As a horror writer, I’ve always been reading, yet most of what I read were works of classical literature.
Recently I started to read more horror since I am a horror writer.
Edgar Allan Poe was a writer whose stories I was well familiar with. Yet, it was mostly because of pop-culture references and from the influence he had on other writers and horror literature in general.
That’s why I spent the last months reading almost all of his works.
There are few writers as influential as Edgar Allan Poe on the horror genre and the American literary tradition in general. It’s not wrong to say he was a pioneer in many ways. He didn’t just set new standards; he changed the entire course of literature.
Edgar Allan Poe is hailed as the father of the modern detective story, the psychological horror genre, but he was also highly influential in such genres as science-fiction and adventure.
The list of writers Edgar Allan Poe influenced is long and extensive, including Charles Baudelaire, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. P. Lovecraft, and even Sigmund Freud.
It’s no understatement to say that the literary world we know today might be very different without him.
Want to know more about Edgar Allan Poe and his life? Check out the Writers Mythos and their episode on Edgar Allan Poe.
On Reading Edgar Allan Poe’s Work
Reading the works of Edgar Allan Poe differed from what I expected. I’d imagined him to be a writer of ghost stories and of creepy tales in which people are stalked by dark things and terrible creatures.
Instead, I was treated to tales of unreliable narrators, characters who are mentally ill and suffer from various ailments, fears, and addictions.
There were seldom any ghastly creatures. Instead, I was treated to tales of gripping psychological horror, of sick minds, and the terrible deeds they committed.
When I first started to read Edgar Allan Poe’s works, I needed some time to get used to them. As a non-native speaker, his often verbose and poetic style was tough to get into. His writing is often very imaginative, relying more on mood and atmosphere. He’s painting detailed pictures, not only of what his characters see, but what they feel and experience.
Once I got used to it though, there was something special about Edgar Allan Poe’s style. Reading his stories out loud made me recognize the mastery he held over the craft. There’s rhythm to his work, there’s power, suspense, and emotion, something you can truly feel and hear when you read his works out loud or listen to them.
While I mostly enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, I couldn’t help but feel that I was reading poetry at times. It proves, at least to me, that Poe was first and foremost a poet, even in prose.
This also relates to his general style. Edgar Allan Poe’s writings aren’t so much vessels for storytelling or plot, they are all about atmosphere, about apprehension turning to terror, and doing so in as few words as possible.
This shows in one of his most fundamental rules of writing, his theory of ‘totality.’ Every element and every word in a short story must contribute to the feeling you want to instill in your readers. It’s an idea that you can see brought to life when reading his stories, and it’s one that I might do well to keep in mind regarding my writing.
While Edgar Allan Poe wrote many different stories, experimented with various different genres, for this list I wanted to focus mostly on his horror stories.
I’m going to discuss why I enjoyed these stories, their plots, their elements, and Edgar Allan Poe’s style. While I’d like not to give away too much about each story, it’s almost impossible. So, if you don’t want to be spoiled, I suggest reading each story before you venture into my discussion. For that, I’ve included a link to the electronic text at the start of each discussion.
So here are my favorite twenty short stories by Edgar Allan Poe:
I’m starting this list with one of Edgar Allan Poe’s comedies, albeit a dark one. I wasn’t too fond of Poe’s comedic writing and his satires, but King Pest stood out for various reasons.
It’s a story set in plague-ridden London, featuring a plethora of extraordinary characters. The first are two seamen. One is a giant, gangly, and almost emaciated man called Legs, the other a short, sturdy man named Hugh Tarpaulin.
At the outset of the story, our two heroes are getting drunk at a tavern and flee without paying.
As they are running from the tavern’s owner, they make their way to the plague quarters. Those are shut off and entry is punishable by death. The two of them, in their desperation and drunk stupor, disregard the rule and make their way to the home of a mortician.
Inside, a strange crowd has gathered. Every one of these characters is disturbingly unique, almost comically weird, and disgusting. It’s at this point, with the entrance into the plague quarters and the introduction of this group, that an eerie atmosphere settles upon the story.
The group is sitting together below a skeleton hanging from the ceiling and tasting the mortician’s wine from skulls.
Legs and Hugh Tarpaulin, however, aren’t afraid and join the group who promptly introduce themselves as the King Pest and his court.
One might think our main characters are too drunk or dumb to realize what’s going on around them. The story toys with this idea, almost making us believe that something terrible is going to happen as the circumstances grow stranger and stranger.
But then Edgar Allan Poe changes the rules, reverses the build-up. He changes the terror-stricken atmosphere to one of humor, as our two extraordinary protagonists thwart the court without a problem and get away.
What makes this story so great is not only this reversal but also the vivid descriptions. None of the characters in this tale are normal. The King Pest and his court are a collection of comically overdrawn freaks, twisted beings, and figures in shrouds. Even our protagonists are far from normal. They, too, are of a strange nature.
While I enjoyed the reversal of the build-up, I still didn’t enjoy the humor employed in this tale all too much. I’d have preferred it if Edgar Allan Poe would have gone the normal route and made this one a true horror tale.
Still, it’s worth the read for the descriptions and the imagery alone.
Here we have the first of many of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories featuring the death of a beautiful woman, one of his prime themes. It’s what he described as the most poetic theme in the world.
The story starts with our narrator describing his lover Ligeia. She’s a passionate and intellectual woman, one of uncanny beauty. Yet, there’s a certain strangeness to her. Even more interesting though, the narrator can’t seem to recall anything else about her, neither her past nor even her family name.
The two of them get married and Ligeia impresses the narrator with her knowledge of various topics. From the sciences, over classical languages to metaphysics, she even teaches him about certain forbidden types of knowledge.
Eventually, Ligeia grows ill and dies. Our grief-stricken narrator retreats to an old abbey in England, becomes addicted to opium, and eventually remarries Lady Rowena.
