Text: Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Poe, Stephen King, and John Dickinson Carr; or, How to Recreate a Popular Author in Your Own Image,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 99-106 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 99, unnumbered:]



The topic of this study is the image of Edgar Allan Poe among writers of popular fiction in the twentieth century, particularly of his impact upon Stephen King and John Dickson Carr. The pages of this century’s horror and detective stories, or, just as significant, those in histories of such varieties of writing (latter-day Gothics), highlight the ironies that seem perennially to dog Poe’s footsteps. A veritable barrage of novels and tales has boiled the pot of sensationalism, whence emerges a Poe inclined to alcoholism, drug addiction, and titillating sexuality — all facets of a captivating, but entirely imaginary personality. The intriguing sexuality, moreover, is altogether absent from his own sketch appropriately titled, in this context, “The Imp of the Perverse.” Imps or perversity, in varying proportions, certainly sound keynotes in many biographical and other accounts of Poe’s personality and literary intentions, as I hope to demonstrate in the following pages. Among novels that feature Poe as a character, the most outlandish is perhaps Anne Edwards’s Child of Night (1975). All of Poe’s supposedly negative and sensational traits are reincarnated in hot young Eddie Polk, the incestuously inclined hero in a mawkish plot. John Ball’s edited collection of essays, The Mystery Story (1976), also does Poe’s art no favors by means of inaccurate bibliographical data concerning publications of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” surely a title deserving better treatment from experts in detective and terror fiction. With decided relief one turns from such materials too fine detective story like Frederick Irving Anderson’s “Beyond All Conjecture,” the opening selection in The Book of Murder (1930), a Haycraft-Queen “Cornerstone” title, wherein Poe receives just dues. Remembering that the epigraph to “Murders” is the famous passage about the sirens from Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial, we go on to discover in Anderson’s title (a phrase of Browne’s) and in the story itself a conscious acknowledgement of Poe’s artistry rather than the repetitions of a frequently, and erroneously, held notion that he was an excrescence disfiguring the profile of American literature.(1) One wonders, after the forty-odd-years’ “standard” position of Arthur Hobson Quinn’s biography, how such wrong-headedness about Poe persists, recalling that the book bristles with factuality.

Turning to King and Carr as exemplars of twentieth-century views of Poe, we readily perceive differing attitudes implicit in the writings of these two noteworthy names in modem mystery, horror, and detective fiction. Carr’s sense of Pot’s accomplishments and his own employment of Poesque [page 100:] characters and motifs are to me far more sound and canny than King’s. A good case for this opinion takes shape if we look now to these twentieth-century writers’ debts to Poe’s famous “The Masque of the Red Death,” and, in Carr’s work, to certain other tales. King’s The Shining and Carr’s Corpse in the Waxworks ([also known as The Waxworks Murders] 1932) bear unmistakable signs of Poe s influence, although each novel takes a different tack with that influence.(2)

“Masque” embodies a wealth of those undercurrents of suggestion so dear to Poe, most notably in its richly symbolic life-to-death journey by the self. Thus its continual attention to time, after the stage is initially set (a gesture toward Shakespeare’s theme of moving time in The Tempest, to which “Masque” is obviously indebted), is altogether sound. The recurring attention to the great clock, cleverly associated with images of a coffin and death in its obtrusive “ebony” hue and in its sounds, is intensified by other themes and images of life’s boundaries: the seven rooms, with color schemes indicative of life’s dawn, zenith, and darkening close; Prospero’s “journey” through those eerie chambers, in pursuit of the sinister masquer; the weird lighting, itself suggestive of artificial attempts at creating a light of life within surroundings just as unrealistically sealed off from “what’s out there,” to indulge for the nonce in recent colloquialism, or from what the uneasy dream figures believe may be lurking to expose their crazy revels as mere fantasy — and destructive fantasy at that. The “gigantic” size of the clock makes evident too the theme of time’s pulsing in a vital, because natural, function throughout “Masque.”

Despite its surfaces of melodrama and lurid spook-story supernaturalism, Poe’s tale, in phrasing and parabolic method, reminds us of the King James Bible and the sober morals in its “stories.” The solemnity of biblical tone is maintained through the dramatic qualities of “Masque” — those “It was” passages, for example, creating an illusion for the reader-audience akin to the distancing created by high tragedy upon the stage. There the action seems to transpire with agonizing slowness and relentlessness. Such ritardando tactics as the halting effect of the dash punctuation in the penultimate paragraph, or the “And” beginnings for most sentences in the last, allow readers to experience something of the painful emotions (moreso than physical excruciations) endured by the dramatis personae.

