Edgar Allan Poe, Short Story Structure and Narrative Technique

Having experienced a bit of a writing slump lately, I have been re-reading my favourite Edgar Allan Poe stories for both enjoyment and inspiration.

General Observations:

  • Poe’s stories always begin with some some background scene-setting, and often a little insight into the narrators mind.
  • The setting is a vital part of almost all of the tales, providing much of the atmosphere and gut-clenching terror. From the House of Usher and its bleak surroundings, to the horrifying dungeon/torture chamber of The Pit and the Pendulum, and the catacombs of The Cask of Amontillado, Poe utilises dismal and terrifying settings to great effect.
  • Almost always told in first person, though narrative distance varies. The Masque of the Red Death, for example, is told as a tale may be told around a campfire, with no evidence of direct participation in the events by the narrator. On the other hand, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell-Tale Heart take us deep into the psyche of the narrator/protagonist, so that it is almost as though we are experiencing what they experience as it happens.
  • Several of Poe’s stories have little to no dialogue, such as The Pit and the Pendulum. 
  •  Most of them have a tendency to end rather abruptly, which adds to the impact of the tale.

The Tell-Tale Heart

In an example of an unreliable narrator, the narrator of this story claims to be perfectly sane, and then proceeds to relate a tale which proves him to be the exact opposite.
Poe - Tell-Tale Heart Quote

Offers a terrifying insight into the insane mind of a murderer who finds killing and then dismembering an old man and hiding the pieces of the corpse under the floorboards a perfectly rational notion.

The Cask of Amontillado

A tale of vengeance which sees a man lured to a horrifying death by the promise of a taste of a rare and valuable wine (the Amontillado).

We never know exactly what the vengeance is for, and once again we are drawn into the mind of a man who has little qualms in murdering another, in this case, entombing him alive in the damp, dank catacombs.

The first sentences of The Cask of Amontillado draw us into the mind of the narrator and in many ways seek to gain our sympathy, until the level of deception and the horrifying lengths he will go to in order to secure his revenge become slowly and frighteningly clear:

Poe - The Cask of Amontillado Quote

The Masque of the Red Death 

A tale of the futility of attempting to evade fate, particularly death.

As a virulent and seemingly unstoppable plague ravages the land, a prince secludes himself and a group of his favoured courtiers away in an impenetrable fortress, where they continue safely in a cycle of feasts and entertainment for many months, until, inevitably, death comes to collect them all anyway.

Consider the final passages of The Masque of the Red Death:

Poe - Masque of the Red Death

The Pit and the Pendulum

This story recounts the experiences of a man sentenced to death by the Inquisition, and his struggles to survive the ever more horrifying and torturous methods of execution that are inflicted upon him. This story plays on many of our most primal fears – the fear of the unknown and the related aversion to complete darkness and what it might hide, the fear of being locked away alone and dying alone, the denial of access to basic necessities such as water, claustrophobia, heights, fire, rats, a  prolonged and painful death – this tale heaps horror upon horror relentlessly.

The dread and fear of this story is intense, as we experience it right along with the narrator, and yet we know that the protagonist will survive, as the very close first person narration means he must live in order to tell his tale. This does not lessen the terror we share with him as he undergoes the many sadistic tortures inflicted by the Inquisition, however, and I personally find this to be one of Poe’s most intense and thrilling tales.

The Fall of the House of Usher

A great lesson in the use of setting and atmosphere to create a sense of building dread.

Poe - House of Usher Quote

In this story, the “House of Usher” is a character in itself, almost sentient, and its appearance and atmosphere are a primary focus of the narrative, along with the mysterious illness/madness which afflicts its occupants.

Poe - House of Usher Quote

The Terrifying Tales of Edgar Allan Poe is available for free from iBooks and Kindle, and contains 7 of Poe’s classic stories in one volume, including The Tell-Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, The Masque of the Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter, and The Pit and the Pendulum. The full text of any of Poe’s works are also available freely from many different sources on the Internet.

6 thoughts on “Edgar Allan Poe, Short Story Structure and Narrative Technique

  1. Pingback: Edgar Allan Poe, Short Story Structure and Narrative Technique | viddarr's Blog

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