Edgar Allan Poe’s Spooky Vision of Grotesque and Gothic

Peter Smagorinsky

Peter Smagorinsky

“Gothic” or “Goth” is a term still used today, but where did it come from? What does Gothic really mean? Why does dressing “Goth” imply wearing all or mostly black? And why are spooky images associated with both? Edgar Allen Poe had a lot to do with this.

The Gothic genre, though having originated in England, was brought to America by Poe and the literary culture as we then knew it was transformed. This four-week unit is designed to outline for students the historical background of the Gothic, including biographical information on Poe’s life. Students will examine and analyse how the Gothic has changed from Poe’s time until now, and wrestle with questions such as “what is attractive about the emotional experience of fear”? In other words, “why do you enjoy scary movies?”

Gothic (or gothick), a term originally used to describe that which was barbaric or barbarian, comes from the word Goth, the name of the Germanic tribes who destroyed Rome and wreaked havoc on the rest of Europe in the third through fifth centuries. Later, because of the architecture that flourished in Europe during the Middle Ages known for its non-classical style, the term Gothic came to take on other meanings, synonymous with Middle Ages and medieval.

Originally, this style of architecture was frowned upon as it was once thought ugly, stemming from the barbarous Germanic tribes who attacked much of Europe in the earlier centuries, but by the nineteenth century, there was a resurgence of the Gothic style, an appreciation of that which invoked the imagination and the sublime. In fact, as a precursor to Romanticism, its flying buttresses, pointed arches, stained glass windows, upward movement and varied intricacies were believed to “suggest heavenward aspiration”.

As a result of this Gothic resurgence in architecture, Horace Walpole rebuilt his Strawberry Hill estate in London in pure Gothic style as a medieval castle. His first novel, The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1764 and became an immediate success. The work was quickly popularized by other writers who tried to imitate his style; it was not long before the Gothic was a distinguishable genre, with The Castle of Otranto being the first of its kind.

These writings create feelings of gloom, mystery, terror, suspense and fear as they seek to explore humanity’s dark side and arouse questions in humankind about good versus evil, the role of the supernatural, the experience of fear or terror, and others.

Though parodies of the Gothic were written and Romantic poets gained popularity, their writings actually contributed to the growth of the Gothic fiction or, what could now be called, Gothic romance. In America, a young man by the name of Edgar Allen Poe was reading the works of Ann Radcliffe, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens, all the while being influenced to bring the Gothic genre to America. And in fact, he did.

Edgar Allen Poe is credited with transforming America’s literary scene by introducing his own countrymen to tales of the macabre. The tragic affairs of his personal life seem to haunt each of his writings. From poverty to an absent father, to gambling, to drunken binges late at night, Edgar Allen Poe suffered a genius too great for even him to bear.

After losing three beloved women to tuberculosis, he knew personally what it meant to suffer the loss of a loved one, these losses affecting him psychologically as well as emotionally. This “terror of the soul,” as he called it, surfaced in his writings which his contemporaries could not master nor understand.

After having compiled his works in a single book, the publisher of Doubleday had this to say: “Among the great masters of the short story, Edgar Allen Poe retains his preeminence even after a century. Ligeia, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Cask of Amontillado, brought the suspense story to the point of artistic perfection not since surpassed. Every sentence carries the reader irresistibly toward a climax that continues to build to the last line, even the final word […].Taken together, Poe’s short stories comprise one of the half-dozen great works of literature by an American writer, and his verse — slender volume though it is — forms a unique and rich contribution to the poetry of the English language (Complete, inside cover).”

It is this “point of artistic perfection” to which I would like to expose students through this unit on Poe.

In American Literature, students generally cover the literature chronologically. With Poe’s significant contributions to America’s literary culture, contributions that are still witnessed today, the eleventh-grade student ought to learn more about his life, his work and his lasting impact on today’s writings than what is currently practised.

After students have gained a firm understanding of what the term Gothic means, and its origin, they will be expected to learn all elements that define typical Gothic literature. We will briefly discuss Poe’s life and the biographical aspects that most influenced his writings. Students will examine a variety of texts ranging from Poe to the present day. Students will respond in a variety of ways to include journal entries, small and large group discussions, visual art creation such as a collage that depicts a Poe piece, and a found poem that captures the essence of what Poe was trying to say through one of his writings.

As mentioned previously, the Gothic literature of Poe’s time spawned new genres known as Southern Gothic and New American Gothic. Therefore, students will have the opportunity to examine texts from each of these genres and draw comparisons to Poe’s original. Texts for examination include: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Raven, The Masque of the Red Death (film-Vincent Price), A Rose for Emily by Faulkner, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice, and The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates. We will ‘read’ the first three as a class, but the last four texts will be listed as choices for literature circles. (The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen will be optional texts in the event the Jackson’s book is not approved.) Students will be divided into groups of 4-5 and given a choice of the books as mentioned earlier. At the end of the unit, each group will be asked to present their book to the class in some form or fashion as one summative assessment of what they have learned.

I agree with Alsup and Bush that asking students to engage with various texts (short story, poem, film and novel) that stretch across an expanse of time will “provide students the opportunity to read contemporary as well as classic literature through theoretical lenses and to engage in intertextual comparisons” (Alsup and Bush, 9). Students will analyse each of the Poe pieces and participate in written responses to various questions posed by the teacher. One question in particular students will be asked to think through is: “How does terror differ from horror?” Students will record their thoughts as a journal entry prior to large and/or small group discussion. Vocabulary studies will also come from the texts, as this is a direct correlation to what Applebee calls knowledge in action.

Considering what objections may arise, some students may be more sensitive to fear and suspense than others. The classic Gothic fiction has evolved into a horror novel of sorts with authors like Stephen King at the forefront. I would never want a student to be uncomfortable. At the same time, most high school students I know are watching horror films. There is a mysterious appeal to this genre of film and literature because it has been a success for well over a century. In response to concerns such as this, I have included a variety of texts for the literature circle portion of the unit that allows some choice in what the student reads. These texts range from mild to frightening in terms of their level of emotional response. I do not foresee any problematic concerns with the Poe portion of the unit. The fact that this genre has spanned two centuries speaks for its enduring value and literary significance. I look forward to a thrilling four-week unit that engages readers in the literature and life of the mysteries of Edgar Allen Poe and beyond.

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