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Poe Vs. King: Concepts of Horror
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”
--Edgar Allan Poe
Blood runs dripping from the banister, smeared hand-prints on the stairwell, but where was the body? She turned around quick, gasping at the sound, something behind her was moving. . . . A dark figure descended upon her knife in hand. . . . she had not the chance to scream, and not the time to wish she could. . . .
What is horror? Just the word brings up untold images of death and gore, screams in the dark, your pulse quickens at the very thought, but what more is it, and who can weave the darkness best? There are three things in a horror story that really raise goosebumps: suspense, psychological, and grotesque elements, and in all the macabre world, there are two weavers of the dark veil that have always stood out, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King. But who, truly, does black the multitudinous stars the best? Here, the argument stands for the great Edgar Allan Poe, whose very name evokes dark thoughts and twisted intentions.
Even Poe’s background is fraught with terror and tragedy, the painful deaths of those closest to him, alcoholism and destitution, personal horror at the hands of something he could not begin to comprehend nor stop, giving way to twisted characters with even darker psyches than could ever be imagined, not even by his counterpart, who has had a modern, moderately happy life could pen. Some could argue darkness born of light does shine the darkest, but anything that began dark, if turned to darkness, will only get darker and darker still, killing the light rather than masking its presence, as Poe has been known to do wonderfully time and time again, leaving his characters no hope in the dark world, and no light in the next, as none was promised to him, writing not of comfort and warmth, but putting the twisted underbelly of his dark life to light, or perhaps greater darkness, under the pen.
“Hope is a good thing - maybe the best thing, and no good thing ever dies”
Suspense, put plainly, is mental uncertainty, or excitement. The Reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and sits on the edge of their seat reading as fast as they can, pulse up, mind racing. Suspense is the backbone of a horror story, without it, it collapses and fails. To begin, let us compare stories, side by side, of each author, picking out the very best of suspense in each one. Let’s start with Popsy, by Stephen King. King does a good job of introducing you to his character Sheridan, and while wondering what will happen to the kids is rather suspenseful, yes, the concept of suspense in relation to the flow of the story is rather lacking.
His mind suddenly started to fly again, clicking along as if he were on speed.
I told him I was thirsty.
Why would Popsy go to a place where they -
(eat? was he going to say eat?)
He’ll find me.
He can smell me.
Popsy can fly.
--Popsy, Stephen King
At this point in the story, between the kid biting him and drawing blood, the pink tears and the superhuman strength, you can already figure out that he’s a vampire, or at least some sort of non-human creature. This is a good example of suspense, but is not needed at this point, because you can pretty much already figure out what is going to happen. A better example of suspense where you might have already guessed the ending (because all good writers fight to the very end) is in Poe’s The Black Cat. You are certain the narrator is free, and then a noise comes from inside the tomb, condemning him to the gallows as he had condemned an innocent soul, albeit a cat:
No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence than I was answered by a voice within the tomb!- -by a cry, at first muffled and broken like the sobbing of a child and then....utterly anomalous and inhuman --a howl-- a wailing shriek.... such as might have only arisen out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and the demons that exalt in the damnation.
-- The Black Cat, Edgar Allen Poe.
Now here, some extremely intuitive readers (not me) will have already figured out that the cat was walled up as well, but for the rest of us, even so close to the end of the story, our blood really gets pumping, rushing hot, pounding in our ears as we rush and stumble to read the next paragraph. You leave the world of the story heart racing, calmed and chilled by the final words. That’s what suspense is a horror story supposed to do. Chill you, excite you, tense your muscles and fill your blood with dread. Another good comparison for suspense is between Poe’s The Raven and King’s Last Rung on the Ladder.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
“Larry, I can’t hold on much longer!” Her voice was high and despairing.
“Kitty, you’ve got to! You’ve got to hold on!”