Before long, however, she too grows ill, suffering from anxiety and fevers before she dies.
Grief-stricken, the narrator sits vigil at her bedside. It is then that Lady Rowena’s body shows signs of reawakening. At first, the narrator doesn’t believe it, but when he awakes in the morning a shrouded figure stands up from the bed, walks to the center of the room, and reveals herself not the Lady Rowena, but Ligeia.
Yet, all might not be as it seems in this tale. Our narrator is an opium addict and unreliable. It makes us wonder if what happens is true or, by chance, nothing but his opium- and grief-filled hallucinations.
Even more interesting is Ligeia’s introduction. Her talk about the soul moving from one body to the next, existing without it and her obscure background, makes us wonder who she truly is.
As so often, Edgar Allan Poe’s writing is ambiguous, making us guess and wonder, but not revealing the mystery.
All of this is supported by his style. Ligeia is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s more poetic and obscure stories, filled with countless references to obscure and strange works of literature. At times, the writing is getting verbose, even pompous.
Yet, Ligeia is an interesting story, one that makes us guess and wonder, not just about the story but also Edgar Allan Poe’s style.
MS. Found in a Bottle is more a maritime adventure tale than a true horror story. Yet, there’s enough weirdness here to showcase Edgar Allan Poe’s grim and ghastly style and his imagination.
Our narrator’s a passenger in a cargo ship which capsizes. Only he and an old Swede survive and have to endure in the bitter cold of the sea. Eventually, a gigantic black galleon collides with the wreck and only the narrator manages to get on board.
This ship, however, is much stranger than at first thought. The maps he finds are outdated, the timber the ship is made of seems to have grown or expanded over time, and the elderly crew of the ship doesn’t seem to be able to see him.
The narrator procures writing materials from the captain’s cabin to detail his experiences. He eventually casts those overboard in a bottle just before the ship reaches Antarctica, gets caught in a giant whirlpool, and sinks into the sea.
It’s an interesting tale, clearly a predecessor of those of H. P. Lovecraft.
What made this tale work so well was first the emotions conveyed by the narrator. One can almost feel the desperation, his urge to just give up, and his astonishment upon seeing the gigantic black vessel approach.
The tale also features some amazing visuals and a great atmosphere. The strange black ship and his ancient crew are described in intricate detail, yet we never learn who they are or how they’ve been sailing for so long. One could even think of it as a ghost ship or one frozen in time.
The ending of the tale is the one thing I didn’t enjoy. As it’s related to an idea that was thought scientifically plausible during Edgar Allan Poe’s time, yet I can’t help but find ridiculous. Namely, the theory of the Hollow Earth and that the whirlpool, in the end, leads to it.
Some scholars believe the tale to be a satire of the typical sea tales so popular during Edgar Allan Poe’s times.
Still, it’s an enjoyable tale and even if it’s not one of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror tales, one would be hard-pressed to call it anything else than weird fiction.
Hop-Frog is the story of an outcast, the titular character of Hop-Frog. He’s a dwarf and the jester at the court of a king, a king who’s fond of practical jokes. That’s also where Hop-Frog got his name from. He’s crippled and because of his deformities, he can’t walk normally.
One day, the king forces Hop-Frog, who can’t stand alcohol, to down multiple goblets. When Hop Frog’s friend and fellow dwarf Trippetta tries to intervene the king pushes her to the ground and throws his goblet of wine in her face.
It’s at this moment that a ghastly sound is heard, a strange grinding which is thought to come from outside yet has a different source.
The story continues when the king asks Hop-Frog for advice about an upcoming masquerade. The king and his ministers plan on scaring the guests and Hop-Frog comes up with an idea. He suggests they all dress up as orangutans, chained together, pretending to be wild beasts.
Unbeknownst to the king, this idea is part of his and Trippetta’s plan to finally get revenge and get rid of their abusers. On the night of the masquerade, their plan’s set into motion. It’s there that we’re also revealed to the source of the strange grinding sounds.
The act of revenge is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s more gruesome murders.
Hope Frog is not Edgar Allan Poe’s only story that features revenge. It’s a motif that also comes up in The Cask of Amontillado, but Hop-Frog is different in many ways. The murderer, Hop-Frog, is sympathetic and the tale even ends with him getting away. Something unique in Edgar Allan Poe’s works.
The telling of the story is also different. While most of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories related to murder or other ghastly incidents are told in first person, Hope Frog is narrated by a third-person narrator, one who seems to have got no relation to the incidents taking place in the tale.
Yet, not all is well in Hop-Frog. One might wonder how the king and his ministers are so easily tricked and follow along with Hop-Frogs’ plan without the sliver of a doubt.
There are even some more interesting facts about Hop-Frog. Some suggest that the story is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s more personal ones. The relationship between Hop-Frog and the king might be a mirror to that of Edgar Allan Poe and his foster father. It makes even more sense when one hears that Edgar Allan Poe, similar to Hop-Frog, couldn’t handle alcohol well. Another idea suggests that Hop-Frog is a tale of literary revenge in which Edgar Allan Poe tricks and murders the eight members of a particular literary circle.
Overall, Hop-Frog is an enjoyable little horror tale, and one of his most conventional. Yet, at least in my opinion, it pales compared to some of his other works.
One of Edgar Allan Poe’s shortest pieces and also a strange one.
It’s not so much a story as a brief glimpse of an incident happening.
It’s set in ancient Greece at a time that a plague’s at large. A group of men have gathered to hold a feast at the deathbed of a friend who succumbed to the plague.
Soon enough, the narrator and his friends notice a shadow resting upon the doorway. The narrator then demands, with downcast eyes, what brings it there.
It then answers, speaking to them in the voices of their departed friends.
Shadow – A Parable is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s more open stories. We might wonder who or what that shadow exactly is, or what brings it there.
