Last Update: October 16, 1997         Navigation:   Main Menu    Poe Info. Menu

Poe, Horror and the Supernatural

(This page is under construction.)

Although Poe is best remembered now as a writer of horror stories, they comprise only a small part of his writings. Ironically, Poe seems to have stumbled into his role as the master of the macabre quite by accident. Intending to publish a set of eleven stories as Tales from the Folio Club, Poe found a market only for the individual items. Removed from the explanatory preface, these stories were taken as serious examples of the sort of story Poe was actually satirizing. Thereafter, Poe retained his sense of humor in writing such stories, but the jokes were generally private ones, often indirectly on the reader himself.

Poe, of course, did not invent the horror story, nor was he its only practioner. In Poe's day, "Penny Dreadfuls" and "Penny Bloods" were almost as common as comic books are today. Their pages were filled with ghosts and demons, torture and terrible deaths. The essence of their craft was cheap sensation, written with little attention to art or style. Poe may have seen some of these, but the undisputed models for his horror tales, as both imitation and parody, come primarily from Blackwood's Magazine. Indeed, there is a long horror tradition before Poe, including such memorable classics as Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (1818) and such forgettable ones as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). If we no longer read Varney the Vampyre: The Feast of Blood (1845-1847) or Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), we perhaps owe a great debt of  thanks to Poe, who satisfies the same pleasures of mystery and thrills without sacrificing the reader's intellect. With each story, Poe's elegant prose, carefully wrought plots and meticulous detail elevated the genre to new heights. Poe proved that one could apply the principles of fine literature to popular themes and did much to undo the stigma that had been so well earned by a legion of mediocre writers.

Genius may fill the mind and passion the heart, but neither satisfies an empty stomach. Poe is not morbid for writing these horror stories; it is we who are morbid for neglecting the rest of his works.


"Metzengerstein" (1832)
"MS Found in a Bottle" (1833)
"Berenice" (1835)
"Morella" (1835)
"The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839)
"The Masque of the Red Death" (1842)
"The Black Cat" (1843)
"The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843)
"The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842)
"The Premature Burial (1844)
"Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845)
"The Cask of Amontillado" (1846)

Dismissing “A Dream” (Saturday Evening Post, August 13, 1831), which has been tentatively and perhaps erroneously offered as a story by Poe, his first published tale is the “horror” story “Metzengerstein” (Saturday Courier , January 14, 1832). Among his next dozen published tales are several others in the same genre, if rather different in presentation: “MS Found in a Bottle” (Baltimore Saturday Visiter, October 19, 1833); “Berenice” (Southern Literary Messenger, March 1835) and “Morella” (Southern Literary Messenger, April 1835). (There were also such humorous stories as “"Raising the Wind; or Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences," “The Duc de L’Omellette,” “Lionizing” and “The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Phall,” but I will pay no attention to these at the moment since our topic deals primarily with the first category.) Many of Poe’s most memorable stories are classics of the “horror” or “terror” genre: “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), “The Black Cat” (1843), “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). The last of Poe’s tales, the untitled and unfinished manuscript generally called “The Light-House,” seems also to fit into this genre. (This tale appears to refer to a known disaster on November 20, 1703, when a lighthouse was swept away by a terrible storm.)

In Poe’s day, there were essentially five types of “popular” stories: Romances (Sentimental and Historical), Morality tales, Humor/Burlesques, Adventures (mostly sea yarns, and later stories of the frontier) and tales of Sensation. (Poe later invented a sixth type, the detective story, or the tale of ratiocination. He also dabbled in early forms of science fiction, but these are not relevant to our current topic.) The last genre more appropriately describes Poe’s tales than the standard label of “horror.” It is a style that has largely been attributed to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which included at least 20 of these tales between 1821 and 1837. A few of the better known stories are: “The Man in the Bell” (1821), “The Buried Alive” (1821), “The Night Walker” (1823), “The Suicide” (1824), “The Last Man” (1826), “The Metempsychosis” (1826), “Le Revenant” (1827), “The Murderer’s Last Night” (1829), “The Iron Shroud” (1830), “The Involuntary Experimentalist” (1837), also the long-running serial “Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician,” which under the guise of an actual medical account relies for interest greatly on many a corpse and other blood-curdling details. Most of the writers of these tales remained anonymous; others are names which, while known, never established lasting fame, such as Samuel Warren, William Mudford and James Hogg.

