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How Poe Builds Suspense? Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 15th, 2021

Most of his short stories center upon crises and death. The use of language and stylistic techniques enriches the suspense and horror of the actions being described. Poe’s language revolves around vague and indeterminate subjects; unreal images are supported by sound effects and impressive imagery that place the reader in irrational, death, and dreamlike themes. Thesis Poe’s horror stories are based on a unique combination of settings, themes, symbols, and details that heat the atmosphere of horror and terror.

The atmosphere of suspense and horror is heated by the presence of a mad or nervous narrator. For instance, in The Masque of the Red Death, the prince is depicted as a madman who enjoys his pleasures most thoroughly at the expense of others. He is the type of man who would gain great satisfaction describing in detail “the gourmet dinner he is digesting to a homeless person who has not had a decent meal in weeks” (Davidson 54).

Similar to this story, the narrator of The Black Cat is a regular drinker. Drinking has pushed him to behave violently, even against a wife who is incapable of helping her husband. Alcoholism causes “a radical alteration for the worst” (Poe 598). Also, a desire to punish both wife and cats whom he loves highlights the narrator’s madness. On the one hand, he claims that the murder of his wife “disturbed me but little?. I looked upon my future felicity as secured” (Poe 605). The protagonist of The Tell-Tale Heart suffers from ‘over-acuteness of the senses” (Poe). The man underlines that he is sane, he admits that there never existed a real motive for murder (Bloom 122).

Poe writes: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man?. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this!” (Poe 555). These details create suspense and uncertainly about further actions and development of the plot. As Davidson writes: “This hypostatized self can thereby do anything and go through any imaginative process and remain all the while untouched” (Davidson 76) The main character of The Cask of Amontillado needs to revenge upon Fortunato sharpens his obsessive nature to the point where the moral implications of his actions become insignificant compared to the supreme satisfaction he receives from punishing his adversary: “Revenge is a dish best served cold” (Poe 541).

In Berenice, it is evident that the protagonist suffers from a chronic disease overwhelmed by fantastic ideas and unrealistic dreams. According to Kennedy “the narrator’s complex, ambivalent, and obsessive relation to a significant Other leads ineluctably toward self-punishment” (544). Poe underlines that the character spent much time alone reading and thinking.

Another important feature of Poe’s writing style is unusual settings which add emotional tension and create suspense. For instance, The Cask of Amontillado takes place during the carnival season. The Masque of the Red Death is based on similar settings where the main events take place during the mascara. The suspense is created by the fact that all characters are in costumes and masks. The story is set in a castle belonging to Prince Prospero, “a wealthy, powerful, and self-indulgent monarch” (Davidson 51).

Outside the secluded abbey, the plague, here given the name the Red Death, ravages Prospero’s kingdom to the point where “his dominions were half depopulated” (Poe 485). Prospero secures himself and his friends behind an enormous wall buttressed with gates of iron. Locked safely inside, the Prince and his cronies establish an exclusive and enclosed world of pleasure and perpetual revelry. In Berenice, the setting is a chamber. Dayan comments that:

Poe’s decors of lavish, medieval ornament, gates of iron, crenelated towers and picturesque effects, premature burials, and the singular torments of narrators who experience unnatural solitude and dark phantoms” (406).

Another unique setting is used in The Tell-Tale Heart: an old house where a narrator recalls how he developed the idea of killing an old man. The settings of a castle, an old house, and a chamber give some hints to readers about unusual and fearful events and actions of the characters (Bloom 122). Critics admit that “simplicity, as used by Poe, becomes a concept of the utmost complexity, well nigh impossible to nail down” (Dameron 233). Unusual settings heat the atmosphere of strangeness and oddity (Flannery 103).

The most important feature of Poe’s writing style is attention to gruesome details which create feelings of fear, terror, and the atmosphere of suspense. For instance, in Berenice, a cousin of the protagonist weakens because of “a species of epilepsy not infrequently terminating in trance itself?trance very nearly resembling positive dissolution” (Poe 227). As the disease debilitates Berenice, “in the atrophy of her flesh, the narrator confesses that he has become more conscious of her teeth” (Davidson 58). The attraction becomes so powerful that separating the teeth from Berenice’s diseased body “could alone ever restore me to peace, in giving me back to reason” (Poe 231).

“The clues are part of the larger “system” or “demonstration” motif of the story: Montresor, the diabolical rationalist, systematically demonstrates again and again that the arriviste, Fortunato, does not know, cannot distinguish” (Bloom 55). In The Masque of the Red Death, at the height of the party, an uninvited guest appears wearing a mask and costume meant to suggest the physical symptoms of contamination by the Red Death (Davidson 50). Prospero demands that all the revelers unmask at midnight; when the interloper refuses, the enraged and insulted prince chases him through all the chambers of the castle. These details direct the narration and create confrontation between the characters and the world.