One suggestion, a grim one, is that it’s the shadow of death, hanging and looming above those present, talking to them about their demise. It fits in well with the setting of the plague.
Shadow – A Parable is an interesting and short little tale, yet it’s one that I enjoyed a lot.
Here we have another one of Edgar Allan Poe’s true horror stories and another one that features the death of a beautiful woman.
It’s another weird story, one that feels more like a fever dream than a story. The beginning talks about the theory of identity by German philosophers Fichte and Schelling.
The narrator marries a woman named Morella. She’s a very intelligent and very intellectual woman and spends a lot of time focusing on the theories outlined at the beginning of the tale.
While studying, Morella’s health eventually deteriorates. She dies in childbirth, leaving, as she called it, the narrator with a pledge of her affection, a daughter.
The child grows up and resembles her mother closely, and before long the narrator fears this uncanny resemblance.
Eventually, the narrator takes her to be baptized to release the evil he thinks took hold of his daughter. It’s there that the narrator’s overtaken by the strangest of feelings and when asked the name of his daughter he names her Morella. At this the daughter calls out ‘I am here’ before she dies.
Yet things aren’t over. The tale continues with the narrator bringing his daughter’s body to the tomb where he buried Morella. Yet as he opens the tomb, he finds no hint of his late wife.
I absolutely loved this tale, and it was one of the earlier stories by Edgar Allan Poe that actually unsettled me, namely by its ending.
What makes it work so well is the introduction and the weird concepts Morella obsesses over. It’s another tale, akin to Metzengerstein, Ligeia, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which Edgar Allan Poe starts by explaining and outlining theories, hinting at what’s to come. In Morella, it’s the topic of identity and if it can exist outside the human body.
The genuine horror and the true weirdness of the tale come with the fantastic revelation at the end. Yet, typically for Edgar Allan Poe, we don’t get an explanation. The mood is driven to the top, pushed to a ghastly climax, and we’re left with only the ominous feeling that something’s very wrong.
Truly, a great story.
Metzengerstein was the very first of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories that ever got published. Incidentally, it was also his very first tale I ever read.
It uses many of the gothic tropes famous at the time, even exaggerates them. We’ve got feuding noble houses, old, decrepit castles, and a setting, isolated from the rest of the world.
Because of this, it’s still debated if Metzengerstein was Edgar Allan Poe’s honest attempt at writing gothic fiction or if it’s a satire of an all too common trend in fiction at the time.
Metzengerstein tells the story of the noble families Metzengerstein and Berlifitzing who’ve been rivals for so long, no one knows how far it dates back.
Before we get into the story, however, Edgar Allan Poe explains a concept central to the events in this tale. It’s the idea that the soul of man can move on to different living things at the moment of their death.
After his parent’s untimely death, young Frederick becomes head of the family and inherits their vast fortune.
The young Frederick is a cruel and sadistic man, committing various atrocities. One day, while he’s meditating in his chambers, his eyes wander to a specific tapestry. It depicts an unnatural colored horse, belonging to a man from Berlifitzing who’s seen being murdered by a man from Metzengerstein in the background. The young Frederick is unnerved by this and eventually leaves the room, only for a strange sight to occur. As he steps outside, his shadow falls exactly on the spot of the murder depicted in the tapestry.
It’s at this time that he learns of the demise of William Von Berlifitzing. His stables were set on fire and the old man tried rescuing his priced horses. It’s of course implied that Frederick was behind it.
It’s soon after that a particular horse appears at the castle, one caught by Frederick’s servants. The horse wears the initials of Berlifitzing, yet no one, not even the man’s servants, can recall a thing about the animal. Frederick, however, takes possession of the horse.
It’s this horse that changes the young baron, making him retreat from society at large, and eventually brings his demise.
I enjoyed this tale, and it was a fine introduction to Edgar Allan Poe’s writing style. It introduces us to a lot of themes important in many of Edgar Allan Poe’s works. People of extreme wealth, gloomy, decrepit buildings, seclusion and teeth. It also showcases that Poe’s tales often include instances of symbolism, here especially in the tapestry scene. A scene which was fantastically done and made implications about what was to come in the tale.
It’s an interesting and short tale, one that already shows us Edgar Allen Poe’s mastery of his craft. One could do much worse as an introduction to Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories.
One of Edgar Allan Poe’s shortest horror stories, yet a good one. It’s yet another tale that features the death of a beautiful woman. As so often, though, Edgar Allan Poe’s able to fit much more in so short a tale.
The Oval Portrait is a story within a story. The narrator of the tale spends the night at an abandoned mansion and comes upon the beautiful portrait of a young woman. In a book he found, he reads up on the history of the portrait.
The book describes the tragic story of a young woman who married an eccentric painter, a man who cared more for his art than anything else. Eventually, he asks his wife to sit for him. Being an obedient wife, she does as he says and never complains, even when her health fades.
Even from this brief description, one can see the end of the tale coming. Yet, back in Edgar Allan Poe’s day and age, stories and twists like this weren’t common, and the tale proved to shock and horrify audiences.
The Oval Portrait doesn’t waste any words before it comes to its shocking conclusion. It’s one that explores the relationship between art and life and which was eventually fully explored by Oscar Wilde in its novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The story, like many others written by Edgar Allan Poe, explores the consequences of addiction and obsession. With the Oval Portrait, it’s an obsession with perfection and creating perfect art.
It’s a theme that I also featured in my story True Art Always Has a Price.
Another brief work by Edgar Allan Poe, one that almost seems more like a poem than a story.
The strongest point in this brief little tale is without a doubt the atmosphere. Yet, there’s more hidden between enchanted landscapes, apparitions, and demons.
Silence – A Parable is very open to interpretation.
Is it an allegory for man’s destructive nature? Is it talking about how solitude, being left alone with our thoughts, can drive us into a state of confusion or even insanity? Or is it Edgar Allan Poe himself who talks to his demonic muses?