We watch the “Red Death’s” moving, and time’s passage — as it is depicted in Beardsley’s graphics or in Faulkner’s tortuous prose — seems temporarily suspended, or, at least, emphatically slowed: “the intruder, who at the moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately step, made closer approach,” Continuing, the masked figure [page 101:]

passed within a yard of the prince’s person; and, while the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step through the purple to the green — through the green to the orange — through this again to the white — and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been made to arrest him. (M.2:676)

If this prose does not achieve slow motion as films do, then Poe is no artist. Theme and form coalesce exquisitely in this and other passages.(3)

When we turn from “Masque” to The Shining, we receive a jolt. However steeped in Poe its author may be, this novel is all too blatantly a stepchild, if not an abortive outgrowth, of Poe’s aims and achievements. Like Poe, King begins with everyday reality, in this case the need for burnt-out college (English) professor Jack Torrance to maintain gainful employment and leisure to complete a play. Hoping to secure both during a winter’s stint as caretaker for the “Overlook,” a Colorado tourist hotel, he brings his wife and son with him, and, in effect, he attempts to shut out the normal world from their lives. After the manner of Poe’s Prospero, Torrance creates increasing psychic torment for his family and himself, destructively spiraling into physical cruelty as well — with sadistic beatings, maimings, stabbing’, and attempted murder, no less — before Halloran, a former cook at the hotel (whose “shining” or psychic empathy bonds him with little Danny, Torrance’‘ son), returns, suffers at Torrance’‘ hands, but finally breaks the spell that threatens them all.

The Shining emphatically reveals King’s uncertain intentions. Is he writing a Gothic, has he created a sophisticated psychic drama, or does he attempt too much? With its theme of escape from reality (and retreating ever farther into psychological disorder, wherein the epigraph from “Masque” highlights the dreamy, non-rational undercurrents of his grim story), mingled heavy-handedly with melodramatic high jinks, King’s novel betrays cross-purposes with tenuous connections. Poe’s language in “Masque” is consistently dignified, but King’s often unjustifiably veers into the vulgate with little reason other than that in this “modern” novel such language should be there. After all, “fuck” and its compounds do not constitute the final degree of modernity in American fiction, nor do King’s recurring italics function as much other than signals of melodrama. His aim toward yoking of psychological and supernatural forces with the actual character of the murderous, has-been professor to recreate a “Red Death” protagonist, falls flat. Poe, we remember, centered (albeit covertly) upon sensations of an inward, emotional variety. King’s hand falters, resulting in a “Red-Death” [page 102:] character who is neither fish nor flesh. Instead of existing within a Poesque region of sensation, King’s closing chapters assault us with the sensational. His drawing upon “Masque,” in situation or by means of quotation — as Torrance parties with his evil masquers (who are fantasy creations of his own warped psyche), then homicidally pursues his wife and son through the deserted hotel — is a poor attempt to rework Poe’s substance. Furthermore, the animal-shaped shrubbery that comes to life lends too much of the ludicrous to this already strained novel. Considering the strong tendency toward parody among American writers, we might wish to defend King’s handling of the Poesque as exemplifying this tendency.(4) If parody is deliberate in The Shining, however, it is much too clumsily bodied forth to elicit mirth.

In the main, The Shining is a pretty dreary takeoff from “Masque.” This very quality, however, aligns King’s conception of the Poesque with that of many another recent writer. In other words, present a weird setting, add a dash of psychic trauma (maybe intensify this upset by means of supernaturalism), spike all these ingredients with passing respects to sex, crime, pleasure-pain, and drunkenness. The Shining is an undertaking of such a feat, and in turn it implies the nature of King’s conception of Poe the artist, as well as of Poe the legendary figure: both in despite of the epigraph from “Masque.”

Moving now to address the attitudes and techniques of John Dickson Carr, we must be aware of his long years’ awareness of and affection for the fiction, and especially the sensation fiction, of the last century. Doyle, Dickens, Collins, as well as Poe, reappear in Carr’s own fiction and critical writings. Along the way to Corpse in the Waxworks we may profitably pause over some thoughts of Dorothy L. Sayers, authority in areas of horror and detective fiction and on Poe’s centrality within their traditions:

Mr. Carr can lead us away from the small, artificial, brightly litstage of the ordinary detective plot into the menace of outer darkness. He can create illusion or delight with rollicking absurdity. He can invest a passage from a lost work of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe and make it sound like the real thing. In short, he can write . . . in the sense that every sentence gives a thrill of positive pleasure.

