Edgar Allan Poe and His Tales of Horror

"Louder it became, and louder. Why did the men not go? Louder, louder." The Tell-Tale Heart

Edgar Allan Poe was not the first writer of horror stories, but his literary techniques form the foundation of the immensely popular literary genre as we know it today. His use of psychological horror through first-person narration inspired other writers such as Ambrose Bierce and H.P. Lovecraft to write horror stories.

Gothic Tales

Although Edgar Allan Poe began his literary career as a poet, he quickly recognized the demand for short fiction. Initially, Poe wrote burlesques of the Gothic story, but soon began to write seriously in the Gothic vein. Gothic tales often involve circumstances of mystery and horror, a general atmosphere of gloom and doom, and elements like dungeons, ghosts, and decaying castles with secret passageways.

The Narrator

In many of his stories, Poe uses his main character as a first-person narrator to heighten suspense and draw readers into the character’s situation. It also gives readers an intimate view of the character’s psyche and provides an additional layer of realism to Poe’s stories, allowing the readers to feel more connected to—and therefore more afraid for—the characters.

One of Poe’s most masterful uses of first-person narration in a horror story is his unreliable narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” At the outset of the story, the paranoid narrator hastens to assure the reader that he is of sound mind and body. However, as the story progresses, the reader witnesses the narrator’s mind unravel as it is wracked with paranoia. At the height of the man’s distress, the reader follows his emotions as they build inside his mind:

“I talked still faster and louder. And the sound, too, became louder. It was a quick, low, soft sound, like the sound of a clock heard through a wall, a sound I knew well. Louder it became, and louder. Why did the men not go? Louder, louder.

The reader does not know whether to believe that it is impossible for a dead man’s heart to continue beating, or whether to trust the narrator’s passionate insistence that he is sane and that these events truly happened exactly the way that he relates them. This uncertainty and mystery adds another layer of terror to the story, a fear of uncertainty and of the devolving mental state of the narrator.

Title, Symbolism, and Descriptive Language

In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe uses the title’s double meaning (the destruction of the Usher family, along with the literal fall of their house) to its fullest extent. He also uses near-allegorical symbolism to elevate the meaning of the story by describing the house as having “vacant eye-like windows” and other facial features. In this and many other horror stories, Poe uses descriptive language and chilling visuals to give the stories a graphic and realistic sense of terror.

Today, Edgar Allan Poe's tales still stand as some of the finest examples of the horror genre. From "The Pit and the Pendulum" to "The Black Cat," Poe's tales continue to hold us in the master's ghastly grip.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site

Last updated: February 24, 2021