It’s these various interpretations one can find for this brief work that makes it so interesting to me. However, Edgar Allan Poe’s true intentions with this tale might never be known.
The Premature Burial is a tale that discusses one of Edgar Allan Poe’s favorite themes, that of being buried alive.
The narrator of this tale suffers from catalepsy, a condition that renders him into a death-like trance. It’s this condition that leads to his fear of being buried alive and his obsession with similar cases.
The story beings more like an essay, in which the narrator recounts various cases of people being buried alive. Some escaped their fate, others didn’t.
Only after this does the narrator recount his own experiences. Over time, his condition worsens as his fear becomes a crippling phobia. He does everything he can to escape his fate. He makes his friends promise him they won’t bury him prematurely, refusing to leave his home and even building a tomb with all sorts of precautions.
However, things take a turn for the worst and our narrator awakens in a confined, dark space with wood surrounding him and the knowledge that his worst fear has become reality.
There’s a deep routed, suffocating anxiety at the heart of this tale. Edgar Allan Poe plays this out in glorious detail in the second half of the story before it comes to a rather unexpected conclusion.
The Premature Burial is an examination of neurosis brought forth by obsessing over an irrational fear. This again shows that Edgar Allan Poe often focuses on narrators that are mentally unsound, in this case, a man suffering from crippling anxiety.
I really enjoyed this little tale and the various incidents discussed in the beginning. The fear of premature burials, while ridiculous to most of us now, was common in Edgar Allan Poe’s time.
Another great little tale by Edgar Allan Poe.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue is often celebrated as the first modern detective story, introducing us to C. Auguste Dupin, the first modern detective. It’s undeniable that Dupin and the stories he’s featured inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
While it’s not a horror story, I still included The Murders in the Rue Morgue in this list. It not only features a gruesome and brutal murder, but it’s also a masterfully crafted tale.
The story begins not with the plot directly. As in other tales, Edgar Allan Poe starts by discussing the nature and practice of analytical reasoning. He does this by giving us various examples, including games such as chess and cards.
After this, he describes how our nameless narrator first met Dupin.
We get to know Dupin’s reasoning skills when he deduces the narrator’s thoughts simply from his interaction with the environment, his behavior, and his facial expressions.
It’s only then that the two of them stumble upon a grisly murder case that happened in an apartment in the Rue Morgue. A mother and daughter were brutally murdered in their home.
The murder represents a perfect puzzle, one that shocks and perplexes the investigators trying to solve it.
It’s then up to Dupin and his reasoning skills to solve the case. He explains what he learned from the scene of the murder and outlines its bizarre and surprising nature and brings the story to an almost comical conclusion.
What I enjoyed most was the deliberate construction of the narrative. In this story Edgar Allan Poe takes time, exploring first the theme of analytical reasoning, then introducing Dupin, showcasing his abilities before we’re introduced to the murder and its eventual unraveling.
I loved how Edgar Allan Poe slowly, but steadily walked us through the details of the crime scene. He even hints at things we don’t understand yet, until, at one specific point, it dawns on the narrator and us readers that there’s something very extraordinary about the case.
The story is also written differently from some of Edgar Allan Poe’s other stories. The Murders in the Rue Morgue is written in a non-verbose, and non-poetic style that lends itself to easier reading and focuses more on rational analytics than atmosphere and imagination.
While there are earlier stories that featured similar concepts or mysteries, The Murders in the Rue Morgue was the first one that focused on analysis and logical reasoning. It also established many tropes other writers later employed, such as Arthur Conan Doyle. One example is the narrator not being the detective, but his close friend, the other being the bumbling idiocy of the police who need the detective to help them out.
A splendid story, one that I’d recommend to not only fans of Edgar Allan Poe, but anyone interesting in early detective fiction.
The Black Cat presents us with Edgar Allan Poe’s most self-loathing narrator. He’s a violent drunk who commits acts of senseless and abhorrent violence when drunk. One might wonder if this is a projection of Edgar Allan Poe himself and his view of the abhorrent addiction he suffered from.
Yet, it doesn’t seem to be so much autobiographic, but a projection of Edgar Allan Poe’s worst fears. Namely losing himself to the bottle, just like the narrator in The Black Cat did.
The Black Cat is in essence a tale of a murderer who carefully concealed his crimes only to reveal them by his feelings of guilt. Once more, the narrator is unreliable, suffering from alcoholism.
From an early age, our narrator loved animals and owned many pets. He was especially fond of a cat named Pluto. For years his friendship with the cat lasted until the narrator succumbed to the bottle. In a violent stupor, he one night gored out one of the cat’s eyes.
At first, the narrator regrets his cruelty but is soon overtaken by his violent urges, and in another drunk fury, he ties a noose around the cat’s neck and hangs it. What’s interesting is the image Edgar Allan Poe here employs. The narrator has tears streaming down his face as he commits the deed, knowing how wrong it is, yet can’t seem to refrain from it.
At the same time, the narrator’s home catches fire and burns to the ground. In the ruins, the narrator finds a single wall still intact, the image of a giant cat with a rope around its neck imprinted on it.
The image disturbs him, but he eventually finds an explanation for it.
Before long the narrator finds another cat, almost identical to Pluto, and takes it home with himself. The only difference being a white spot on the cat’s chest. Soon he begins to fear and loath the animal because it reminds him of his guilt.
When the cat’s white spot resembles that of a gallows he grows more terrified of it. One day the narrator and his wife make their way into the cellar of their home. The cat trips him and he topples down the stairs.
In another drunk rage, he grabs the cat and tries to kill it, but is stopped by his wife. Driven mad by this, he kills her on the spot.
He decides to conceal the body within a protrusion in the wall and walls up the body. When the police show up, they find nothing and the narrator goes free. At the same time, however, he notices that the cat has vanished.
