Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
As the foremost writer of horror fiction, Poe exhibits several techniques of terror from which we can learn. In The Annotated Poe, editor Kevin J. Hayes points out several.
In an earlier post, “Writing Dramatic Scenes,” we saw how Poe's descriptions anticipated filmmaking techniques, well in advance of Hollywood studios' use of them. Hayes cites a paragraph in “Metzengerstein” as an example:
The career of the horseman was, indisputably, on his own part, uncontrollable. The agony of his countenance, the convulsive struggling of his frame gave no evidence of superhuman exertion; nut no sound, save a solitary shriek, escaped from his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through, in the intensity of terror (The Annotated Poe, 34).
As Hayes notes:
The cinema has much to offer when it comes to understanding Poe, partly because his work has contributed so much to its development. The great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein found that Poe's writing anticipated visual techniques that would not be fully utilized until the invention of motion pictures. This paragraph provides a good example. Poe depicts Metzengerstein in close-up (the “agony of his convulsions”), pulls back to show him from a distance (“the convulsive struggling of his frame”), and then supplies an extreme close-up (“his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through”). The rapid shifting of images quickens the narrative pace, which the ensuing cacophony of sound—the shriek of Metzengerstein, the clatter of hoofs, the roar of the flames, and the shriek of the wind—further intensifies, thus providing a narrative running start for the horse's final bound up the staircase (The Annotated Poe, 34).
In Introduction a la litterature fantastique (1970), Tzvetan Todorov distinguishes between the “uncanny” and the “marvelous.” That which is presented in certain types of literature, including the horror genre, as fantastic, Todorov says, is usually resolved as being either uncanny (susceptible to explanation via scientific knowledge or natural law) or marvelous (inexplicable via scientific knowledge or natural law). Only that which remains ambiguous at the conclusion of such stories retains its fantastic character. In “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” Poe sets up a similar “dynamic between the narrator's love of scientific explanation and the supernatural events of the story” by the way Poe describes the story's narrator; as Hayes points out, the narrator, is “a man who has 'a strong relish for physical philosophy'” (37). The narrator's description of the particulars of material objects, such as the ship upon which he embarks as a passenger (“a beautiful ship of about four hundred tons, copper-fastened, and built at Bombay of Malabar teak”) also shows the narrator's character as “a man who has 'a strong relish for physical philosophy'” (37). According to Hayes, “Poe has learned well the need, in a fantastic adventure tale, of a credible witness” (38).
Poe's use of blanks in dates, “18—“ in “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” for example, was not new with Poe. It was an established convention, Hayes says. Used to enhance “mystery” by implying that the story being told is based on “a true story whose details have been deliberately withheld to protect those involved” (37). The device is similar to the notification, at the beginning of a movie—and often a seemingly fantastic film, at that—that the picture is “based on a true story.”
Such a statement may make the dubious incidents seem more believable, despite the fact that movies “based on a true story” often depart substantially from the facts of the “true story” itself. (For example, Backcountry is “based on a true story,” but the roles of female victim and the male survivor are changed, among other alterations of the facts, with the male being killed and the female escaping in the movie version. Likewise, in The Exorcist, the possessed person is a girl, whereas, in the “true story” upon which the film is based, this individual is a boy. Examples of such changes could be multiplied extensively.)
Poe employs the juxtaposition of contrasts to heighten horror, as when he alternates between “static and dynamic imagery” in describing, in “Metzengerstein,” the appearance of “a gigantic ship” at sea (42):
At a terrific height directly above us, and upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship . . . . What mainly inspired us with horror and astonishment, was that she bore up under a press of [an unfurled] sail in the very teeth of that supernatural sea, and of that ungovernable hurricane. When we first discovered her, her bows alone were to be seen, as she rose slowly from the dim and horrible gulf beyond her. For a moment of intense terror she paused upon that giddy pinnacle, as if in contemplation of her own sublimity, then trembled and tottered and—came down.
Poe's shift of tense in the same story indicates a compression of “space, time, and information,” that, anticipating “the technique of a cinematic montage,” increases the story's pace, “propelling readers toward its climax” (Hayes, 43).
Through description, Poe suggests similarities, both superficial and significant, between his characters. As Hayes notes, “Making narrator and captain the same height (5'8”), Poe draws the reader's attention to a deeper resemblance between the two men. Both are men of science,” or, rather scientism, “relying too heavily on science to explain everything.” (46).
Even cliches are used for effect in Poe's story, characterizing his characters: “The 'eagerness of hope' and 'the apathy of despair' are cliched proverbial phrases. The narrator's growing reliance on stock phrases suggests he is lost for words as he approaches the unknown” (Hayes, 48).
Poe uses the dialogue that a particular character uses, including his or her choice of words, as a way to suggest subtle motivations for their behavior. In “Ligeia,” the narrator's “mellifluous word pairs—a”thrilling and enthralling,” “steadily and stealthily,” “unnoticed and unknown”—reveal a narrator deliberately shaping personal experience into ornate literary prose,” Dorothea E. von Mucke contends (Hayes, 66).
Poe also enriches the possible implications and meanings of his tales with frequent allusions, mostly to the Bible, to classical mythology, to history, and to literature, but he also refers to folklore, legends, and occult systems of belief. These allusions make his stories seem predicated upon ancient knowledge or traditions, associate them with existing worldviews or metaphysical themes, and suggest his own work is, at times, commentaries or innovative adaptations or extensions of these previous materials.
In summary, Poe uses a number of techniques, the chief among which is description, to accomplish a variety of narrative effects. These techniques include those which anticipate cinematic techniques yet to be developed, dates deliberately left incomplete, descriptive characterization (i. e., characterization via description), juxtapositions of contrasts, deliberate shifts of tense, descriptive motivation (i. e., implication of motive via description), the deliberate use of cliches to characterize characters, and various allusions.
Note: Poe's use of additional techniques of terror may be considered in a future post or two.