Stephen King can easily be considered as an heir of Edgar Alan Poe. Alan Edgar Poe (1809-1849) was a successful pioneer of macabre tales. Poe is regarded by the literary community around the world as having pioneered the horror genre in literature (Castle, 2006). Edgar Poe became a literary sensation in the 1840s for publishing spine-tingling stories and poems. On the other hand, Stephen King (1947-present) followed in Edgar Poe’s footsteps in the horror genre. Americans and fans of the horror genre around the world currently regard Stephen King as the ‘King of Horror’ (Reyes, 2016). Notably, Edgar Poe and Stephen King succeeded in the horror genre by portraying the dark side of human nature. In particular, both Stephen King and Edgar Poe horrified their readers by paying emphasis to murder.
First, among the most spine-tingling works of both Edgar Poe and Stephen King were premised on murders. Since time immemorial, murder has always been a horrifying topic in human life (Reyes, 2016). Murders, particularly premeditated murders, are gruesome and nightmarish. A tale of murder assaults readers with horrible imaginations and feelings of fear. Fear of death is among the strongest and instinctual emotions in human life. Therefore, successful writers in the horror genre have focused on the topic of murder.
Edgar Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) became successful because Edgar Poe used murder to elicit optimal fear from his readers. In The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Poe reveals the villainous plans of the unidentified narrator to murder an old man. In the second paragraph of The Tell-Tale Heart, the unknown narrator says, “Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man” (Poe, 1843). In this instance, the imminent murder engulfs readers with nervousness; hence, allowing Poe to successfully elicit anxious emotions from the readers.
Similarly, Stephen King’s The Shining is centered on premeditated murder. The Shining narrates a horrifying story of Jack Torrance as Jack is possessed by an overwhelming urge to murder his wife Wendy and his son Danny (King, 2002). Jack’s position as the caretaker at Overlook Hotel became vacant after the previous caretaker was so overcame by rage and alcoholism that he murdered his family and committed suicide. Jack Torrance is also battling rage and alcoholism, and has a family. Therefore, Stephen King’s The Shining successfully elicits nervousness from the readers by positioning Jack in a path towards murder.
In comparison, both Stephen King and Edgar Poe appreciated the fact that emphasizing on murder creates a classic atmosphere of macabre thoughts and imaginations among the readers. The primary purpose of psychological horror stories is to excite the readers’ imaginations concerning the darker side of humans (Castle, 2006). Technically, every human is capable of murder (Kottler, 2014). Therefore, focusing on murder sustains a somber mood; hence, eliciting the thrilling fear of death among readers.
Secondly, successful horror stories do not involve the mere emphasis on murder. Rather, the emphasis on murder must be complemented by horror-enhancing literary styles, particularly the style of suspense. Unlike any other writer in the horror genre, Edgar Poe and Stephen King stood out because they mastered the art of using suspense to enhance the horrific thoughts and imaginations surrounding murder. In literature, suspense involves the art of building anticipation among the readers. The anticipation of a lucking danger like murder creates more intense feelings of dread than the actual commitment of murder (Kottler, 2014). Therefore, successful use of murder in the horror genre requires a masterful use of suspense to build optimal anticipation among readers.
Edgar Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart reveals a masterful use of suspense to captivate the readers and elicit maximal feelings of uneasiness and fear. Edgar Poe begins The Tell-Tale Heart by saying, “True! – Nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am.” (Poe, 1843) In this context, The Tell-Tale Heart begins by creating an anticipation of what might be causing dread and nervousness within the narrator. Edgar Poe continues to build anticipation by telling the reader, “Hearken! And observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story” (Poe, 1843). Thus, The Tell-Tale Heart creates sufficient suspense in the first paragraphs to keep the reader on the edge of anticipation; hence, augmenting the horror of the subsequent murder.
Similarly, the horror of murder in Stephen King’s The Shining was maximized by the skillful use of suspense. The Shining begins with Jack Torrance being interviewed for a caretaker position by Ullman. During the interview, Ullman orients Torrance by giving him the horrifying history of Overlook Hotel since it was built in 1909 (King, 2002). The history of Overlook Hotel is filled with murders, suicides, and unexplained causes that forced multiple previous owners to give up on the hotel (King, 2002). In this context, Stephen King creates suspense at the beginning of the novel by placing Jack Torrance on an isolated hotel with a hideous history. Thus, the hideous nature of Overlook Hotel optimized anticipation among the readers; hence, creating an edgy atmosphere suitable to reveal the imminent murders.
Edgar Poe and Stephen King knew that readers’ engagement can be optimized by creating and sustaining psychological patterns of anxiety at the beginning of horror stories. Both authors knew the right moments in their stories to introduce suspense. Readers often skim through the introductory part of any story before deciding whether or not to proceed with the remaining paragraphs or chapters of a story (Reyes, 2016). Therefore, captivating stories with a wide readership base like The Tell-Tale Heart and The Shining entices readers by building anticipation in the first few sentences and paragraphs. Therefore, successfully using murder in horror stories requires the use of supportive literary styles, particularly the style of suspense.
In conclusion, it is apparent that Edgar Poe’s and Stephen King’s successes were attributable to their ingenuity regarding the use of murder to elicit dreadful feelings among the readers. Interestingly, both Edgar Poe and Stephen King knew that the plain inclusion of murder in a story was not sufficient to attract massive readership. Thus, Poe and King chose to use the technique of suspense to herd readers into their horrific tales of murder. Despite belonging to different literary periods, Edgar Poe and Stephen King managed to successfully terrify their fans by skillfully emphasizing on the topic of murder in their horror tales.
- Bleiler, R. (2002). Supernatural Fiction Writers. Boston: Cengage Gale Press.
- Castle, M. (2006). On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association. New York, NY: Writer’s Digest Publishing.
- King, S. (2002). The Shining. Pittsburg: Simon and Schuster Publishing.
- Kottler, J. A. (2014). The Lust for Blood: Why We Are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror, and Violence. Los Angeles, LA: Prometheus Books.
- Poe, E. A. (1843). The Tell-Tale Heart.
- Reyes, X. A. (2016). Horror: A Literary History. London: British Library.