Before long the police check on him again, yet they once more find nothing. The narrator, in a state of confidence, proclaims of the sturdiness of the building and even taps against the wall behind which his wife’s body is hidden.
It is then that an inhuman shriek fills the room and when the police tear down the wall, they find not only his wife’s rotting body but also, to the utter horror of the narrator, the cat sitting on top of it.
As so often in Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, one might be inclined to think of certain things happening due to supernatural influences. Yet Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator is an alcoholic of questionable sanity. The image of the cat on the wall, the cat’s white spot changing, and many other things can all be explained by the narrator’s state of mind and his guilt. Instead of any supernatural influences, the prime devil in this tale is alcohol, which Poe described as a disease and a fiend that destroys one’s personality.
This is also the first of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales discussing his idea of the perverse, where he writes that it’s an ‘unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself — to offer violence to its own nature.’ Namely, our self-destructive urges, our inclination to do what will ultimately bring us harm. Here, the narrator’s beating against the wall behind which the body of his wife was hidden.
I enjoyed The Black Cat a lot. The mental descent of the narrator and its disturbing, catastrophic climax especially fascinated me.
The writing in this tale and the images employed are fantastic, and once more Edgar Allan Poe shows his mastery over the English language.
The Pit and the Pendulum is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most popular stories. It details the tortures endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition.
Even someone who’s never read Edgar Allan Poe, and even those who barely know his name, will know of this tale, or at least of the titular Pendulum and the torture method related to it.
The narrator of this tale was brought before the Spanish Inquisition and condemned to death. Why is never known and I might argue, is not important at all.
At first, the narrator finds himself in a dark room. In its center looms a pit that the narrator only avoids when he trips and falls on its edge. Surviving the pit, he soon finds himself in a different state.
He’s bound to a wooden frame with a razor-sharp pendulum slowly descending upon him. Once more he’s barely able to escape, by smearing his bindings with the remains of his food and attracting the rats in the room.
At this point the walls are heated and slowly moved inward, to eventually drive him into the pit in the room’s center. Once more he barely avoids death when he’s rescued from the room as the French Army captures the city.
The Pit and the Pendulum is a fantastic study of the effects of terror on the narrator. What makes this work so much is the realism of the story and Edgar Allan Poe’s focus on sensual inputs, or, in some cases, their absence. The narrator stumbles blindly through darkness, he smells the rats, he feels the heat of the walls and he hears the hiss of the pendulum above him.
The story is a prime example of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘totality’ theory. In this story’s case, every word is used for one purpose alone, to convey terror. Edgar Allan Poe doesn’t focus so much on what’s happening, but what the narrator experiences and his sensations. This adds much more terror to the tale and makes it much more unsettling.
It’s a well-executed and beautifully crafted tale, one that’s deservedly regarded as one of Edgar Allan Poe’s best.
The only problem I have is the tale’s ending in which the narrator is rescued at the last second by an almost random event. Yet, one can’t argue that if the narrator would’ve died, he couldn’t have written the story.
This horror tale by Edgar Allan Poe focuses on the idea of doppelgangers.
The narrative beings by outlining a young boy’s days at a school in England. He’s known as William Wilson and details that there’s another boy by the same name at the school, one who resembles him closely and even shares his birth date.
One night, the narrator wanting to play a trick on his namesake sneaks upon his quarters but discovers in shock that his namesake’s face exactly resembles his own. The narrator flees the school in terror and later learns that the other William Wilson left the school the same day.
The narrator then talks about how his character grew worse during his days at Eton and Oxford and how he became, as he calls it, a scoundrel.
At the latter he tries to cheat another student out of his money during a game of cards. His plan is thwarted, however, by the appearance of his double.
From then on, many of his ploys are thwarted similarly by his haunting doppelganger.
The story eventually culminates with the narrator confronting his doppelganger during a Carnival in Rome. He duels his double and eventually stabs him multiple times.
It’s then that he perceives that at the spot where his double stood is only a mirror in which he sees his own image, pale and covered in blood.
His double then whispers one last line: ‘In me didst though exist – and in my death, see… how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.’
As so often Edgar Allan Poe leaves us with an ambiguous ending. What does the doppelganger mean when he’s proclaiming the narrator has killed himself? The most plausible explanation is that the doppelganger represented the narrator’s conscience, who kept him from committing his evil deeds. Now that he’s murdered it, he’s doomed himself. He’s killed his better half.
What’s interesting about William Wilson is that Edgar Allan Poe twists the idea of the doppelganger. Normally, they are dark twins, representing death and bringing evil. In William Wilson, however, it’s the narrator who’s evil and his doppelganger’s only there to stop his evil deeds.
While the ending might seem clichéd to us now, one has to remember that it was one of the first stories of its kind. People back in the day found the revelation shocking because it hadn’t been seen before.
It’s a great and fantastic tale, a slow-moving one, that’s more rational than supernatural, less verbose and poetic, following logic as the narrator tries to unravel the mystery behind his doppelganger.
William Wilson is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s best tales and one that I enjoyed immensely.
One of the first tales by Edgar Allan Poe I read, and also the first one I was truly impressed with. It was also the first of his tales that showed me how horrific his stories can be.
Berenice is another story that features the demise of a beautiful woman but includes others of Edgar Allan Poe’s most common themes, for example, that of premature burial.
The narrator is an ill young man who suffers from many maladies, but his most serious one is a form of mental excitement. During these times his attention will focus intently on a certain object before he entire loses himself in his imagination and daydreams.
The narrator marries a beautiful young woman named Berenice.
One day, during one of his bouts of excitement, he focuses on Berenice’s teeth, can’t seem to forget about them, and becomes obsessed with them.
It’s soon after that Berenice dies and is buried.
The narrator remembers nothing after the time of the burial and only comes to himself at midnight, wondering what happened. Right away he notices a small wooden box he’s never seen before and which unsettles him greatly.