Back and forth. Hay down my shirt. Back and forth. The haystack was as high as my chin now, but the haymow we had been diving into was twenty five feet deep. I thought that if she only broke her legs it would be getting off cheap. And I knew if she missed the hay altogether, she would be killed.
Back and forth.
“Larry, the rung! It’s letting go!”
-- The Last Rung on the Ladder, Stephen King
This here is a very good example of suspense by King, but, because you already know that Kitty lives it is dampened somewhat. The last words in this quote send a shock through the reader, even though they believe she survives. A better example is in Poe’s The Raven, when the nothingness at the door surprises the reader:
Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word,
Lenore?, This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word,
"Lenore!" Merely this, and nothing more.
--The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe
The Last Rung on the Ladder, is rather suspenseful, yes, but because you know the sister wrote the letter you know she survives the incident, and the suspense is that in wondering what will happen to her. Not that suspense in The Raven is any better, but from the opening context of the poem there is a dark suspenseful atmosphere that causes one to wonder and worry, especially after there is no one at the door. The dark mystery of those lines gives way to new mystery and suspense in the later lines, finally falling away into deep darkness and depression.
The two best examples of suspense from both Poe and King are in their stories The Fall of the House of Usher, and Strawberry Spring, respectively. In The Fall of the House of Usher, the house “crackles” and “rips” just like the words of the story the narrator reads, and later, there comes a “most unusual screaming or grating sound”( 276) followed finally by “a mighty great and terrible ringing sound”(278) all repeating the sounds within the book the narrator reads to the terror-struck Rodrick. At this point the reader will feel the fear of the characters, though perhaps not as greatly as Rodrick, wondering and racing to see what could have made those sounds, so perfectly in tune with another story’s narrative. The best match to it, with King’s rather artful use of the fog and the suspicious murders. This is a good shot for King, especially here:
There was someone dark among us, as dark as the path that twisted across the mall or wound among the hundred-year-old oaks on the quad in back of the gymnasium. As dark as the hulking Civil War cannons seen through a drifting membrane of fog. We looked into each others faces and tried to read the darkness behind one of them.
This is one of King’s best examples of suspense I have found, suspense that ties into the psychological fear of other human beings in time of trouble and doubt. This shows very well humanity's tendencies to distrust all others and search for clues in their faces, however, given the facts and analysis of all the other pieces, one must begin to understand Poe’s mastery of the craft of horror based suspense, over his counterpart King, even as we see the evidence for his skill, because yes, both are rather skilled authors.
“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.”
--Edgar Allan Poe
The next concept of horror to be analyzed is the use of grotesque elements and the supernatural to a desired effect. Some would argue that elements of the supernatural belong in the psychological element of horror, but for the sake of horror and this analysis, it is being paired with grotesque. In the element of grotesque, you are horrified, grossed out even. Grotesque is the blood and guts that make a horror story a horror story. Without grotesque elements, or the presence of the supernatural, you miss out on some of the best parts of a horror story. Side by side, here we shall compare the same six stories used in suspense, this time looking for the each author’s best examples in horror. To begin, Poe’s The Raven, and King’s The Last Rung on the Ladder:
I heard the thump of her body hitting the boards. The sound, a loud thud, sent a deadly chill into me. It had been loud, much to loud, but I had to see.
Starting to cry, I pounced on the haystack and pulled it apart, flinging the straw behind me in great handfuls. A blue-jeaned leg came to life, then a plaid shirt . . . and then Kitty’s face. It was deadly pale and her eyes were shut. She was dead, I knew it as I looked at her. The world went gray, November gray. The only things in it with any color were her pigtails, bright gold.
--The Last Rung on the Ladder, Stephen King
This here is the best example of grotesque in The Last Rung on the Ladder, and while it is not as grotesque as many horror readers would want, it still gives the reader a rather admirable chilling effect, even if you know the character cannot be dead, because how else could the narrator have gotten the letter? A good Poe counter example is The Raven, because it too has little of the grotesque element. It would not be fair to show a story with a lot, because it would not be an equal comparison:
“Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil!--prophet still, if bird or devil!