This comment epitomizes Carr’s practice in Corpse in the Waxworks, although it actually appears in a 1934 London Times review of his first novel, It Walks by Night (1930). More important, the bracketing of Carr with Poe highlights the “menace of outer darkness” and the subtle buildup of atmosphere. Carr’s continuing predilection for Poesque elements, as well [page 103:] as for the personality of Poe himself, crops up in The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), which focuses upon a newly discovered manuscript of another Dupin tale; in that fine story, ‘’The Gentleman from Paris” (1950), featuring Poe as central character; and in The Dark of the Moon (1967), clearly derivative from that ever-popular ratiocinative tale, “The Gold-Bug.” These titles are random samples of works by Carr that bear Poe’s stamp.

With these externals in mind, we may now perhaps discern the importance in the leading epigraph to Corpse in the Waxworks of yet another passage from Poe’s “Masque”

Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glaze and piquancy and phantasm. — There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. (M.2:673)

This overview of Prince Prospero’s surroundings and followers emphasizes the emotional-psychological underpinnings of Poe’s appropriately named tale. The elements of dream and fantasy put forth by Poe reappear, modified to be sure, among salient features in Carr’s novel, as do several other, more sensational constituents that Poe, more ably than King, incorporated into the stuff of his fiction. Possibly, and probably, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and ‘’The Cask of Amontillado” also contributed texture and character to Carr’s book.

Corpse in the Waxworks is easy to outline in synopsis. Narrator as well as friend to Detective Bencolin, the young American, Jeff Marie, assists in investigating the murder of beautiful, wealthy Claudine Martel. She was found stabbed and left draped across the arms of a satyr statue in the waxworks of Monsieur Augustin. We are led through a series of hints concerning the murderer’s identity, being misled by ingenious diversions as to whodunnit; introduced to Etienne Galant, aging rakehell of frightening mien and savage temper; taken to the home of the elderly, artistocratic, proud parents of the murdered Claudine; directed on into a suspense-filled, violent chase through the mysterious, terrifying Club of Masks and the Musée Augustin, where the wicked Galant ultimately falls dead from stab wounds; and brought to a conclusion in which the revelation of the genuine, doubtless unanticipated, murderer comes out at last.

Carr capitalizes upon the Poesque practice of involving dream structures to mute overt sensationalism. Corpse in the Waxworks depends heavily [page 104:] upon maintenance of an appearance — reality oscillation — which serves to hold our interest in the detection — rather than fumbling with darker corridors of the psyche as King does. The nature of the waxworks and its foreboding statuary, the evening amidst weird, shadowy urban surroundings, the club with its mysterious keys, costumes, and, more important, characters, whose personalities seem constantly to shift, the reasons for the murders: all partake of near intangibility, although none save the last isactually abstract. Here, unlike King’s persuasion in The Shining, we are never allowed to forget that we are reading a detective story, and the unnerving unrealities we encounter intensify the concept of mystery commonly associated with crime and detective fiction.

Instead of parading before us a crippled, deformed latter-day descendant of “Masque,” Carr subtly incorporates several of the better qualities of that tale into Corpse in the Waxworks, thereby gracefully acknowledging hisdebt to and image of Edgar Allan Poe. If syntax and scene repeat in “Masque,” the closing sections of Carr’s novel recall the opening in a nightclub scenario redolent of Prospero’s fantastic ballroom. Hints of illusion, nay of madness, that may lead into supernaturalism, point up how attentively the twentiethcentury writer of detective fiction had mastered his Poe. Also, Galant’sdeath from stabbing, at the close of Ch. 16, after a pursuit too reminiscent of Prospero’s mad scramble toward the “Red Death” for us to overlook, attests Carr’s vigilance. Like Prospero, Galant has “created” most of the fantasy in Corpse in the Waxworks, fantasy that enchants and terrifies those involved in the centers of its activity, as well as gripping the reader. Like Prospero, too, Galant’s death involves a dagger. Galant’s own grotesque countenance, his intent pursuits of those he victimizes, his ultimate responsibility for the girls’ deaths, mark an additional ancestry for him in Poe’s mummer.

Overall, Carr modifies Poe’s haunting masquer by splitting that figure five ways as he models his own personae in Corpse in the Waxworks: Jeff, Marie, Bencolin, Galant,and Colonel Martel partakeof theambiguous “Red Death’s “characteristics. Most notably, the blood-spattered Jeff — Galant’s henchmen hot on his trail through the Club of Masks — like Poe’s mummer, stalks his culprit through those strange surroundings. As in “Masque,” half-lights and shadows furnish an appropriate backdrop to the quest after answers and clarity in Corpse in the Waxworks. Jeff’s entrance into the club is fraught with Poesque descriptions, with phraseology and visual effects akin to those in the epigraph from “Masque.” Just so, Marie Augustin’s red gown and her role as Jeff’s guide suggest inversions of Poe’s strategy; she serves as mummer to his Prospero, although the implication and outcome differ considerably from the grim tragedy that draws “Masque” to a close. [page 105:] Furthermore, her name recalls that of Poe’s Marie Roget and of his C. Auguste Dupin. As with Marie Roger-Mary Rogers, there are hints of illicit sex and of crime hovering about Carr’s enchantress.