It is then that a servant enters the room and tells him that Berenice’s grave has been desecrated and a shrouded figure has been found, one that’s still alive.
At this moment the narrator notices that his clothes are covered in mud and a spade is standing in his room.
Yet, that’s not the true horror of the tale. When the narrator accidentally drops the little box, thirty-two pearly white things are revealed, Berenice’s teeth.
It’s a fantastic and utterly disturbing tale. At the time of its writing, Berenice was considered horrifying because of its excessive violence.
What makes the entire story even worse, it’s revealed that Berenice was buried alive and might very well have been conscious while the narrator removed her teeth.
Berenice is a tale that’s part fascinating for its imagery and the revelation and part repulsive for its obsession and the ghastly deed the narrator committed.
Yet, it is a fantastic, well-told tale that leaves us with nothing short of terror. Terror for what happened to Berenice and terror for the narrator who learned what he’d done because of his condition.
Here we have another interesting story by Edgar Allan Poe.
Once again, Edgar Allan Poe tried to trick his audience. He’d done so before with other tales, namely with his Balloon-Hoax and with The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfall.
Yet, this tale doesn’t feature any spectacular expeditions or travels. No, this one is about the examination of death.
The story recounts what happens when a hypnotist puts a man in a suspended hypnotic state at the moment of his death. While we might laugh at such an outlandish idea today, calling it absurd or surreal, during its time people believed it was real. The hoax was only discovered when Edgar Allan Poe himself was forced to admit that the story was nothing but a fabrication.
The story is written as a doctor’s report and walks the fine line between science-fiction and sensational horror.
The story presents the case of a man named Ernest Valdemar. Our nameless narrator is interested in hypnotism and states that no one ever attempted to hypnotize a person at the point of death. He wants to attempt such an experiment to report the effect it will have.
Valdemar, who’s suffering from tuberculosis and knows he’s dying soon, agrees.
On the evening of his supposed death, the narrator visits Valdemar and hypnotizes him. This is where the story gets strange, as Valdemar first reports that he’s dying and later that he’s now dead.
The narrator leaves Valdemar in his hypnotized state for months, checking on him daily. During this time Valdemar is without pulse, heartbeat, or breathing and his skin is cold and pale.
We’re here treated to one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most detailed descriptions as he describes the countenance of the dead body in minute detail.
The narrator once more asks Valdemar questions, whose voice seems to reach him reluctantly and from far away.
Eventually, Valdemar demands to be woken up and when the narrator does so, the body decays instantly, almost evaporates into a ‘nearly liquid mass of loathsome – of detestable putrescence.’
This story might be one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most vivid and gory. He’s describing the various details of the dead boy, even adding yellowish ichor leaking from the eyes. The worst, however, is the last line, when the body decays instantly.
There’s of course more to this tale. Namely, that messing with death, even for the sake of science, will have dire results. First for Valdemar, who wants to be awoken, or put to rest, and second for all those present to witness the effect the experiment has on his body.
What’s interesting here is to see that while Edgar Allan Poe describes the death of a woman as almost romantic, the death of a man is brutal, sensational, and disturbing.
I really enjoyed the pseudo-scientific outset, the medical background and the idea behind the experiment. It makes it without a doubt one of the earlier examples of science-fiction.
Another little tidbit I found interesting is that it was also one of Lovecraft’s favorite, who even used a similar theme in his tale Cool Air in which a man tries to cheat death as well and which ends similarly.
Truly one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most outlandish and most interesting tales, one that I enjoyed immensely.
The Fall of the House of Usher is another of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous tales, and it supposedly was Lovecraft’s favorite.
The narrator is called to visit his old childhood friend Roderick Usher at his home. When the narrator arrives, he already feels apprehensive and notices a thin crack extending from the roof of the mansion down to its front.
Roderick is sick and asks his friend for help. His only living relative is his twin sister Madeline, who suffers from catalepsy.
Eventually, Madeline dies and Roderick has her entombed in the family tomb, where she’s supposed to rest for two weeks before she’s supposedly buried.
Over the course of the next week, Roderick as well as the narrator grows increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. It’s during this time that Roderick shares with the narrator certain theories about the sentience of inanimate objects and his idea that the house itself might be alive.
Then, one night, during a storm, Roderick, in a state of terror, visits the narrator’s bedroom, which is situated above the family tomb.
Strange things appear to happen outside, and the narrator tries to calm his friend by reading to him from a comical novel.
As he reads the tale, they can hear strange noises and sounds in the mansion which mirrors those detailed in the tale.
It all culminates when a loud shriek is heard and Roderick goes into a state of hysterics believing it’s his sister, still alive. Eventually, the door to the room is blown open and Madeline enters. She crashes onto her terrified brother and both hit the floor as corpses, Roderick having died from his terror.
The narrator flees the home in a state of terror and when he looks back, he watches as the House of Usher splits apart at the same crack he noticed during his arrival and the fragments sink into the lake surrounding it.
The Fall of the House of Usher combines supernatural suspense with the frailty of the human mind. There are, however, more themes at work here, so many symbols and allegories, it’s hard to believe that Edgar Allan Poe could convey it all in a single story. That’s the reason The Fall of the House of Usher is often called a gothic novel in miniature.
There’s of course the theme of premature burial. Yet there are other themes to this highly symbolic tale.
The two twins Madeline and Roderick might describe a split personality, two sides of the same person. The House might not be a house, but might be an allegory of a declining family that’s about to end with its last two members. It might also represent the unconscious mind of Roderick’s or the family’s mental state that’s already declining as the narrator arrives, eventually splits apart before it’s utterly destroyed.
All those ideas come to the forefront and can be equally attributed to the story. It’s these many different ways to see the story that makes it so fascinating.
However, it’s not only the symbolism in the tale that makes it so great. There’s Edgar Allan Poe’s fabulous and imaginative prose, the atmosphere he conveys as well as the different styles he employs.