Some critics have pointed out that this type of tale generally appeared only once every few months, and that the publishers were cautious to avoid the public criticism which often accompanied a too regular diet of lurid gothicism. Such caution, however, should not be taken as a sign that printing a tale of this sort was not helpful to circulation (the reader’s or the magazine’s). Dr. John William Polidori’s tale “The Vampyre” (attributed to Byron and based on an actual fragment by the famous poet) appeared in the New Monthly Magazine in April 1819, immediately establishing that magazine, and, more importantly, reaping a financial windfall for the owners. Critics sometimes also focusing too greatly on the magazines, and especially on Blackwood’s. The history of literature has always included a prominent, and sometimes prurient, element of gruesome details and frightening situations. (Greek mythology is full of monsters and awful punishments. Even Medieval Christian writers relied heavily on the devil and his demons to scare sinners onto the proper path. Ironically, the “Inferno” portion of Dante’s The Divine Comedy is surely more intriguing than “Purgatorio” and “Paradisio” combined. It is perhaps also no coincidence that one of the most popular books in religious households was John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, originally published in 1563 and running through four editions by 1583. By the 19th century, it was more widely known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and often appeared with elaborate and horrifying engravings depicting the saints being burned alive or tortured. The fairy tales of the brothers Grimm, often very grim indeed, were translated into English as early as 1823.)

By 1830, the gothic tale, in its more formal sense, had long been a staple in the mass market of fiction, beginning with Tobias G. Smollett’s Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), and continuing through such books as Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance (1790) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Charles R. Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and especially Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk (1790), not to overlook Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). There were also the very popular pulp publications classified as “chapbooks,” but more regularly known as “blue books,” “shilling shockers,” “penny bloods” and “penny dreadfuls.” (One of these cheap periodicals, called The Ghost, began an issue with a story titled “The Dead Devoured by the Living,” featuring a crude woodcut of a ghoul feeding upon a corpse — truly ghastly even if only in black and white.) Early in their careers such writers as Sir Walter Scott and Washington Irving were not ashamed to drift into the realm of E. T. A. Hoffman and Johann Ludwig Tieck, although they moved somewhat away from the genre once their reputations were firmly established. (A ghost story called “The Mysterious Bride,” from Blackwood’s for December 1830, begins, “A great number of people now-a-days are beginning broadly to insinuate that there are no such things as ghosts, or spiritual beings visible to mortal sight. Even Sir Walter Scott is turned renegade, and, with his stories made up of half-and-half, like Nathaniel Gow’s toddy, is trying to throw cold water on the most certain, though most impalpable, phenomena of human nature.”) Poe himself was aware of the value — and the troubles — of such stories. On April 30, 1835, he wrote to Thomas W. White, the owner of the Southern Literary Messenger, about his tale “Berenice,” which had just appeared in the issue for March:
A word or two in relation to Berenice. Your opinion of it is very just. The subject is by far too horrible, and I confess that I hesitated in sending it [to] you especially as a specimen of my capabilities. The Tale originated in a bet that I could produce nothing effective on a subject so singular, provided I treated it seriously. . . . The history of all Magazines shows plainly that those which have attained celebrity were indebted for it to articles similar in nature — to Berenice — although, I grant you, far superior in style and execution. I say similar in nature. You ask me in what does this nature consist? In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque; the fearful coloured into the horrible; the witty exaggerated into the burlesque; the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical. You may say all this is bad taste. . . . But whether the articles of which I speak are, or are not in bad taste is little to the purpose. To be appreciated you must be read, and these things are invariably sought after with avidity.
White was not the only publisher to disagree with Poe on this idea. In late 1842, Henry T. Tuckerman, editor of the Boston Miscellany, rejected “The Tell-Tale Heart”, noting, “If Mr. Poe would condescend to furnish more quiet articles, he would be a most desirable correspondent.” In his preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Poe felt compelled to defend himself against charges of “Germanism,” saying:
I speak of these things here, because I am led to think it is this prevalence of the "Arabesque" in my serious tales, which has induced one or two critics to tax me, in all friendliness, with what they have been pleased to term "Germanism" and gloom. The charge is in bad taste, and the grounds of the accusation have not been sufficiently considered. Let us admit, for the moment, that the "phantasy-pieces" now given are Germanic, or what not. Then Germanism is "the vein" for the time being. To morrow I may be anything but German, as yesterday I was everything else. These many pieces are yet one book. My friends would be quite as wise in taxing an astronomer with too much astronomy, or an ethical author with treating too largely of morals. But the truth is that, with a single exception, there is no one of these stories in which the scholar should recognize the distinctive features of that species of pseudo-horror which we are taught to call Germanic, for no better reason than that some of the secondary names of German literature have become identified with its folly. If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul, — that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results.
Yet Poe seems ultimately to have been vindicated, if not from labels of “Germanism” surely in his notion that such stories could secure popularity and fame. It is, after all, precisely those tales among his writings which have had the longest appeal to readers and have kept his name before the eyes of the public for over 150 years. In the end, it is not really Poe who is morbid for writing such tales, but we who are morbid for remembering only these stories and neglecting the bulk of his other writings. 


~~~ End of Text ~~~