exist in any of us, Poe instills a much deeper fear that begs hard questions about one’s own morality in the face of such gruesome events. If we can feel a kinship to someone who can bury an axe in their beloved’s brain, then we have that capability within us too, and so, brilliantly, Poe makes the reader the monster of the story. It’s this psychological approach to horror—employing what Freud and Jentsch would later call the unheimlich—as well as a strict attention to form that elevated Poe’s horror, despite the detractors of his time.

This focus on the mind and its weaknesses to fear had an undeniable influence on Lovecraft, as Poe “affected [him] most of all horror-writers” (Tyson 23). Poe was the driving force behind Lovecraft’s style and his “weird fiction”, leading to the famous opening lines of both “Call of Cthulhu” and “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” (Lovecraft). Cthulhu’s call externalizes this unknown, creates an entire cosmos of disaffection for it to thrive in, and makes the reader the subject of madness as they journey further paradoxically into the unknown searching for answers. Even Cthulhu’s tomb, the sunken city of R’lyeh, bears more than a passing resemblance to Poe’s “The City in the Sea”. Where Poe’s “Black Cat” narrator shows us that madness can live in all of us, Lovecraft goes one step further by giving us a triggerman (triggergod?) that can induce that madness at will, further removing our control over our own minds. Poe’s meticulousness, his explorations of the dark and dank places of the mind, as well as an empathetic echoing of a tragic life of woe made Poe more than an influence to Lovecraft, and in the one hundred and fifty plus years since Poe’s death I would venture that no one in the American literary canon has come close to the kinship Lovecraft felt in Poe.

In the 1950’s another American literary master appeared on the scene in the form of Ray Bradbury. One of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, Bradbury is most well known for his science fiction, but Poe played just as instrumental a role in shaping him as a writer as other writers of the fantastic: “In 1928, as an omnivorous reader at eight years of age, Bradbury discovered Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination in a family bookcase along with a chance volume of Hugo Gernsbach’s new magazine Amazing Stories, which was founded deliberately to reprint the ‘science fiction’ (Gernsbach’s newly coined term) of Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells” (Pollin 32). While it’s obvious that Poe’s forays into science fiction were met with delight by a young Bradbury, as he grew older Poe’s darker Gothic influence also played a large part in shaping the writer, and it’s the synthesis between those styles of dark psychological terror and playful satiric sci-fi adventures that can be seen in much of Bradbury’s work. In 1950, Christopher Isherwood, the editor of Tomorrow, wrote “Poe’s name comes up almost inevitably in any discussion of Mr. Bradbury’s work; not because he is an imitator (though he is certainly a disciple) but because he already deserves to be measured against the greatest master of his particular genre” (Pollin 33). And indeed, Bradbury himself said he was the “son of Edgar [Poe] and Emily [Dickinson]”, and this is as fitting a label as any critic could give (Pollin 31). Bradbury’s influence on young American horror and science fiction writers growing up in the 50’s and every decade after is definite, and in no small measure do we have Edgar Allan Poe to thank for that.

Shirley Jackson, too, a lesser known but equally powerful writer in her own right, writes with “an extension of the loneliness prefigured in Poe”, notably in her short disturbing tales and The Haunting of Hill House (Del Toro xxvii). Jackson used Gothic conventions in her work to reveal the contours of “madness and loneliness in a disintegrating world generally bereft of the meliorating power of love and forgiveness”, as Poe’s work did (Parks 15). While Jackson has remained a lesser appreciated than her phenomenal work deserves, she is a preeminent influence on writers like Stephen King that have the depth to look beneath a serene façade and see the madness beneath.

A new form of the horror tale was beginning to emerge around the time of Lovecraft as film began to become more legitimized, especially in Weimer Germany’s dark expressionism and the early monster films of Lon Cheney. Poe’s unsettling tales were the perfect fit for new art form, and “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Black Cat”, “Pit and the Pendulum”, “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Raven”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and “The Masque of the Red Death” were ripe for adaptation, resulting in dozens of versions that permeate through the early days of the horror film. Both Cheney and Bela Lugosi would star in films adapted from Poe, but not until the teaming of Vincent Price and Roger Corman did his works receive a wider welcome through their “Poe-Cycle” of films made in conjunction with the prolific Richard Matheson. But it would be British-born Alfred Hitchcock and his immeasurably influential films of suspense and terror that would truly translate Poe’s pages to the silver screen most effectively. Hitchcock may have been born in England, but once he crossed the pond for good in 1939 the films he made became an honored part of Hollywood and the American film tradition. Considered the master of mystery and suspense in cinema, Hitchcock noted:

Very likely it’s because I was so taken with the Poe stories that I later made suspense films. I don’t want to seem immodest, but I can’t help comparing what I’ve tried to put in my films with what Edgar Allan Poe put in his novels [sic]. (Perry 394)

Hitchcock’s influence on American horror and suspense films can’t be understated, and again it becomes evident that Edgar Allan Poe nurtured the imagination that these works sprung out of.

All of these followers of Poe—Lovecraft, Bradbury, Jackson, and the early monster and suspense movies of the cinema—along with Poe himself, would steep together in the mind of one young man who would become the penultimate definition of horror literature in the modern age—Stephen King. The Shining is most directly inspired by “Shirley Jackson’s Hill House and Edgar Allan Poe’s haunted palace in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’”, and showcases King’s ability to bring the uncanny in Poe and the madness and loneliness of Jackson into a frightening harmony with one another (Strengell 231). King’s Pet Semetery, especially, is unquestionably an extension of Poe’s “The Black Cat”, and the malevolent Pluto can be seen in the “Frankencat” of the family’s cat, Church. Earlier writers that took and learned from Poe, as well as Poe himself were the catalyst for King and his prolific work, who has gone on to be read more than any other author. Regardless of his uneasy standing in literary criticism (which, I’ll remind you, Poe and Lovecraft also had to endure in their times), King is the paramount figure in modern horror literature, and owes a great debt to Poe and his impact.