Additional debts to Poe are not difficult to discover on the pages of Corpse in the Waxworks. Carr’s “gardens of the Faubourg Saint-Germain” parallels Poe’s use of that locale in “Murders.” The chiming clock, the bizarre game of dominoes (suggestive of the games played by Prospero’s phantasms), and the “ghosts’‘ (of his past) so essential a part of Colonel Martel’s life, recall similar trappings in “Masque.” The ironic gambit concerning Masonic lore as regards Bencolin and Robiquet-over a coffin, no less-combines with the figure of Colonel Martel, the cloaked (thus disguised) assassin, calmly and relentlessly trailing his victims through dimly illuminated underground windings, whose confession is carefully reconstructed, to remind us of “Cask.” Given Carr’s demonstrable familiarity with Poe’s work, such findings as these ought not to be dismissed as the incautious offerings of a Poe enthusiast.(5)

We must conclude, I believe, that Carr’s vision embraced the Poesque conception of instability within the human self, a conception that frequently centered upon crime, violence, and madness, or near madness. Carr was quick to perceive how those shadowy regions of the mind could enhance a good tale of mystery and detection, as Corpse in the Waxworks reveals. Never overweeningly proud, John Dickson Carr modestly trod the paths of a literature much more “popular” than what exists (at least below surface) in Poe’s greatest tales. The theme of “Masque” — how fine are the lines separating appearances from underlying, and vastly more consequential realities — Carr unpretentiously adapted to his own purposes within Corpse in the Waxworks. Unlike Stephen King, Carr does not over-reach his mark. Thus he succeeds where King falls short. A passage from Ch. 2 of Corpse in the Waxworks implies much about the methods in that book: “The man must be dead and buriable who does not respond to a healthy curiosity about things morbid.” With such a thought in mind, Carr drew upon, but he did not adapt slavishly nor did he outrageously sensationalize, Edgar Allan Poe, creator of “Masque” and other tales, as demonstrated above. Both King and Carr, in the examples examined here, are valuable barometers to the image of Poe the literary artist and to what that image portends for writers of mystery and detective fiction in the twentieth century.

[page 105, continued:]


1.  I thank Craig Weiner, of the University of Wisconsin, for his help in speeding along my work as he generously has. The misinformation on Murders” appears in [page 106:] E. T. Guymon, Jr., “Why Do We Read this Stuff?” — The Mystery Story, ed. Jolur Ball (Del Mar, CA, 1976), 1).369.

2.  Evidence for Poe’s influence on these two writers exists in King’s “The Flight Report,” Oui, 7(January 1978), pp. 76-78, 107-108; and in his foreword to a collection of his stories, Night Shift (New York, 1978), p. xvii. The first story, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” suggests a product from Poe’s own pen. The Poe-Carr relationship is discussed by Robert Lewis Taylor, “Profiles: Two Authors in an Auic,” New Yorker, 8 September 1951, pp. 42,48; idem., 15 September 1951, p. 38; J. R. Christopher, “Poe and the Tradition of the Detective Story,” The Mystery Writer’s Art, ed. Ftanris M. Nevins, Jr. (Bowling Green, O. 1970), pp. 24-27, In a letter tome, 15 August 1978, the late Larry French, a Carr expert non pareil, emphasized Poe’s impact upon Carr. French more thoroughly outlined this relationship in Culprit Confesses, 9(1978), 7-8; and “The Baker Street-Carrian Connection,” BSJ, 29(March 1979), pp. 6-10. I chart resemblances between Poe, on the one hand, and King and Carr, on the other, in ‘’Best-Selling Horror,” Gothic, 1(1979), 32-34.

3.  Poe made a signal revision in altering his original title, “The Mask of the Red Death — A Fantasy,” to “The Masque of the Red Death,” thereby placing the burden of interpreting ambiguities upon readers.

4.  Leslie Fiedler comments upon American writers’ propensities toward parody and the blurringof conscious and Unconscious parody in “The Dream of the New,” American Dreams, American Nightmares, ed. David Madden (Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1970), pp. 24-25.

5.  James E. Rocks, “Conflict and Motive in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, PoeS, 5(1972), 50-51.





[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - Poe, Stephen King, and John Dickinson Carr; or, How to Recreate a Popular Author in Your Own Image (Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, 1986)