Poe as a Gothic Writer
Horror literature has emerged from a blend of the rejection of the Enlightenment, the emergence of Romanticism, and most importantly, the early Gothic tradition. Horror authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were greatly inspired by neo-Gothic interests. Edgar Allan Poe was an American horror author during this era whose collection of extraordinary short stories can be related to these interests. Through the mood, settings, architecture, irrationality, helplessness and supernatural characteristics in his stories, Poe?s popular ?The Fall of the House of Usher?, ?The Pit and the Pendulum?, and ?The Tell-Tale Heart? clearly reveal ways in which Poe can be described as a Gothic writer.
In ?The Fall of the House of Usher?, there are many Gothic elements that prove Poe used the Gothic style in his writing. The very first sentence of the story depicts the setting, which happens to be ?dull, dark and soundless . . . when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens? (Poe, ?Usher? 49). Already this gloomy description reveals the melancholy rejection of the progressive Victorian era, and is followed by an equally dismal description of the House of Usher. The house is ?bleak? (Poe, ?Usher? 50), with ?vacant eye-like windows? (Poe, ?Usher? 50), ?rank sedges? (Poe, ?Usher? 50) and ?a few white trunks of decayed trees? (Poe, ?Usher? 50). These descriptions of the house relate to the concern of early Gothicism, that being ruin and decay. The House of Usher is a mansion that is lacking luster; it is facing ?extraordinary dilapidation? (Poe, ?Usher? 51) and is certainly unkempt, as ?minute fungi overspread the whole exterior? (Poe, ?Usher? 51). A ?Gothic archway? (Poe, ?Usher? 51) serves as an entrance into the house. The interior d?cor of the house is an ?ebon blackness? (Poe, ?Usher? 52), which alludes to the colour black being deemed ?Gothic? by the Romans because it was associated with evil. When dealing with the characters in the story, Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline both demonstrate Gothic concerns in their own characteristics. Usher madness is a definite irrational emotion, and the Goths were very intrigued by feelings such as this that could not be controlled. Madeline is an extreme case, as she suffers from Catalepsy, a disorder that causes her to appear dead, and therefore entirely helpless. She is proves this utter helplessness when the narrator and Usher decide that she has died and they entomb her, only to find out that she was still alive. This notion of extreme vulnerability was of much interest to Goths. For Poe to incorporate helplessness into his horror stories generated much fear in readers. As the narrator reads an Arthurian tale to Usher in an attempt to calm him, the strange occurrences in the tale begins to mirror reality. This supernatural element alludes to Gothic tradition as well, falling in with the concern of irrational happenings that cannot be explained. When Madeline comes back from her supposedly dead state to collapse and die with Usher at the end of the story, there is a very Gothic concern of the reversal of a natural order. This reversal has obviously been the dead coming back to life, a very supernatural and illogical phenomenon. Gothic concerns of irrationality, helplessness, architecture and reversal of the natural order all come into play in this story, proving Poe to have been a Gothic writer.
In the story ?The Pit and the Pendulum?, the similar Gothic concerns plus an emphasis on helplessness and medieval torture are expressed. Early Gothic writers exhibited an interest in medieval Catholicism. This trait is displayed in ?The Pit and the Pendulum?, when ?black robed judges? (Poe, ?Pit? 135) announce ?the dread sentence of death? (Poe, ?Pit? 135) to the narrator. The first sounds the narrator hears are ?inquisitorial voices? (Poe, ?Pit? 135), which is a reference to the Spanish Inquisition, when Catholics hunted down heretics and saved their souls by purification by fire. The fact that this story can be read as a Christian parable greatly points to the Gothic interest of Catholicism. However, aside from the Christian reading of it, this story is mainly a study in helplessness. The narrator is ?sick unto death? (Poe, ?Pit? 135) to begin with, and is also bound during several points in the story, specifically to a ?low framework of wood? (Poe, ?Pit? 141) as the Pendulum slowly descends. The victim also loses consciousness frequently, usually to wake up disoriented and often in an entirely new situation than he was in before swoon. He is then sent into a world of ?nothingness?(Poe, ?Pit? 136), where ?all sensations appear swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades.?(Poe, ?Pit? 136). The narrator is now enveloped in darkness; a victim of sensory deprivation which he cannot control. He is then bound to that wood and unable to escape ?a huge pendulum? (Poe, ?Pit? 142), which is slowly descending and increasing in velocity. This gruesome depiction of medieval torture is classic of Gothic writers as well, as it appeals to their interest in pain, inexplicable cruelty and helplessness. Even after the victim finds way to escape the pendulum, he is faced yet again with a helpless situation, this being burning walls pushing him closer and closer to the Pit. Fire is also a classic medieval torture method, and it depicted in this story as ?enkindled? (Poe, ?Pit? 147) walls of ?fiery destruction? (Poe, ?Pit? 147). He notices when the ?closing walls press[ing] resistlessly onward? (Poe, ?Pit? 147) are seemingly inescapable, however, in letting out a ?final scream of despair? (Poe, ?Pit? 148), he is saved by General LaSalle, a French general during the Inquisition. It is perhaps a divine miracle that the narrator is saved, giving this story an even more Christian medieval feel. A medieval atmosphere, uses of torture, and extreme helplessness in ?The Pit and the Pendulum? easily characterize Poe as Gothic writer.
