Edgar Allan Poe single-handedly invented the detective story, helped launch the science fiction genre, and influenced generations of authors from the 19th through the 21st centuries, including H.P. Lovecraft, Charles Baudelaire, Stephen King, and Arthur Conan Doyle. But he’s best known for his haunting tales of the macabre. His stories are still considered to be masterpieces of horror writing — and still terrify readers — to this day.
Who is Edgar Allan Poe?
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on Jan. 19, 1809, the same year as Abraham Lincoln. His parents were actors. By the time Poe was three, his father had abandoned the family and his mother had died.
Poe spent his childhood under the care of a wealthy couple, John and Frances Allan, who lived in Richmond, Virginia, and for a time, in Scotland and England. At the age of 17, he enrolled in the University of Virginia, but dropped out less than a year later after racking up serious gambling debts. At 18, he published a collection of poetry, then enlisted in the army. Two years later, he published another collection of poetry and was released from the army so he could attend West Point. He was kicked out after only a few months.
Following a visit with his birth relatives in Baltimore, one of which was his 7-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm, Poe embarked upon a life as a writer. By the time he was 26, he had begun his career as a short story author, poet and magazine editor, and had married his cousin Virginia, who was 13 at the time.
Poe bounced from editing job to editing job, gaining a reputation as an aggressive reviewer and habitual drunk, which did little to endear him to many of the powerful and influential literary figures of the time. His unpopularity reached its zenith in 1845, when he accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of being a plagiarist. The same year, he published his seminal poem, “The Raven,” which made Poe instantly famous.
His newfound fame did nothing to alleviate the extreme poverty that he and his wife had been living in for years. Two years after the publication of “The Raven,” in 1847, his wife died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Poe’s health and finances deteriorated rapidly, and he, too, died in Baltimore on Oct. 7, 1849, at the age of 40.
How to write like Edgar Allan Poe
Ready to write something scary? These six tips will help you craft a tale of terror like Poe.
1. Your hero is no hero
These unreliable anti-heroes tend to resemble Poe himself: highly educated white men who grew up in society’s upper crust, but who have sunk into ignominy in their adult years, often to the point of being social outcasts. Their madness or criminal inclinations make them vulnerable to the machinations of their own minds — the most frightening foe any of us can face.
2. What Poe’s stories are really about
With their gothic styling, tone of dread, atmosphere of unreality, and macabre details, Poe’s tales seem at first glance to be simple scary stories. But they’re more complex than that.
Poe’s narratives are marked by dualistic themes that recur from story to story. Perhaps they represent Poe’s own conflicting fears, given his history of alcoholism and unrestrained bouts of self-sabotage. The first of these dualistic themes is loss of control — either control of one’s mind, or of one’s actions due to insanity or intoxication. This fear is contrasted with the second theme, imprisonment — either in a literal prison, a tomb in which a character has been buried alive, a locked room inhabited by a dangerous person or creature, or within one’s own mind where unrestrained fears and fantasies run rampant.
These twin themes can be seen most clearly in Poe’s obsession with describing how thoughts work in real time. In his stories, he spends whole paragraphs detailing the mental and sensory impressions of his narrators, who are haunted not by ghosts but by their own thoughts. In essence, their minds are haunted houses that they explore, at once terrified and fascinated by what they discover in the darkest corners.
Though Poe’s stories still seem incredibly fresh and innovative, even more than a century and a half after their publication, a close look at their plots reveals that Poe relied on a handful of storytelling devices that he reused over and over.
His plots usually focus on a single incident, such as the burial of a not-yet-dead person, the murder of an innocent, or a prisoner’s attempt to escape. Several of his most famous stories are structured as the confession — either verbal or written — of a criminal trying to explain or justify why he committed his crime. And, when read with an objective eye, the majority of Poe’s uncanny tales give the impression that nothing supernatural actually happened — it was all just the wild imaginings of a mentally ill or intoxicated person, as in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or it was all a misunderstanding on the part of the narrator, as in “The Sphinx.”
In his 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe explained how he approached the task of coming up with a narrative: “There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story … I first established in mind the climax.” Before he started writing, he not only had the ending in mind, he also decided what he wanted his readers to feel while reading the story. “I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view … I say to myself, in the first place, ‘Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’”
If you want to write like Poe, start by figuring out the ending and the overall feeling you want your readers to experience as they make their way through your story. Do you want them to feel terrified, disturbed, repelled, shocked? Do you want a twist ending, a deus ex machina that saves the narrator, a gruesome death? Every decision you make regarding your plot and how your characters bring it to life will be driven by the conclusion and the overall impression you’re hoping to give your readers.
3. Where are we?
You’d think that, in a horror story, the setting would be crucial. But if you’re trying to write like Poe, you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.
The settings of Poe’s most popular stories are vague and could be broadly classified as “the early 1800s, a city somewhere on the East Coast of the United States” (as in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “The Gold-Bug,” and “The Sphinx”) or “sort of the Renaissance, somewhere in Europe” (as in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “Hop-Frog”). These milieus are generalized to a high degree; they’re more atmosphere than actual location.