There’s a poetic interlude in which Roderick Usher sings ‘The Haunted Palace’, a poem written by Edgar Allan Poe, and there’s of course the fantastic story which the narrator reads to his friend. All of those elements help to set the obscure and ominous atmosphere the tale carries until its end.
The Fall of the House of Usher is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest stories, masterfully written and one in which he again employs his ‘totality’ rule. Every detail and every scene in this story is relevant to the horror it conveys. One can especially see it in the opening passage of the story.
The beginning of The Fall of the House of Usher is one of the greatest openings in literature. Every image conveyed, every word used, is dedicated to invoking dread and suspense and to show us the ghastly, decrepit building that is the House of Usher.
There’s a sense of dreariness as the narrator approaches the family mansion, one that we as the reader can feel as well. It all sets the stage for what’s to come.
The Fall of the House of Usher is an amazing tale and a fabulous example of gothic literature as well as literary symbolism. Truly a great tale and deservedly one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most popular stories of all time.
The Cask of Amontillado is generally regarded as Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest story and one of the greatest pieces of short fiction of all time.
There’s no other story by Edgar Allan Poe that combines so many of his themes in so little space. We’ve got humor, irony, horror, and one of his most common themes, that of live burial. Yet, the story doesn’t waste a single word. There’s no trailing on, no unnecessary lines. It’s a tale that’s concisely crafted.
The Cask of Amontillado is set in an unnamed Italian city during a carnival in which a man takes revenge on a friend who wronged him. Similar to his story, the Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat, the story is told from the perspective of the murderer.
The story starts with Montresor, who tells an unspecified person about the revenge he took on his fellow nobleman, Fortunado.
Montresor lures him to his home by telling him he obtained some rare, vintage Amontillado. He proposes to get confirmation about the wine’s quality, by consulting a fellow friend, Luchesi. It’s a ploy since he knows that Fortunado won’t be able to resist demonstrating his knowledge of wine.
And so the two of them make their way to Montresor’s home and descend into the wine cellar in the palazzo’s catacombs.
On their way he keeps offering wine to an already drunk Fortunado, to keep him intoxicated. Montresor suggests multiple times that Fortunado should go back because he’s suffering from a bad cough. Fortunado, of course, states that a little cough won’t kill him.
During their trip through the catacombs, Edgar Allan Poe uses various instances of symbolism to outline the relationship between Montresor and Fortunado. The insistence of Fortunado that Montresor can’t be of the masons hints at their difference in standing. The family crest is another symbol, ripe with interpretations regarding the murder to be committed and its reason and meaning.
Eventually, the two make it to a niche in the wall in which Montresor says the Amontillado is kept. The moment Fortunado steps inside, Montresor chains him to the wall. Fortunado is still very much too drunk to realize what’s going on and offers no resistance.
Only when Montresor begins walling him off does the man sober up and understand what’s going on. He starts screaming for help, but his cries are mocked by those of Montresor, knowing fair well, no one will hear them. Then Fortunado laughs, pretending, or hoping, it’s all a joke. Once Montresor finishes up the last row of bricks, however, he realizes it’s all over.
“For the love of God, Montresor.”
And Montresor replies: “Yes, for the love of God.”
Then, before he sets the last brick, he throws Fortunado a torch, waits for an answer, but only gets to hear the bells of Fortunado’s costume.
In the last line of the tale, Montresor reveals that Fortunado’s body is still there, even fifty years later, and ends the story with the line ‘In pace requiescat!’, meaning ‘May he rest in peace.’
The Cask of Amontillado is yet another example of Edgar Allan Poe’s totality rule. Everything in this tale is of importance, everything reveals something. The setting, the names, the inclusion of costly wine, all make the story not only more exotic but also add to its atmosphere.
What I find most interesting about The Cask of Amontillado is that the motif of the murder isn’t known and is never brought up. Montresor only mentions that Fortunado committed a ‘thousand injuries’ and apparently insulted the man. There are hints in the story, but none suffice to give us a clear picture. Even when Montresor walls him off, he never discloses his reason. It might indicate that Montresor himself is unsure about the reason or only vaguely has one.
Yet, this is typical for Edgar Allan Poe. He isn’t interested in a plot, he’s interested in a situation, an incident, and atmosphere. Similar to the Pit and Pendulum, we don’t need to know why something is happening to see it happening.
As mentioned before the story’s ripe in symbolism.
The fact that Montresor walls Fortunado of within his family tomb might be worth mentioning. Is it just the best place for the murder or is there a more personal motif?
Montresor’s family crest also gives wide room for interpretation. It’s a family crest, showing a golden foot stumping on a snake, biting the heel.
At first glance, it might suggest that Montresor’s stomping down on the snake who wronged him, Fortunado. Yet, while the snake is being stomped on, it still brings harm to the foot, perhaps suggesting that Fortunado’s destruction will bring harm to Montresor. Namely the guilt of a murder that Montresor can’t forget even fifty years later and even shares with someone.
One might go even further and interpreting it entirely differently. The snake might be Montresor, who’s crushed by Fortunado’s higher standing or crushed by the guilt of murder. As one can see, there are multiple ways of interpreting, showing the importance of even this minor detail.
The Cask of Amontillado is also a story that’s often discussed for its composition. It defies general story construction. Most stories comprise a beginning a middle and an end. Yet in the Cask of Amontillado everything that leads to the ending, the murder, is entirely missing. Almost as if Edgar Allan Poe’s saying that nothing but the murder matters.
It’s a powerful story, without a doubt another one of Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest tales, maybe even his greatest. It stands out for its imagery, its vocabulary, and its many instances of symbolism.
The Cask of Amontillado is a masterpiece, one I’d recommend to anyone. It’s a short, but very worthy read, not only for fans of Edgar Allan Poe.
I absolutely loved this tale and was surprised by how good it was.