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted--
On this home by horror haunted--tell me truly, I implore:
Is there--is there balm in Gilead?--tell me--tell me I implore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
--The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
In terms of grotesque, of all the King and Poe horror stories, these two have the weakest examples, using barely any if at all. So it would seem most logical to start here. The Last Rung on The Ladder uses the assumed death of Kitty in such a terrible way to its effect, mirroring it again in how the character commits suicide. However, with the dark overlay of the odd and supernatural in The Raven it comes out on top because of the already dark (i.e. grotesque) theme, adding to it in the quote shown. Many find that an angry scene against that which you cannot control only strengthens the supernatural themes. This is shown very well in Poe’s work. One of the better examples of grotesque elements in the stories being analyzed, albeit not the best, is in The Black Cat:
Many projects entered my mind. At one period I thought of cutting the corpse into minute fragments, and destroying them by fire. At another, I resolved to dig a grave for it in the floor of the cellar. Again, I deliberated about casting it in the well in the yard - about packing it in a box, as if merchandise, with the usual arrangements, and so getting a porter to take it from the house. Finally I hit upon what I considered a far better expedient than either of these. I determined to wall it up in the cellar - as the monks of the middle ages are recorded to have walled up their victims.
--The Black Cat, Edgar Allan Poe
This here is especially a good quote for Poe, and is better for gruesome visualization than what he actually does with the body. This is also especially frightening for anyone who has read any other stories of people walled up alive (Like in Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado). The reader began to think of waking up and walled in, as our society is so scared of, perhaps she wasn’t dead after all, one begins to think that maybe the wife wasn’t dead after all. . . The other gruesome projects twist the reader’s thinking process, one can see all the horrible thoughts of the alcohol twisted character, the reader knows the narrator has to nave been harboring more darkness than he allows one to know in his self-description, it all makes the not so horrifying elements twist and meld to make something far A comparable pair of King’s work is Strawberry Spring, a good work of King’s in terms of all the elements of horror:
A junior named John Dancey . . . began screaming into the fog, dropping books on and between the sprawled legs of the dead girl. . . her throat cut ear to ear but her eyes seeming to sparkle as if she had just successfully pulled off the funniest joke of her young life--Dancey. .. screamed and screamed and screamed.
-Strawberry Spring, Stephen King
This is one of those grotesque quotes that require some reader thought involved with the actual gruesomeness of it all, as King’s work often does. Its one of those ‘It works if you think about it’ examples of horror. Not that the thought is not horrifying on its own, but if you take into account all the elements of the quote in pieces you can make it much more horrifying than it really is.
Popsy, a work of King’s has a final scene of extreme grotesque elements, echoed here:
He saw Popsy’s thumbnail for just a second before it disappeared under the shelf of his chin, the nail ragged and thick. His throat was cut with that nail before he realized what was happening, and the last thing he saw before his sight dimmed to black was the kid, cupping his hand to catch the flow . . .
Anyone with a fear of blood is kind of freaking out here, and is kind of freaked out because this is how the story ends, but still Poe has done one better, in the ending of his The Fall of the House of Usher, the gruesome elements of this piece melding together to twist the thinking process as only the Master of Dread can:
As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell - the huge antique panels to which the speaker pointed, [then] threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. . . there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. . . then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.
This here is one of Poe’s best examples of grotesque I have found in the stories analyzed. Here the reader knows that Madeline had indeed been entombed alive, like one was lead to believe in The Black Cat, and had barely escaped buried alive or being autopsy, only to die, truly, again, after a bitter struggle for life. Poe is again, a true master of the craft.
“If I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.”
The final element of horror, the last true piece that everyone thinks of, and wants, from a horror story, is the psychological element. How well does the story mess with the mind, keep the reader awake nights not remembering the gore, the fleeting rapid heartbeat, but the chilling words, and the twisted thoughts and circumstances they entail.