Setting was something Poe attended to late in the game. As Josh Jones notes, “Though this aspect of any work seems the obvious place to start, Poe holds it to the end, after he has already decided why he wants to place certain characters in place, saying certain things. Only when he has clarified his purpose and broadly sketched in advance how he intends to achieve it does he decide ‘to place the lover in his chamber … richly furnished.’”
This ambiguity of time and place is actually a feature, not a bug. It provides a universality and timelessness to Poe’s stories, which have helped maintain their popularity to this day.
4. Inject some horror
In general, Poe’s horror stories center on a single shocking incident. That incident is either incited by, or a representation of, one of the dueling themes of loss of control and imprisonment we discussed earlier.
In “The Pit and the Pendulum,” the protagonist is a convicted criminal who finds himself imprisoned in a torture chamber. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” heartless aristocrats willingly imprison themselves in an abbey to escape a plague that is ravaging the land. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the antagonist is the one imprisoned — with the protagonist, who is losing control as he spirals into madness.
To his imprisonment/loss of control theme, Poe then adds a few common fears and phobias, such as rats in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” disease and the prospect of infection in “The Masque of the Red Death,” the evil eye in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” being burned alive in “Hop-Frog,” black cats in “The Black Cat,” monsters in “The Sphinx,” and of course, blood and gore, which is ever-present whenever one of Poe’s characters sees fit to murder someone, contract the plague, or run afoul of a savage beast.
But there’s one tried-and-true fear Poe turned to again and again. As Gotham Writers advises, “When in doubt, bury someone alive.”
5. The “bad guys” are actually “good guys”
Poe’s frequent use of traditional villains — such as murderers, the criminally insane, violent alcoholics, and cat-stranglers — as protagonists has an interesting side effect; namely, his antagonists are often the “good guys.”
From the blameless old man whose cataract-veiled eye drives his lodger insane in “The Tell-Tale Heart” to the kindly skeptics in “The Gold-Bug” and “The Sphinx” to the frat-boyish kings in “The Masque of the Red Death” and “Hop-Frog,” Poe’s antagonists tend to be guileless suckers who enrage the protagonist either unwittingly or through basic jerk behavior that is neither malevolent nor proportionate to the revenge that the protagonists visit upon them.
“Fortunato had hurt me a thousand times and I had suffered quietly. But then I learned that he had laughed at my proud name, Montresor, the name of an old and honored family. I promised myself that I would make him pay for this — that I would have revenge,” explains the narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado.” For that minor offense, our “hero” walls up the poor chump in an underground vault.
“I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! — yes, it was this!” muses the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Simply because the elderly man has “the eye of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it,” the protagonist smothers him to death, dismembers the body, and buries the pieces beneath the floorboards of his own bedroom.
“One night, returning home, much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me,” the narrator tells us in “The Black Cat,” before describing how he deforms and later kills the feline he once loved.
Even the cruel, unseen torturers in “The Pit and the Pendulum” might be given a pass: the narrator is a convicted criminal who presents as highly unreliable and immensely unstable. For all we know, he committed atrocities far worse than anything the representatives of the Spanish Inquisition dreamed up as his punishment.
6. Poe’s style
Poe’s writing style is pure 19th century. Simplicity was not something he was after. Take a look at “How to Write Like Jane Austen” for a guide to constructing the sort of flowery compound sentences that were popular in Poe’s time.
Once you’ve got a handle on the intricacies of multi-clause sentences, use them to describe the sensory experience your narrator is undergoing. Their physical and emotional reactions to the people and the world around them are the heart of Poe’s style. Adverbs are your friends. Punctuate your story with all the exclamation points, em-dashes and question marks you can. Italicize certain words for emphasis.
All of this will add up to prose that “can sound more like poetry and create a hypnotic, dream- or fugue-like state in the reader that matches the mental excitement or derangement he describes in his characters,” as Professor Craig White describes it.
But wait! You’re not done yet. Before you write “the end,” sprinkle a few foreign phrases, archaic terms and SAT vocab words throughout your text, like “surcingle,” “in pace requiescat,” “inanition,” “scantlings,” “coppice,” “caryatides,” and “foolscap.” They won’t do a darned thing to improve your story or your readers’ comprehension of the tale you wish to tell, but they’ll convince everyone that you’re highly educated, in spite of your gothed-up outfits, drunken shenanigans, and gruesome subject matter.
Aren’t you forgetting something?
What, no mention of Poe’s poetry? If you came here for “The Raven,” only this and nothing more, fear not! In order to do his famous verses justice, I’ve devoted an entire post just to that topic: “How to Write a Poem Like ‘The Raven.'”
And be sure to check out a short story written using all these tips, “Edgar Allan Poe Tries Japanese Candy,” then write your own macabre tale of terror.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.