Interestingly, Poe’s influence overseas in the 20th century has also had a ripple effect back into the American canon, most particularly with the British masters Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. Gaiman, writing an introduction to a Barnes & Noble illustrated edition of Poe’s works, noted first falling in love with the author’s “Hop-Frog” tale at the age of thirteen: “Suddenly it seemed like Poe was everywhere…Bradbury’s story “Usher II” solidified my fascination” (Gaiman). He openheartedly gushes over the “poet with a t”, and remarks, “Even today I return, time and again, to Poe”, emphasizing the American author’s profound impact on him (Gaiman). And while Gaiman in person belongs to the British Isles, much of his work sits firmly in the American tradition—if nothing else, his ubiquitously influential Sandman series published by DC’s Vertigo imprint, and American Gods, his novel that somewhat extends topics touched on in the Sandman series. In the American comic book world, there are very few other works that have received the esteem of this series, and its literary-tradition-infused writing style helped to legitimize comics in criticism, to say nothing of his powerful work in prose and fiction.

Barker, like Gaiman, while not a native American has done much of his work in the United States, and infused the American horror tradition with his startlingly visceral films “Hellraiser”, based on his own novel The Hellbound Heart (with even its title a play on Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart), “The Lord of Illusions”, and “Candyman”. He was called the “future of horror” by Stephen King, and belongs alongside the horror greats of modern day, regardless of his birthplace. Barker notes Poe’s immense influence on his embracement of the fantastic:

Poe proved to me early in my imaginative life the power of fictions that are unabashedly committed to the business of taboo. He taught me that if the vision was strong enough it didn’t matter if the story occurred yesterday on your own street corner or on some dateless day in an unamed place. After Poe, the thrust of fantastique fiction would never for me be a matter of conventional folks setting their Christian values against dome fretful, haunted darkness, but a celebration, however perverse, of that darkness; a call to enter a territory where no image or act is so damnable it cannot be explored, turned over in the mind’s eye, kissed and courted; finally – why whisper it? – embraced. (Barker, emphasis original)

Within all of these pillars of horror—King, Bradbury, Jackson, Lovecraft, Del Toro, Barker, Gaiman, Hitchcock—the direct influence and lineage of Edgar Allan Poe is assured. Through their echoes of his styles, his themes, and literary experiments they “sing…the wit and wisdom of their king” (“Haunted Palace”). He created the detective novel, was a master of satire, helped invent the science fiction genre, but lording over all else Poe was a master of horror and the horror “tale”. His reputation was nearly obliterated in the years after his death, but a renewed interest and critical respect that grew out of the early 20th century catapulted him to one of the most read—and certainly most respected—of any early American writers. His personal life was often polarizing, but his work was always superb, and his legacy can rest on the merits not only of his own magnificent achievements in literature and poetry, but in the exponential impact he’s had on countless generations since his death. Fusing Gothic elements with psychological terror, and bridging the gap between the Puritans and the modern age, Poe is a quintessentially American writer, and the father of our modern horror tradition. His personal image may still be tainted by Griswold’s slander, but his reputation as the grand master of terror and fear will be questioned, “nevermore”.


Works Cited

Badenhausen, Richard. “Fear And Trembling In Literature Of The Fantastic: Edgar Allan Poe’s `The Black Cat’.” Studies In Short Fiction 29.4 (1992): 487. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Nov. 2013.

Barker, Clive. Interview from The Independent Magazine, 30th November 1991. The Official Clive Barker Website. Web. 11/25/13.

Del Toro, Guillermo. Introduction. The Haunting of Hill House. By Shirley Jackson. 1959. New York: Penguin, 2013. xi-xxxii. Print.

Gaiman, Neil. “Some Strangeness in the Proportion: The Exquisite Beauties of Edgar Allan Poe”. Neil Web. 11/25/13.

Hutcherson, Dudley R. “Poe’s Reputation in England and America”. American Literature, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Nov., 1942), pp. 211-233. Duke University Press. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11/25/13.

Lovecraft, H.P.. “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. The H.P. Lovecraft Archive. Web. 11/25/13.

Parks, John G. “Chambers of Yearning: Shirley Jackson’s Use of the Gothic”. Twentieth Century Literature, 1984 Spring; Vol. 30 (1): 15-29. Hofstra University. JSTOR. Print.

Perry, Dennis R. “Imps of the Perverse: Discovering the Poe/Hitchcock Connection”. Literature Film Quarterly, 1996; 24 (4): 393-99. Academic Search Complete. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.. 2012. Pp. 695-701. Print.

—. “The Haunted Palace”. Poe: Poems and Prose. Germany: Everyman’s Pocket Library, 1995. 116-117. Print.

—. “Philosophy of Composition”. Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Web. 11/25/13.

—. Preface. “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque”. Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Web. 11/25/13.

Pollin, Burton. “Poe and Ray Bradbury: A Persistent Influence and Interest”. Edgar Allan Poe Review, 2005 Fall; 6 (2): 31-38. Poe Studies Association. JSTOR. Print.

Strengell, Heidi. “The Ghost: The Gothic Melodrama in Stephen King’s Fiction”. European Journal of American Culture, 2005; 24 (3): 221-238. Academic Search Complete. Print.

Tyson, Donald. The Dream World of H.P. Lovecraft: His Life, His Demons, His Universe. Llewellyn Worldwide, 2010. Print.

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