To begin with, there is Poe’s The Black Cat, and as all great horror stories are, a masterpiece of psychological horror. All comparisons in this element will be difficult, because both King and Poe are masters in psychological horror, however, there must forever be contest and comparison, for it is always the will of the world to pit greatness against greatness, for otherwise, there is no contest:
One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; - hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; - hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; - hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin - a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it - if such a thing wore possible - even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
-The Black Cat, Edgar Allan Poe
This here rings as one of the most disturbing lines in The Black Cat, even more so than the death of his wife, in part because of the heart the narrator gives to it, and less so in the death of his wife. The psychologically insane element of it gives way to a darker form of thinking, even more so than in King’s pair-able, and still well written, work Popsy:
The kid . . . looked for help, asked for someone to ask the right question - You get separated from your dad, son? would do - looking for a friend.
Here I am, Sheridan thought, approaching. Here I am, sonny - I’ll be your friend.
-Popsy, Stephen King
This is a very disturbing line. Sheridan almost seems cruel in his thinking, and the odd strange bluntness in it all chills the reader. However, the lines in The Black Cat quoted, bring something entirely darker to the page, calling in an almost insane love, killing for killing, rather than hurting one to save oneself. The reader has little pity for the kidnapper Sheridan,and while the inhuman bluntness is shocking, it begins to become acceptable and internalized behavior of the character because of conditioned hatred and fear of people like that. You begin to expect such things from an ‘evil’ character like that, and with good reason to.
Strawberry Spring is one of the two examples of King’s with last lines that chill the reader to the very bone. The whole story sets up for this, and is a very good way of using psychological horror. It requires more setup than most, but in the end it is worth it, even if one feel a little disappointed in how it ends:
I can hear my wife as I write this, in the next room, crying. She thinks I was with another woman last night.
And oh dear God, I think so too.
Strawberry Spring, Stephen King
Poe, as a weaver of darkness, takes on psychological horror in a very different way, choosing not to leave the finally words a chilling message, but instead in pieces throughout the story, paving the way for the terrifying ending. One of the better examples in his work The fall of the House of Usher:
"Not hear it? --yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long --long --long --many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it --yet I dared not --oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am! --I dared not --I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them --many, many days ago --yet I dared not --I dared not speak! And now --to-night --Ethelred --ha! ha! . . . Will she not be here anon? . . . Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? MADMAN!" here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul --"MADMAN! I TELL YOU THAT SHE NOW STANDS WITHOUT THE DOOR!"
-The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe
Knowing that Rodrick knew that Madeline still lived entombed causes an odd stirring in the darkness of the readers heart. He knew she was alive, and kept her entombed. This odd, almost angry and frightening darkness causes an array of odd emotions, and twisted the thoughts long after reading. One begins to wonder what twisted soul could have penned these atrocities, a dark soul with no equal, that of Poe.
His final work to be analyzed is The Raven, one of the best known and recognizable works of Poe, saving perhaps The Black Cat. In the spirit of comparison, I have paired it with Stephen King’s The last Rung on the Ladder, for only a great work of psychological horror could compare with King’s chilling last words, She was the one who always knew the hay would be there. The last words of the narrator on his sister suicide, put thus. But yet, Poe indeed has one to compare, perhaps even prove itself better than, as has been proven time and time again:
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked upstarting -
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”
-The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
This shows the whole theme of The Raven, lost love, and no hope, no balm in Gilead, as it were. Poe here gives the reader the anguish of the narrator, leaving them in actual pain. The reader leaves saddened, the darkness in their heart threatening their very existence. Poe, truly is a master of the craft.
“They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”
-Edgar Allan Poe
In conclusion, both Poe and King are master weavers of the dark veil, but if they must be compared, Edgar Allan Poe, by rights, and fair analysis of the elements of literature, though a unwilling one, is the tentative master, if a master must be chosen.