At the same time that writers were bringing depth of character to the gothic setting in the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe revitalized the genre in mid-century America. Suddenly Tales of Horror had a distinctly American flair and a surprising psychological depth. This nuance captivated readers then and still does today.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Horace Walpole was credited with creating quite a stir with the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. It wasn’t a long story, but it was replete with stock elements such as a haunted medieval castle, damsels in distress, ghosts, dungeons, sound effects, and a taste for cheesy melodrama. Though he first published the tale anonymously on his own printing press, Walpole surprised himself by developing a quick following of readers and authors alike. Imitations sprung up like weeds, and he was soon part of pop culture in 1765. I’m not sure if he spurred or spawned it, but Walpole hit on something. It was not a new idea, but it was a new way to tell a story. This was gothic style.

Before the vampire and zombie novels of our past decade, the gothic tale trumped stories of entertainment, appealing to our darkest ponderings—at base, crossing the line from light to dark, perhaps experiencing the consequence of evil and sin. Consider Frankenstein and Victor’s ethical dilemma of creating life from death. Should man create life from nothing or leave it to his Creator? Consider Dracula. What role does science play with piety or superstition? We could examine The Monk, Castle of Wolfenbach, The Mysteries of Udolpho, or The Turn of the Screw. What of satirical jabs at the gothic novel like Northanger Abbey? Or those stories like Jane Eyre that lend such reality that gothic cliché fades away?

At the same time that Brontë brought depth of character to the gothic setting in the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe revitalized the genre in mid-century America. Suddenly Tales of Horror had a distinctly American flair and a surprising psychological depth. This nuance captivated readers then and still does today.

In his introduction to Gothic Horror, Clive Bloom writes, “For Poe it is perversity that marks horror just as peculiarity is the mark of art, and both confront common sense, decency and normal moral codes. No longer does the external world threaten as much as the internal. The demands of the will become of paramount importance.”[1] This is most evident in his short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where Poe clearly combined physical horror like entombment with horror of the mind such as hysteria and catatonia.

I am certain Poe was quite conscious of morality even as he wrote of hatred, murder, and revenge. The vices, the perversity, could not exist without a moral standard to rub against. In his essay and lecture titled “The Poetic Principle,” Poe explains, “Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful, while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: —waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity—her disproportion—her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious—in a word, to Beauty.” In other words, because of his strong moral sense, Poe did mean to shock and startle. He designed his short fiction to run against taste and beauty. Intentionally.

As my youngest son, age 17, and I read through Poe’s short works this past month, I found our discussions connecting these thoughts in a fascinating way. Yes, we discussed the dominant theory that Poe’s often grief-filled life lent much to his insane characters and plot ideas. We also explored alternate theories that some of Poe’s works might indeed be parody in disguise. Are you familiar with the theory connecting St. Expedite with “The Raven”? Depicted as a Roman centurion crushing a crow beneath his foot, Expedite is known to favor today over tomorrow. The dying crow says “cras,” Latin for “tomorrow,” in most every illustration. “Cras” apparently was a Roman pun, as it also stood for the “caw” of crows and ravens. It is a unique idea when applied to the poem as a whole.

What became more apparent, though, was that my son was most troubled by Poe’s imagination. He wondered, as we all do, how Poe created the murdering narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” These characters disturbed him more than Macbeth and his descent. And my son put it bluntly: “These guys don’t go insane. They’re mad from the start.” Up to this point gothic stories had often included the process of madness, the descent into darkness if you will. Poe’s conception in media res or cum eo was more bothersome, and what’s more, it persists in villainous characters in modern times.

Bloom cites H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and others for maintaining this troublesome insanity that spurs evil. I would go so far as to apply it to the zombie craze of the past decade. The antagonist Negan in The Walking Dead, for instance, is more frightening than hordes of the undead because of his psychological state. He is not just an evil tyrant. He is evil. Empathy and mercy have been bred out in this post-apocalyptic, survivalist world, and we are somehow drawn in gross fascination to this alter-mind. He is a villain you hate, and not because we empathize with some understandable trauma. We are horrified at how the human mind and heart have inexplicably devolved.

Yet the presence of villains isn’t unique, regardless of genre. Poe would argue the most unusual parallel in the last one hundred and fifty years is that these stories are all about the effect of these villains in the story and on the readers. In “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe explores both the ideals of the “unity of impression” and the unity of effect. Impression is the experience of reading something in one sitting, perhaps the length of a graphic novel, short story, or TV episode today. It adds to the effect of the story, and Poe argues that an author such as himself chooses the final effect of the piece first. The piece should only be written after the author decides how it will end and how to properly infuse the story with his desired emotional response. Poe calls this the unity effect, and it is aided by passion and truth.

I’m not sure those intentions are present in gothic fiction or all of its subgenres today, but I do believe those stories that twist and rub against the moral standard might just follow some of Poe’s charges. Clive Bloom refines the idea by adding, “The gothic frisson has not yet been exhausted, its critics as yet unable to explain it away in a language that often suggests indifference to the art at best or contempt at worst. To explain fear is not to deny its power, and that power still grips us, even as it eludes and fascinates us—a genre half in the real world and half in a landscape of dreams.”[2]

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Edgar Allan Poe’s essays “The Poetic Principle” and “The Philosophy of Composition” can be found at The Poetry Foundation website or Project Gutenberg.

[1] Clive Bloom, ed. Gothic Horror: A Guide for Students and Readers, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 3.

[2] Bloom, “Preface,” xxii.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photograph of Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1849, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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