Attention to gruesome details helps Poe to create a story conflict and attract the attention of readers. For instance, in The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe gives minor details about the narrator’s ritual of spying upon the old man sleeping. Poe tells how the narrator dismembered the body, hiding its various parts under the floor planking, euphoric that he has managed to catch all the blood in a pail. Using a sudden interruption in the narrative, Poe creates emotional tension and draws readers’ attention to details.

In The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe writes “there came a knocking at the street door?There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police” (Poe 558). The protagonist is confident that he has done his work well; he even goes so far as to invite the police to sit in the room where the body is buried. The unique details create an atmosphere of suspense and hold readers’ attention to the plot. Following Thompson (1968):

“Poe manages to send the mind spinning off in strange vagaries of thought, to touch as no other writer does the deep-lying apprehensions of his readers even while appealing to a coldly rational element in them” (cited The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore 2007).

In the Black Cat, the narrator returns home drunk and seizes his cat, Pluto, and cuts out one of his eyes. Poe depicts that in the morning, the man is filled with a sense of remorse, but of course, the maimed cat was now wary of him. Pluto’s efforts to avoid the narrator only aroused the latter’s wrath, and eventually, he hangs the cat from a tree next to the house. One day, the narrator swings an ax at a cat, but his wife tries to stop him. Furious, the man kills his wife: “She fell dead upon the spot, without a groan” (Poe 603). Following Kennedy “Inadvertently walling up with his wife’s corpse the still-living cat, the narrator’s parapraxis exposes an unconscious desire to be caught and punished” (542).

It is possible to say that ironic twist does not intensify the atmosphere of suspense but helps the author to maintain justice and truth. For instance, in The Black Cat four days after the crime, the police come to investigate the wife’s disappearance. Confident in his efforts at concealment and feeling only a little bit guilty, the narrator feels a sudden “bravado” and raps upon “that very portion of the brick-work upon which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom” (Poe 605).

“The use of this unusual fiction of law to produce the juridical nonexistence of the person raised the specter of natural versus artificial” (Dayan 414). For instance, a sound from within the wall emerges immediately as if in answer to his tapping. Instead of leaving, the police tear down the wall, and upon the head of the decomposing wife is the missing black cat, “with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire” (Poe 606).

The cat jumps on the wall to call attention to the crime. In The Tell-Tale Heart, the sound inside his mind forces him to confess. The narrator lost control over his consciousness. The ironic twist in Berenice is that the young woman is not dead but has been buried alive in an epileptic coma. In horror, the protagonist opens a box sitting upon a table to reveal ghastly dental instruments and thirty-two teeth that belonged to Berenice. The acute irony is that the protagonist wants to possess the teeth of his beloved woman.

In The Masque of the Red Death, the irony is that the Prince has lost sight of reality. While his kingdom languishes under the pestilence of the plague, Prospero locks himself and his closest friends inside a fortress where they will stay secluded until the plague has run its course. In addition to being protected from contamination, they feel free to indulge in wildly decadent behavior. At midnight, all guests fall to the ground. “After committing the perfect crime?significantly (in light of Poe’s disappointments) to secure an inheritance?the storyteller explains how his own spontaneous disclosure has condemned him” (Kennedy 541). The twist is that death or disclosure has come unexpectedly and suddenly.

In sum, the unique settings and structure of the stories create an atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty. This unveils the features of murders and plot development and underlines themes of violence and criminal behavior. The unfitness of Poe’s stories is that he skillfully uses settings and characters’ images to create the atmosphere of horror and terror. The main characters in The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, The Masque of the Red Death, and Berenice emerge from similar themes.

The characters spend much time alone, isolated from society and, family. Their world is limited by psychological conditions and obsessive behavior. These prevent them to behave rationally, to make judgments and choices. As this occurs, thoughts of murder and the pursuit of selfish pleasures are inevitable consequences.

Works Cited

Bloom, H. The Tales of Poe. Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Davidson, E. H. Poe: A Critical Study. Harvard University Press, 1957.

Dameron, L. “Poe, “Simplicity” and ‘Blackwood’s Magazine”. The Mississippi Quarterly 51 (1998): 233.

Dayan, J. Poe, Persons, and Property. American Literary History, 11 (1999), 405-426.

Kennedy, J. G. The Violence of Melancholy: Poe Against Himself. American Literary History 8 (1996), 533-451.

The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. 2007. Web.

Flannery, S. The Cask of Amontillado. The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 23, 2003, p. 103.

Poe, E. Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays. ed. P. F. Quinn. New York, 1996.

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