At its heart The Masque of the Red Death might be an allegory about death, standing up against it, and the inevitability of such a deed. Yet, there’s more to this tale, for example, the social criticism.
While the titular illness, the Red Death, spreads in the country, Prince Prospero and his court hide behind the walls of an old castle. There they give into their lavish lifestyle, disregarding the suffering of the common folk.
Prospero holds a masquerade ball one night to entertain his guest in seven colored rooms. Each of the rooms is decorated in a specific color. The last room is decorated in black and illuminated by a scarlet light, filling the room with ‘a deep blood color’.
At midnight the guests and Prospero notice a figure in a dark, blood-splattered robe. The figure resembles the corpse of a person who died because of the Red Death. Prospero demands to know the identity of the guest. When he calls out for his court to seize the guest, everyone’s afraid to approach the figure and the guest passes through all six chambers. It’s in the last chamber where the prince confronts him with a drawn dagger. When the figure turns to face him, the prince dies almost instantly. The enraged court rushes in the last room and removes the mask of the figure, but find, to their horror, that no one’s beneath. The costume was empty and all the guests contract and die to the Red Death.
The Mask of the Red Death features fantastic gothic imagery. There’s the old castle with its high impenetrable walls, its weird constricting hallways, the different colored rooms, the masque ball and at last, the stranger dressed up as the Red Death itself. Especially the description of the last, dark, and the red room is fantastic.
The reason I enjoyed this tale so much tough, was not only the setting but Edgar Allan Poe’s writing. He’s clearly at his best here.
The Masque of the Red Death almost lends itself to the poetic, reminding you more of a play than a story. It’s this fantastic, poetic writing that brings forth the stunning imagery of the chambers and the symbolism hidden behind them.
And here we’re at the core of the tale, the symbolism. There are many interpretations of the different colored rooms. Some suggest they represent different personality types, yet others suggest they represent the different stages of life as defined by Shakespeare in his Seven Ages of Man.
It might, however, also be an allegory of life itself, naturally ending with death and man’s futile attempt to escape from it and even standing up to it.
Yet, blood, which is emphasized in the tale, especially with the Red Death and the last room, also represents life.
It’s this general room for interpretation that makes this tale so interesting and a topic of vast discussion among scholars.
The Masque of the Red Death is an absolutely fantastic tale, both for its writing and its content. It also features one of the most stunning closing lines in literature:
“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
What a fantastic tale. If you want to read Edgar Allan Poe at his absolute best and most poetic, read The Mask of the Red Death.
The Tell-Tale Heart is my personal favorite story by Edgar Allan Poe and another one of his most famous tales.
It’s much shorter than Edgar Allan Poe’s other tales, but there’s no need for it to be any longer.
The story’s told as so often, by an unreliable narrator, recounting a murder he committed. Who that person is, we never learn. The narrator’s goal in telling his tale is to prove that he’s not insane.
What’s interesting is that we learn little about the characters. Neither about the narrator nor the old man. We don’t even get to know their names, which is typical for Edgar Allan Poe. Similar to some of his other tales we need not know anymore to see the murder that’s taking place.
It’s apparent right from the get-go that the narrator suffers from a mental illness and an over-acuteness of the senses. He’s haunted by the old man’s pale, blue, vulture-like eye and distresses over it so much that he plans to murder the old man. Even worse, he mentions that the old man never did him any wrong, more so, he even liked the old man.
The narrator then describes in the smallest details how he went about committing the murder and explains that his minute attention to detail is the reason that he’s without a doubt sane.
He watches the old man for seven days before one night, he makes a sound and his lantern shines directly on the now open, evil eye of the old man.
Hearing the old man’s heartbeat loud from terror the narrator decides to strike and kills the old man. He then dismembers the body and conceals it below the floorboards.
A neighbor who heard the old man’s singular scream alerts the police. When they arrive, the narrator claims the scream was his own, caused by a nightmare and that the old man’s away in the country.
Confident he won’t be found out, he urges the police to take some rest. His pleasant and easy-going demeanor gives them no reason to suspect him, but soon enough the narrator hears a strange sound that grows progressively louder.
Eventually, he concludes that it’s the old man’s heart still beating from below the floorboard. The sound increases, but the police don’t seem to notice. Terrified of the violent heart and thinking the police have to hear it too, he eventually confesses the murder.
The Tell-Tale Heart is a story that pushes a character’s obsession over the top, driving the irrational obsession with the old man’s eye and later heartbeat to the extreme.
It’s clear that the narrator’s guilt is catching up to him at the end of the story, but one might still wonder what causes the sound. The easiest explanation is that it’s his imagination or even his own heart he hears in his chest. It might, however, also be the deathwatch beetles in the walls that are mentioned earlier in the tale.
While The Tell-Tale Heart is a tale of a macabre and gruesome murder, one could say that the true horror is the insistence of the narrator that he’s sane. It’s interesting how his exactness, his attention to detail, prove his paranoia, and his monomania with committing the perfect crime. It’s enough to show that the man’s indeed insane.
If one looks at The Tell-Tale Heart from a different perspective one might even say it’s a take on a ghost story, without employing a ghost. It’s not supernatural influences, but the narrator’s guilt, his psychological state that haunts him, and eventually drives him to confess the deed he committed.
What made this story so fantastic to me, was the eccentricity of the narrator, the suspense with which he tells the tale. I actually sat down and read the tale out loud, which made it so much better than just reading it. The Tell-Tale Heart is a dramatic tale, one filled with suspense, full of minute details, of slow deliberation and a sick mind.
The Tell-Tale Heart is in my opinion one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most perfect stories.
While his other stories like The Cask of Amontillado or The Fall of the House Usher bring more to the table, and might at times be better crafted, I still prefer The Tell-Tale Heart. It’s the suspenseful way it’s written and the sheer insanity of the narrator that makes it so good.
Truly a fantastic tale and one of the greatest studies of a sick mind in literature. Read it!