In contrast to ?The Pit and the Pendulum?, Poe?s ?The Tell Tale Heart? is more of a study of irrationality and abnormality, also important interests to Gothic writers. In the very first paragraph of the story, the narrator feels the need to prove his own sanity to the reader, that is, by claiming he can ?healthily . . . tell you the whole story? (Poe, ?Tale? 193) of his murderous escapade. As the narrator then goes on to describe an abnormal obsession with an old man?s ?vulture? (Poe, ?Tale? 193) eye, he still insists that he is perfectly sane, as his entire plan proceeded cautiously and wisely, and that he was ?never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before [he] killed him? (Poe, ?Tale? 193). The narrator feels a frequent need to reassure the reader that is he not mad, contrary to what his obsessive and abnormal actions suggest. This leads us to believe he is an unreliable narrator, and that this is a story in the mind of a psychopath. The very concept of a psychopathic mind is not only something obscure and unexplainable, it is also a violation of the sensible Victorian norm. By incorporating madness and irrationality into the story, Poe has used the Gothic characteristics of abnormality, unreliable, and unexplained phenomena. Compulsive, obsessive disorders also seem to plague this narrator, even further suggesting his madness. He confesses, ?every night, just at twelve, I looked in on him as he slept? (Poe, ?Tale? 194). One night as he looks in on the man and his ?Evil Eye? (Poe, ?Tale? 193), his hearing seems to become extremely acute, as he can hear ?the hellish tattoo of the heart? (Poe, ?Tale? 194) of the old man, growing, ?quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant? (Poe, ?Tale? 195). The sound becomes so deafening in his mind that he suddenly realizes the neighbours may hear it, and he kills the old man. The murderer then describes the ?wise precautions [taken] for the concealment of the body? (Poe, ?Tale? 196), in another attempt to prove his sanity. However, the method in which the narrator conceals the body is horribly cruel and vulgar. He ?cut[s] off the head and the arms and the legs? (Poe, ?Tale? 196), and then buries the dismembered corpse under ?the flooring of the chamber? (Poe, ?Tale? 196). According to the narrator there is no evidence, as ?a tub caught all [the blood]? (Poe, ?Tale? 196). This unusually ruthless and harsh means of murder relates back to the Gothic interest in pain and abnormal torture. The narrator is so obsessed and psychotic that is he so far able to act completely irrationally without any sort of conscience. He is especially sensitive, which is also an abnormal characteristic of the Victorian era, and a keen interest of the Goths and Romantics. After police come to his house to search the premises in suspicion of ?foul-play? (Poe, ?Tale? 196) heard by neighbours, the narrator begins to hear, in his mind of course, ?the beating of [the old man?s] hideous heart? (Poe, ?Tale? 197) under the planks. The sound eventually drives him mad until he feels that he must ?scream or die? (Poe, ?Tale? 197) he is in such agony, and ends up confessing his deed. In this story the narrator?s insistence on sanity and reason and then his quick turn to sheer suffering and madness frightens readers, as the actions of the narrator are so unpredictable. Unpredictability, reversal of common norms and unexplainable obsessions are the Gothic traits at work in Poe?s ?The Tell-Tale Heart?.
In Edgar Allan Poe?s ?The Tell-Tale Heart?, ?The Pit and the Pendulum?, and ?The Fall of the House of Usher?, it is clear that his reliance on ruin and decay, pain, torture, the supernatural, the abnormal and helplessness all contribute to Poe being characterized as a Gothic writer. During an era that publicly believed in progress, objectivity and conformity, Poe?s tales that reversed common norms and suggested illogical occurrences were a great source of fear to readers. Consequently, Poe?s Gothic-inspired tales have become classic horror stories in our day, and continue to serve as the groundwork of horror literature.